How can producer co-ops improve knowledge exchange?

Successful producer co-ops can help bring economies of scale and scope in production and access new markets, research shows. Dr Angela Tregear and Dr Sarah Cooper of Edinburgh...

Successful producer co-ops can help bring economies of scale and scope in production and access new markets, research shows.

Dr Angela Tregear and Dr Sarah Cooper of Edinburgh Business School presented their study at the annual conference of the Scottish Agricultural Organisation Society (SAOS).

It examined how co-ops act as vehicles for encouraging knowledge exchange. The research includes case analysis of four producer co-ops in rural Scotland in the sectors on shellfish, bulbs/potatoes, broccoli and lamb.

All four are small, with 15-20 members, and use joint production and marketing of goods. They are all members of SAOS and receive support from it.

The study found that knowledge learned and shared in co-ops depended strongly on how well members knew each other, while big distances between members was a challenge to knowledge exchange.

The research looked at small farming co-ops in Scotland and how they exchanged information [photo: SAOS]
The research looked at small farming co-ops in Scotland and how they exchanged information [photo: SAOS]
 Management was another factor, with open and participative styles encouraging two-way flows of ideas.“Having members who are geographically distant from each other, or in situations of high turnover, makes it harder for good communication and trust to develop,” said Dr Tregear.“Members also need to feel they can trust management, otherwise they won’t be willing to share experiences, information and ideas, so where there are tensions between members and management, that is a key challenge.”

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The study also found that established ways of thinking in the sector can have an important impact on knowledge sharing. For example, in some sectors, farmers rarely think of their neighbours as potential business partners for joint marketing initiatives.

“Sector also plays a role because some sectors (in our example, it was hill-farming) foster a rivalrous culture between farmers, which means they do not see neighbours or peers as potential business partners in a joint marketing initiative,” said Dr Tregear.

She added: “Where sectors are young and have relatively high growth, therefore attracting entrepreneurial types who are self-reliant learners – for example, shellfish – policy support can be most effectively directed at supporting development of a scientific research base to address sectoral-wide problems/questions that co-ops and their members lack the resources to tackle themselves. In our example, research into marine biology of shellfish reproduction and growth on large scale.

“In contrast, where sectors are quite mature and co-op members are typically second or third generation in the business, such as arable farming, traditional advisory services have more merit.

“Where members are geographically distant from each other […] a priority should be efforts to encourage communication and interaction between members

“There is typically an established scientific research base and institutions from which farmers can learn, if tailored and communicated in an appropriate way. Policy support can also usefully go towards training of facilitators and development of mentoring systems which help farmers in this case to learn from each other, as well as from a traditional advisory approach.”

The two academics undertook 39 face-to-face interviews with individuals from the management teams, boards, memberships and supply chain partners.

Asked what advice she would give co-ops looking to improve members’ knowledge and facilitate sharing of experiences, Dr Tregear said: “Where members are geographically distant from each other, or where there has been relatively high turnover of members, a priority should be efforts to encourage communication and interaction between members, to improve relations and encourage development of trust.

“Adoption of an open, participative style by management can help a lot. When it comes to organising knowledge exchange events or visits, choosing speakers that co-op members can identify with is important.”

She added that the advice was based on analysis of ‘small’ co-ops – with an average membership of 20.

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