TWO major UK farming bodies have embraced the co-operative ethic in recent weeks and one ? the Scottish Agricultural Organisation Society (SAOS) ? has applied to become a member of Co-operatives UK.
At the National Farmers' Union Corporate Conference in Broadway, Worcestershire, the SAOS's co-op credentials were highlighted by Chief Executive James Graham, who told delegates it was time for farmers to reclaim the word "co-operation".
The conference ? "Co-operation and Collaboration in the Agricultural Industry: Which Way Now?" ? was attended by a delegation from Co-operatives UK and speakers included Bent Juul Sorenson, President of the Federation of Danish Co-ops and Ben Gill, President of the NFU England and Wales.
Mr Graham told the conference that, in a farming context, "collaboration" appeared to have almost replaced the word "co-operation" in England and observed: "You may know precisely what you mean when you use this word, but does your target audience? If there is an issue with co-operation, it will not be countered simply by substituting another word."
He argued: "We want to create a distinct co-op business system in the UK, as there is in many other countries. Changing the language will not be the route to that ? a message that is as true in agriculture as it is in all the sectors of the economy where co-operation has a presence."
Outgoing Chair of NFU Corporate, Robin Pooley, also called for a culture change towards co-operation.
He said: "All you need to build a successful co-op is commitment, discipline and management. This is not a fancy theory dreamed up out of no particular experience ? I have proved that it is so.
"These three ingredients would cost the magic independence that our farmers cherish so much. But frankly, who cares? Getting rich is much more important and, if you do get rich, here's the point, you do get to feel independent. Independent from your bank manager at least."
Research carried out by SAOS in Scotland has shown a universal awareness of co-operation and co-ops. Euphemisms such as ?Farmer Controlled Business' were not often used outside of representative and campaigning organisations such as SAOS, were not understood and created negative connotations.
Consequently SAOS has decided to discontinue use of the term. "There is no point using language that your audience doesn't understand," said Mr Graham. "It is simply a waste of communication resources."
In a wide-ranging speech, Mr Graham also said that, in discussions with other organisations, there had been a tendency to play down the expectations of what the co-op system could deliver.
But he maintained: "If the co-op business sector is not brave enough to create expectation of benefit, then it has no proposition to make to farmers.
"Expectations must be reasonable and responsible, and communication must be carefully managed. Farmers want economic benefit from co-operating. That's the ?language' they understand."
Mr Graham also pressed the need for concerted lobbying to bring about a more supportive policy environment for co-ops and the development of co-operation.
He said: "It is vital we secure lobbying action and I intend to persuade co-operators in England that we have a sound case, backed by lots of hard evidence, and that we have to work together to achieve real results."