Co-operative and sustainable farming organisations are to propose turning at least some of the Co-operative Group’s farmland into community assets.
For the Soil Association, sale of the Group’s 15 farms offers an opportunity to turn a negative into a positive. Tom MacMillan, its director of innovation, said: “Perhaps some parcels of land could be sold off separately at an affordable rate to community farms. There’s a burgeoning movement of community farms, co-ops and charities supporting new entrants, including the Soil Association Land Trust, which find good affordable land incredibly hard to come by.”
Mike Perry, head of communications at Plunkett Foundation, confirmed that the the Soil Association and others were considering “some kind of proposal”. He expected suggestions to emerge over the coming weeks.
He said: “There’s a small but growing number of community farms, such as Fordhall Farm [in north Shropshire], across the UK. A few others are in earlier stages of development. Fordhall Farm is an amazing co-op. It now employs something like 12 people on 110 acres, provides a farm shop, a catering company, restaurant and tea room, classrooms, care farming … I could go on.”
He acknowledged, however, that the Group were looking to get the best price it could for its farms. “Can the community pay the full price? It depends what this is,” he said. “Land values are extremely high, so land purchase is not always possible. Many community groups, like CSAs [community supported agriculture], will lease because purchasing land is not always possible.
“Crucially, it depends on there being a community or communities of interest wanting to make this happen. Those community-owned farms that do exist are extremely successful.”
Mr Perry added: “The decision to sell off the Co-operative Farms can’t have been an easy one, but seems to have been made to protect the core business. Whether this is the right decision or not is down to the members, as the Co-operative Group is a member-owned business. The members will undoubtedly make their views known either way.
“The origins of the Co-operative Farms, the largest farmer in the UK, dates back to the 1890s when farms were purchased to grow goods to sell through co-operative retail societies. The majority of food produced by Co-operative Farms now ends up elsewhere which may have helped make the decision that this was not core business.
“It’s always a shame to see co-operatives lose assets such as this. Clearly the challenges at the Co-operative Group have forced their hand. We can only hope that this decision – and the anticipated renewal of co-operative democracy within the Group – will help the business on the road to recovery.”
Mr MacMillan added: “The Co-op has been one of Britain’s biggest farmers, and this will be a worrying time for their staff. We hope the Co-op will do all it can to secure a future for its people and the land that is in keeping with its values.”
He said the group’s biggest influence on farming was through the food it buys and sells: “As it’s losing its own farms, it will be more important than ever for Co-operative Food to make sure it has a first class programme for encouraging fair and sustainable farming through its supply chains, and investing in a radically more sustainable future for agriculture by that route,” he said. “As resource scarcity, price volatility and growing demand from emerging economies make it ever harder for British retailers to secure reliable supplies, this kind of investment is crucial.”
The Group, which bought its first farm in 1896, owns around 50,000 acres in England and Scotland, producing cereal for bakers and a small proportion of the fruit, vegetables and honey sold in Co-operative stores. In 2006, the Group bought its first pack house. It has since acquired two more packing facilities.
Meanwhile, Phil Hudson, head of food and farming at the NFU, was disappointed by the Group’s decision. He was concerned about the impact on the farms’ 200 employees and the uncertainty they now face. “We hope the Co-op moves quickly to ensure this uncertainty comes to an end,” he said. But he added that the sale offered an exciting opportunity: “There’s huge confidence in the agriculture industry at the moment and this could provide a significant opportunity for existing farmers and potential new entrants to the industry.”