How healthy are the UK’s machinery rings?

The aim of machinery rings remains much the same as it ever was, says Gill Wood who runs the Link Wales machinery ring and is also secretary of the Machinery Ring Association of England and Wales.

But she concedes that there have been big changes in the services offered and the way machinery rings now go about their business.

“I think the initial idealism of the machinery ring concept has waned slightly,” she says. “Rather than promoting that all-for-one, one-for-all image, the industry now tends to view rings in a more financial way in that there is a greater awareness of the savings that may be available.”

This change to a more business-orientated approach, coupled to the need for machinery rings themselves to be financially viable, is also thought to be the reason behind the decline in both the number of machinery rings and the number of members overall.

In England and Wales, for example, machinery rings now total just nine from a peak of nearer 20 a decade ago. Some have amalgamated – such as the recent merger between Norfolk and Waveney and Eastern Agrilink to create the Eastern Machinery Ring. Others like the Northumberland & Durham have folded, and the Cumbria ring went for a change of direction and became a buying group.

Machinery rings arrived in the UK in 1987. The Borders Machinery Ring was the first to be formed when a group of farmers and contractors joined forces with the aim of pooling labour and machinery to reduce costs.

Gill Wood 

Gill Wood heads the Link Wales machinery ring and is secretary to the Machinery Ring Association of England and Wales.

It proved a successful formula and the rest of the UK was not far behind in following its example. Soon there was virtually countrywide coverage.

The basic concept is simple. It puts those who “have and can”, in touch with those who “haven’t and can’t”.

If a farmer (called a demander in ring parlance) needs, say, some hay baling he contacts the machinery ring which puts him in touch with another farmer or contractor (supplier) who has a baler available and is able to take on the required task.

When the job is completed, the supplier sends details of the work he has performed to the machinery ring which then invoices the demander who pays the machinery ring. The supplier receives payment from the machinery ring, less 4% commission.

Having established a “community” of members there are many other services and activities that could be introduced which could bring benefits, she says, not only to members but society as a whole.

“One of our key aims with Link Wales, for example – and it will be the same for other areas throughout the UK where small farms predominate – is to encourage a sustainable future both in agriculture and the rural way of life,” she says.

“Through the pooling of machinery, labour and other services, smaller farms that might otherwise be unviable and sold to become part of larger units, will hopefully continue to operate.”

Over the years machinery rings have sought out ever new activities which can provide commercial opportunities for members. These include labour supplied though agencies, farm office work, training, clothing, price deductions on specified machinery and access to a host of other items needed by members.

But the most obvious of all services was the opportunity to purchase commodities such as fuel, fertiliser and seed at a reduced price.

“Like other rings, we began by negotiating better prices from fuel suppliers based on the larger volumes but with 1500 members, the logistics soon became difficult to manage,” she says.

“We have since discovered that, while there are benefits for our members to be part of a buying group, it only works if there are several smaller groups of, say, 30 members which can be better served and managed.”