1896: Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS) invests £30,000 in 714 acres at Roden in Shropshire, to grow potatoes to sell in its stores. In the years to follow it provides land to members in poverty. This inspired the wheatsheaf symbol; one stem of wheat cannot stand alone, but a sheaf can.
1900s: Land purchases include Marden in Herefordshire in 1904, Coldham near Wisbech in 1912, Adlingfleet near Goole in 1916 and Stoughton near Leicester in 1919. By the end of World War I, CWS has invested £1.2m in 32,648 acres.
1917: First tractor at Coldham.
1922: CWS describes itself thus: ‘Growers, shippers, bankers, importers’.
1946: CWS buys estates at Cockayne Hatley in Bedfordshire and Blairgowrie near Dundee.
1950s: Expansion into dairy farming. First bulk milk tank installed in 1956.
1959: Management of farms centralised at Stoughton.
1964: Last farm horse retired. CWS co-founds Wye Fruit marketing co-op.
1965: Management training scheme introduced.
1986: First two farm management agreements in Perthshire, Scotland. Large scale vegetable production begins at Coldham. Farming and Wildlife Advisory Group plans implemented on all farms.
1989: Mixed farming and stockless arable organic trial on 260 acres at Stoughton. Results are ‘unpredictable, leading to variations in quality and lower shelf-life in some produce’. High production costs, insufficient yields and fertility building impact on profitability.
FarmWorld open farm opens at Stoughton, attracting 140,000 visitors a year to the conference centre, café and ale house. Schools were invited to observe afternoon milking in a special viewing parlour.
1991: Cockayne Hatley chosen as a LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming) demonstration farm.
1993: 150-acre Focus on Farming Practice trial combines traditional techniques with modern technology, in partnership with fertiliser manufacturer Hydro-Agri and crop protection distributor Profarma.
1990s: CWS invests £5.5m in dairy facilities between 1990 and 1995 and now manages over 20,000 acres in partnership with other private and institutional owners.
1995: Area farmed passes 50,000 acres. The business owns and maintains 340 dwellings in England and Scotland, housing 90% of employees and many pensioners, as well as private and commercial tenants. It also provides community facilities including village halls and playing fields at peppercorn rents.
1996: CWS Agriculture is Britain’s biggest dairy business, milking 4,000 cows a day and producing 32 million litres of milk a year. It runs 15 dairy units on six estates, two under joint venture agreements.
2001: Farm business rebrands as Farmcare.
2003: Dairy herds sold.
2005: Farm to Fork initiative begins, aimed at fostering a greater appreciation of the outdoors and an understanding of farming.
2006: Acquired first pack-house, where potatoes were washed and packed for stores. Two more were subsequently purchased.
2007: Grown By Us range is launched, focussing on British seasonal produce grown on the farms.
Farmcare rebrands as The Co-operative Farms as part of a national rebranding programme for all Co-operative Group businesses.
Many thanks to the National Co-operative Archive for the historical images of CWS farms.