2 November 2001

Co-ops come under fire

By John Burns South-west correspondent

TRADITIONAL farmers co-ops came under attack at a Gearing Up For Change conference in Somerset this week.

"Most co-ops basically arent very good," said consultant Robin Hobson of Laurence Gould Partnership. "Why do most grain co-ops tend to track each other? They dont seem to think they have to sell your grain for more than other co-ops get."

Suggesting that some co-ops gave the impression they were being run for the benefit of the staff, Mr Hobson said: "I believe if you join a co-op it is your duty to expect the best of it. If you dont make co-ops work they will not deliver."

One approach he used with grain was to spread a farms tonnage over several co-ops and traders and encourage them by promising a bigger share of the crop next year to the one that secured the best returns.

Melvyn Askew, of the Central Science Laboratory, outlined many opportunities to add value to arable crops and co-products such as straw, as well as growing non-food crops, but warned it would be essential for farmers to work together in those new ventures.

But such co-operation needed to extend along the entire production chain, he said. "Forget about farmer co-operation. The first person to talk to is the guy selling the product," he told delegates at the conference at the Bath and West Showground which was sponsored by NatWest, Central Science Laboratory and farmers weekly.

Delegates, including Bill Vellacott from Devon, remained curious about how to achieve that production chain co-operation and why it worked better on the Continent. Mr Askew explained it was the result of post-War policy in France and Germany which only gave recovery aid if farmers joined together, and there was a tradition of farm and industry organisations working together.

It also helped that in Germany many farmers had worked in factories that used agricultural products, such as plant fibres in car body panels. "That ensures instant technology transfer," he said.

Mr Vellacott had earlier defended farmers co-ops and made a plea that they should be made to work rather than trying to re-invent the wheel. He was representing Wessex Quality Meat producers co-op and the umbrella regional branding organisation South West Quality Meat. "We now have West Country-branded lamb going into Safeway and we will very soon have West Country Beef with total traceability."

Another speaker from the floor also defended marketing co-ops, citing the success of speciality foods group Taste of the West – now 10 years old – and the Vale Farmers Markets co-op whose markets were entirely farmer-funded. &#42