Farm Adviser Award shortlist: Gordon McKen

Farm advice can take many forms and this year’s 2012 Farmers Weekly Awards finalists are examples of the vast array of services offered to farming clients. From pig marketing, through wildlife and conservation, to dairy consultancy, all three contenders show total commitment to their sector, as Julian Gairdner reports

They say necessity is the mother of invention and so it proved for Gordon McKen when Scottish Pig Producers (SPP, formerly Grampian) was founded in 1979 following the collapse of meat processor Lawsons of Dyce.

“We started out of a crisis,” he says. “We lost some 50% of Scotland’s pig slaughtering and processing capacity, so we got together a few farmers to form a marketing group.”

Thirty years later, Gordon is now running a hugely successful pig-marketing business out of a small office in Huntly, 40 miles north-west of Aberdeen, that supports almost 130 members across Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Having worked as a pig manager on a farm previously, and before that on a project at Aberdeen University, pigs have been a significant part of Gordon’s working life. It’s clear that his detailed understanding of the sector and the respect he commands is what sets him apart.

Business facts

  • Pig marketing group with almost 130 members
  • Nine farmer directors; three full-time staff and two part-time
  • £53m turnover – aim to break even each year

Not only is he the linchpin in the efficient organisation of SPP, but he has become a much-valued sounding board for his farmer members and an active stakeholder in a number of key organisations and government initiatives.

“We kicked off farm assurance in the pig sector as a reaction to supermarkets wanting to do their own thing,” he cites as an example.

On other occasions he has worked with the Scottish government in connection with the Pig Ongoers Scheme, liaised with other producer groups to look at supply-chain issues and encouraged his members to become involved in benchmarking. “We now have eight in a detailed scheme, with a further 50 using a Danish software package that gives some basic comparison data,” he explains.

What the judges liked

  • Great organisation and reliability
  • Unrivalled industry knowledge and passion
  • Active participation and liaison with government, other organisations and key initiatives

Gordon’s reference to “we” is indicative of his modesty, for in truth he is what makes SPP tick. So how does it work?

“Funding for SPP is through a levy of 25p a pig on producers,” he explains. “We also get a procurement payment of 25-30p a pig from the factory. We deduct around 16p a pig for payment insurance, and transport is charged to members at cost, except where they organise it themselves.”

The real value for members appears to lie in three key areas.

First, through SPP all the logistical and marketing hassle is completely removed.

Second, by co-ordinating the output of 130 members, Gordon is able to get the right pigs of the right spec into the right factory and in so doing able to negotiate premium contracts above Deadweight Average Pig Price (DAPP).

What his clients say
“Gordon is highly efficient at getting the whole loop to work,” says 400-sow pig producer Philip Sleigh. “He’s rated very highly as a person of knowledge across the industry. He’s a real organiser and I never have to worry about my pigs when they leave the farm.”

And third, by providing members with quality feedback either on the market and individual farm prices and grades, or through Wholesome Pigs’ (funded by farmer members of SPP and Quality Meat Scotland) disease monitoring information.

It all wraps up into a highly dependable service, which through careful financial management pays its members within 48 hours, despite itself having to deal with payment terms from the processors ranging from one week to 21 days.

And what of the future? “The next few months will be crucial for the UK, with the rest of Europe banning stalls and tethers from 1 January,” Gordon says.

“There are debates going on around trying to secure a new British premium but I don’t see that as helpful. It’s better to produce on the basis of where we can compete.”

In other words, it all comes down to efficiency. A mantra he practises as much as he preaches.

A word from our sponsors

Alltech is incredibly proud to sponsor this category. Farm advisers are often underappreciated. These exceptional people are crucial elements of the food supply chain and we need champions who embrace challenges, change and innovation. The finalists epitomise this sentiment and I congratulate them.”
Ian Leach, Alltech

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Meet the other 2012 finalists

Find out more about the 2012 Farmers Weekly Awards 

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