Q&A: Tim Bailey

Chief executive, Scottish Agricultural Organisation Society (SAOS)

How was 2020 for SAOS and its members?

2020 was a very different year for SAOS – like everyone else! Thankfully, from a business perspective, we were able to continue delivering work for our members and clients, albeit in a more remote way. Luckily most of the SAOS team are home-based so our network sharing and remote working practices were already well established, and the March lockdown transition was probably smoother for us than many. 

Video conferencing has become the norm and technology has generally worked well, helping us ‘keep the show on the road’. That said, we’ve all missed the personal interaction of ‘real’ face to face meetings, site visits, conferences, training and seminars. 

We had planned to review the SAOS Business Strategy during 2020 and decided this would continue, despite the challenge of doing it remotely. We adapted the process to make it more bearable, breaking the work into more manageable ‘bite-sized’ themes and working groups, rather than the more traditional ‘big bang’ approach with everyone pitching in.

SAOS members have generally had a good 2020 as most are focused around primary agriculture and come rain and shine (literally) the growing and rearing of food, its processing and marketing continues to help feed the country. The pandemic and lockdowns have had serious impact in certain sectors though. The downturn in the hospitality trade meant massive disruption to many food and drink supply chains, including reduced brewing and distilling demand which had a serious impact on the price of malting barley. And processors within the seafood sector had to pivot, and then repivot, several times to accommodate changes in demand from food service into retail, and then back again.

What was your sector’s role in supporting members and communities through Covid-19?

We played a proactive role supporting our members from both practical operational perspectives and more strategic support. Operationally, many members had to enable their team members to work from home. Our team provided practical advice on how to achieve this, together with providing guidance on best practice where members had to furlough staff. We also provided support for members when they had to introduce enhanced biosecurity on site, involving the purchase of PPE and social distancing protocols. 

From a strategic business perspective, we undertook weekly surveillance to understand business challenges and had 1-1 calls with co-op managers and leaders. From these, we were able to feed in our sector problems to a wider Scottish industry leadership group which met daily for the first few months of the pandemic. We lobbied Scottish Government and sought both regulatory and financial support for specific member issues. 

How did your member co-ops innovate in 2020? 

We saw a number of great examples of our co-ops innovating and demonstrating the agility and proactivity of #workingtogether for a common aim. For example, the 130 members of the Milk Suppliers Association in South-West Scotland agreed a volume management system with their dairy processor to manage and mitigate the ‘spring flush’ of extra milk, in return for keeping their milk price stable. Farm supply and trading co-ops, such as Tarff Valley and East of Scotland Farmers, changed their business model to allow farmers and members of the public to access their supplies by click and collect. Machinery rings were proactive in forward purchasing larger than usual supplies of kerosene oil – Borders Machinery Ring for example saved their members an extra 5p/litre, equating to a £55,000 saving across the members who subscribed. 

How do you see the year ahead – what are the key challenges and opportunities? And what are your plans for the year?

It goes without saying that the economic impact of Covid will continue to provide instability in some food supply chains, but it also brings opportunities. There has been a groundswell of support for local food sourcing and there is a big opportunity for more co-operative working to help underpin a more comprehensive supply of local food to local consumers. 

We must still wait and see what is or isn’t negotiated with future trading arrangements with the European Union. The biggest concern from ‘no-deal’ is the imposition of WTO Tariffs which will particularly hurt the lamb, beef and grain sectors where there are differing degrees of export exposure.

Brexit and Covid aside, the world continues to evolve. In the context of our new strategy, we will be scrutinising more opportunities to add value to primary agricultural produce; looking to join up the insight of market demand with capability building for supply chains to exploit it; and fostering new ways of working to help farmers #worktogether more effectively. In addition, we will be exploring how we can help the farm and food supply chain meet the requirements to move to Carbon Net Zero and exploit the value of the natural capital present within Scottish agriculture. 

What changes would you like to see in 2021?

An optimistic mindset – despite all the challenges we have experienced in 2020. Our online conference on 28 January will be all about that!

We urgently await the publication of a new agricultural policy framework for Scotland, including providing more opportunities to support the development and growth of co-ops and co-operation in general, and provision of incentives to underpin this, such as extending the principle of match-funded fruit and veg Producer Organisation programmes to all other sectors.

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