Co-operatives UK is offering a new membership package to bring support for English, Welsh and Northern Irish agricultural co-ops in line with that available in Scotland. It is working with the Scottish Agricultural Organisation Society (SAOS) to build on existing networks and improve collaboration between farmers.
Its agricultural manager Ross Evans says Co-operatives UK is the only independent body working to promote, develop and unite agri co-ops across the UK. In Scotland, SAOS supports a well-established network of farmer co-ops, but until now provision in England, Wales and Northern Ireland has been patchy.
“Representation and support of agricultural co-operatives has been inconsistent in recent years,” said Mr Evans. “English Farming and Food Partnerships provided government-funded membership services from 2004 to 2010, but these particular services have now ceased.
“North of the border it’s a different story. A framework of support for agricultural co-ops has helped encourage a network of new and established farmer co-ops with a huge range of initiatives and development support.
“A larger number of farmers in Scotland are involved in some form of co-operation when compared to the rest of the UK thanks to their representative body, SAOS.
“There’s demand and interest among agricultural co-ops outside Scotland for a similar model. We can fill this gap in provision by providing tailored support, a national voice and specialist network for these organisations.”
The new offer will include governance and legal advice, grant support, regional and national networking events and conferences and access to marketing materials. A dedicated account manager will develop a bespoke plan for each member, and there will be access to discounted training and business development consultancy in supply chain reviews, strategy, leadership, marketing and human resources.
Mr Evans says a key aim is to promote farmer collaboration to government and the industry through ‘a powerful collective voice’. Co-operatives UK will lobby key organisations, he says, and there will be ongoing opportunities to shape policy priorities and create a focused set of demands.
“There are topical issues within agriculture which the agri co-op sector can and needs to impart its knowledge, skills and experience on,” he says. “Our Co-operative Economy report shows that agri businesses have a combined turnover in excess of £6.2 billion.
“We’re talking about significant businesses, so the sector needs to be vocal and to feed into relevant policy and development areas. We need co-ops to be a point of focus, whether that’s in Defra’s 25-year Food and Farming Plan, the development of alternative business models for farming or the needs of dairy producers.
“That’s exactly what I’ll be telling farming minister George Eustice next month. By working together we can deliver a stronger and more coherent message and help bring about positive change.”
He says farmers are currently concerned about volatile markets, most notably in milk and lamb, and how to manage the risks. “Approximately half of the UK’s farmers are members of an agricultural co-op,” he says. “By building an effective network we’ll be able to voice these views to government and policy makers.
“Our new agricultural package will help support a specialist network of agricultural co-ops which will come together at events and conferences to share ideas, best practice and innovation. We’ll have dedicated news, updates and insights on farm collaboration to further help those businesses develop. A dedicated area of our website will cater for the co-op farming community.”
Co-operatives UK already provides governance advice and support to agri co-ops. “We’ve numerous farmer-controlled businesses in membership, from Anglia Farmers to Kent Wool Growers, so we’ve always had a connection with agri co-ops,” says Mr Evans.
“We’ll be consolidating this and taking a much more focused approach to serving the needs of these farmer-controlled businesses. As someone passionate about the agricultural sector, it’s fantastic to be involved in an area of such huge potential.”