26 March 1999

Successful rings have chance to expand

By Peter Hill

EXPANSION, diversification and meeting the labour needs of farms running with fewer and fewer staff.

These are the topics, beyond day-to-day administration, that are most exercising the minds of machinery ring managers and their directors.

For many of the near 30 rings currently trading, the uncertainties of the establishment phase have passed as a growing number of farmers and contractors have come to understand the benefits they can bring and learned how to make best use of the resources available.

Some are multi-million £ businesses serving a huge membership. More typically, members number 200 to 250, with often a core representing a big proportion of the average £600,000 turnover.

Not that it has all been plain sailing. A handful of ring hopefuls have been unable to stay the course (most noticeably in the Dorset area, west Midlands and part of Norfolk), while the failure of the Bedfordshire-based Anglia Tackle Ring, following apparent financial irregularities, has surely dented confidence in the ring concept.

The positive result of these developments, however, is that successful rings are being given the opportunity to expand, increase services and, to some extent, spread overheads further.

In East Anglia, for example, the Norfolk machinery ring and its 50 or so members have been absorbed into the vibrant East Norfolk organisation. The enlarged business will cover all of the county, as well as northern Suffolk.

Manager, Stephen Roberson, says that, far from being disheartened by the failure of the Norfolk ring to stand on its own feet, his latest recruits are keen as mustard to see the new set-up succeed.

Cotswold Machinery Ring, meanwhile, is in the process of taking over the dormant Mid-Tak organisation, which will extend its trading area of Gloucestershire north through Warwickshire and on to south Staffs.

In Scotland, economies of scale and shared aims are cited as the driving force behind mergers between the Gordon and Buchan machinery rings, and also the North-East and Mearns & Angus. The latter merger – to form Ringlink – has produced the largest machinery and labour sharing organisation in Britain with 900 members and a turnover of more than £4m.

Labour is the key issue of the moment for many rings, however, as farms try to operate with fewer full-time staff and find it increasingly difficult to secure skilled labour at times of the year it is needed.

Scottish rings report an unprecedented level of requests for help with labour because of the heavier than usual spring workload, while East Norfolk machinery ring is teaming up with a national contract staff agency – not only to meet demand from members but also to help secure work for skilled agricultural labourers in the area.

SASTAK, the Shropshire and Staffordshire ring, has formed a labour agency subsidiary to meet strong demand in this area. Set-up with the help of EU funding, the agency handles up to 130 staff a year including casuals, reports manager Julia Brereton, with a core of 20 to 30 regulars employed on anything from lambing to tractor work.

Hereford & Worcesters 7Y organisation has taken a similar approach through its services arm but is also diversifying into related but non-agricultural work, most noticeably through a contract to supply wood chip for a bio-fuelled water heating system at Weobley school. &#42