GLF,Its Rise and Fall

[These are my own personal opinions about "the rise and fall" of the organization known as GLF. I have been associated with it in some way for over 70 years. [As a patron, employee, and stockholder]. These are my own thoughts. Others might take a different view.

[Charles E. Page November 2003]

The first I ever knew of GLF was in the early 1930's. I had started raising chickens and needed to buy feed for them. I was 11 or 12 years old. At different times I had bought feed from Hollenbeck's mill in Munnsville, Frank Mayer in Oneida, and A.J. Moses in Eaton. Of course these were large transactions, [You bet!] involving the purchase of 5 or 10 lbs. of feed all at once. The dollar amount came to two or three cents a pound. I had 25 chickens.

GLF was a couple blocks down the street from where we lived on East Walnut St. in Oneida. I could walk down there after school and buy any amount I wanted, a pound or two or more. They would scoop it out of a 100lb.bag and weigh it up. A man named Elbert Evans was the mill/store manager [a good Welsh name!]

GLF [Grange League Federation] was a farmer owned cooperative formed by The Grange, The Dairymen's League, and Farm Bureau Federation in about 1920. It was founded largely due to the efforts of H.E. Babcock of Ithaca, thrived, and steadily expanded. I think the reason for its remarkable success and expansion was due to the fact that it was "a true co-op" in the sense it existed for the good of the users [customers] and not intended to make money for any corporation or individual. It came at a time when farmers were in the "bind" of purchasing their needs on the retail market and selling at wholesale, just the opposite of the way a business should operate.

The store employees consisting mainly of "farm boys" were paid reasonable wages and if money was made above expenses and reserves, it was refunded at the end of each year to the buyers. That seems almost unbelievable in this day and age!

Each purchase was written on a sales slip with the buyer's name and address, and at year's end a refund check was issued to each person. The amount of the check was based on a percentage of the co-op's profit in proportion to the buyer's total purchases. The percentage was determined each year by the elected farmer committee that oversaw the operation of the store in cooperation with a district management team headquartered in New Hartford.

Competing companies tried to sell the notion that if GLF feed was sold at a lower price than theirs, it must be of poorer quality. However, the formulas for the mixed feeds were printed on the tags of each bag. They were called "open formulas" as the exact poundage of each ingredient was listed openly along with the nutritional analysis. The formulas were developed and provided by the experiment stations of three state colleges, Cornell, Penn State, and Rutgers.

Farmers gradually discovered GLF's cooperative operation was "for real" and scope and rapidity of its expansion was amazing. For about 50 years it "ruled the roost" in the feed and farm supply business in the Northeast.

I think the original concept began to change when it became a stock company. Common [voting] stock had been issued to its farmer members, but then preferred stock was offered to the general public for investment. Originally all people who purchased things there shared the profits via the refunds. Gradually it lost its true co-op spirit. The farmers themselves were partly responsible for the change. Times for them were getting tougher, and when the chance came to "stick it to" the city customers, they took it. They allowed the co-op to go into other business sidelines mainly to add to the business profit. The business took on a life of its own, beyond supplying farmers' needs.

I remember when Oneida GLF started selling garden fertilizer [regular farm 5-10-5] in fancy 5lb.bags to attract city gardeners. One bag would be labeled " 5-10-5 Garden fertilizer" and another labeled "5-10-5 Rose food". That is called "merchandizing". Of course, smart merchandising is the key to successful selling in any regular "for profit" business. You could buy the same fertilizer in 80 pound bags that farmers used in the field, for a fraction of the per pound price. In the beginning one could buy as small an amount as you wanted. The GLF employee would take time to open a big bag and scoop out whatever you wanted at very little increase in the per pound price over that for the large bags. But this notion of buying and selling for the benefit of the consumer was disappearing. Profit for the investing stockholders became an added factor.

As the size of GLF grew throughout the Northeast management tended to hire business college graduates to run the stores rather than promote the less educated farm people. Some of the managers and trainees had never seen the inside of a barn, or plowed a furrow, but of course, they had the business skills required to run large businesses.

Of course another, and most important, factor was the decline in the number of small farms and farm-raised potential employees. The small farms that had been its strong base and the reason for the co-op's inception were fast disappearing. The large farms of today have their own large quantity buying power.

The result was here was a big business left without a reason for existing except for making money to keep it alive and make money for its investors. Through the years it went into other profitable lines, merged with Eastern States Co-op, expanded to cover all of the Northeast, [renamed Agway] and did well. But it was not the phenomenon that was GLF.

GLF and Agway "had its day" for about three-quarters of a century and Agway still hangs on mainly through its Energy Products Division [Nov. 2003]