UK co-operatives ‘need to be more professional’

UK farming co-operatives must become more professional and transparent if they want to copy the success of their overseas competitors.

Few farmers would take the “huge risk” of joining farmer-controlled businesses (FCBs) unless they could be confident they would be successful, Siôn Roberts, chief executive of English Farming and Food Partnerships, told delegates at the organisation’s annual conference this week (31 October).

“FCB board members have a critical role in building confidence and to achieve this some do need to be more strategic in their thinking and more professional in their approach,” he said.

Changes in farming over the past few years had brought new market opportunities for farmers, Mr Roberts said. However, few had taken advantage of growth areas and were losing out to overseas competition.

In the past decade, food and drink imports had increased by £7bn, while exports had remained largely the same. To change this situation, Mr Roberts said it was vital farmers became more competitive, something joining a co-operative could help achieve.

Mr Roberts admitted it may be difficult for UK FCBs to become competitive world players, as many European FCBs had 50 years experience and expertise. “There are so many good examples of co-operatives in the USA getting 100% returns on their capital. If we get good examples working, people could see it happen in this country.”

Hans van Es, director of the Dutch Produce Association, said for FCBs to be successful, “modern approaches” were needed.

Ten of The Netherlands’ biggest FCBs were in the country’s top 100 companies and farmers have been increasingly involved in the food chain, he said.

Despite fewer success stories in the UK, there has been some growth, with FCB turnover increasing by £1bn in the past two years. “This is encouraging, but farmers need to understand there’s a real need to collaborate,” Mr Roberts added.

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