26 March 1999

It pays

to join association

The NAAC has a new

chairman, a new

administrator and a new

home in Essex. But its role

is no different than it has

always been, reports

Peter Hill

"Whats in it for me?" A question not always asked out loud when deciding whether to join a trade association but one that most people subconsciously ask themselves.

The difficulty comes in answering. Because the benefits of belonging are not always obvious nor will necessarily have some immediate and magical impact on the individuals business.

"When the activities of a trade organisation like the National Association of Agricultural Contractors are so often intangible, it can be difficult to make a convincing case for people to become members," says new chairman, Dermot Maxwell. "But there are definite benefits – and all the more so if people use their membership to advantage."

Competitive and properly conceived insurance, and access to business management and technical training tuned to the needs of contractors, are among them. But, as a one-man-band spraying contractor, operating on farms around Ton-bridge, Kent, Mr Maxwell believes contact with other contractors is of equal – if not greater – value.

"It is all too easy for contractors to get wrapped up with their own business and work in isolation," he says. "Having the opportunity to chew over problems with contractors outside your area can be a great help – if only for reassurance that you are not alone in facing particular problems!"

Contact through local branches can also help if it leads to trusting relationships with other contractors.

"Ive recently been able to take on a whole-farm contract, knowing that I can share the workload with other contractors when necessary," notes Mr Maxwell.

That could be a growing aspect of the way contractors work in future, given that, in Mr Maxwells view, contractors have done about as much as they can to cut the cost of running their operations.

"Charges have not risen in real terms for years; contractors have simply absorbed rising costs by investing in more productive machinery," he says. "But there must be a limit to how far this can go as there is already little or no margin in many contract services."

It is encouraging, though, that contractors are increasingly used as a planned, strategic resource, not as the classic fire-brigade last resort, he adds.

"This is now much more commonplace – and it has to be if contractors are going to invest in equipment with confidence and organise the workload so that the sort of service farmers want can be delivered," says Mr Maxwell.

The pressure on contractors to improve financial management of their businesses has not been lost on the NAAC. Seminars on the topic are aimed at giving more guidance on costings and finance.

Its an area where, having retired from a business career with Ford Motor Company, Ulrik Middelboe, the associations new executive officer, could make a contribution.

Asked about the NAACs role, he suggests: "To defend the contracting industry against the slings and arrows of EU and UK government legislation; to provide properly structured insurance with effective liability coverage; and to provide training opportunities in business and technical expertise."

He backs that up with some recent successes and current campaigns. Which include winning MAFF approval for trained livestock contractors – not just vets – to perform internal ultra-sonic scanning of cattle; persuading the seed industry to rely on mobile seed dressing contractors to administer royalty collection on farm-saved seed; and obtaining a favourable judicial review on road fund licence fees and rebated fuel in respect of mobile mill and mix vehicles .

The NAAC has also taken up moves by Inland Revenue to class itinerant sheep shearers as employees rather than self-employed (with all the additional paperwork that would entail), and is working with the Environment Agency on practical disposal of sheep dip.

More recently, Mr Middelboe and Dermot Maxwell have sought to explain the contracting industrys role in agriculture to farm minister Nick Brown.

"We felt it important to emphasise the crucial role contractors have in supporting the ability of many small and medium size farmers to keep farming," explains Mr Middelboe. "There are no plans to claim any special treatment or dispensation for contractors; we simply want to ensure the minister understands the scale and scope of their contribution."

The associations internal priority is to lift membership beyond the current 300 or so that effectively fund the organisations lobbying and other activities on behalf of the contracting industry. &#42