A new independent report by the Royal Agricultural University has recommended that UK farmer co-ops team up to help farmers collaborate on a “game-changing” scale and strengthen the sector in the face of Brexit upheaval.
Farmer co-operation in the UK: Opportunities for the industry includes insights into UK farmers’ current views on co-operation – and highlights the potential benefits of greater collaboration. The report found that:
- Economic advantage is usually the main reason for joining a co-op, but farmers often gain other benefits, such as saving time and being part of a community.
- The benefits that co-ops can bring are particularly relevant in addressing the challenges and opportunities presented by Brexit. Co-ops:
- Increase economic resilience in the face of volatility, uncertainty and the risk of recession.
- Consolidate bargaining power, in line with their members’ interests, in a tough trading environment.
- Provide social capital that farmers will need in adapting to change.
- Offer established platforms for farmers to collaborate in providing and being paid for environmental public goods.
The findings also highlighted scepticism amongst some farmers towards the co-operative model:
- Farmers often cite maintaining independence as a reason for not co-operating – but if independence is about achieving personal objectives, co-operating can actually help.
- There is a perception amongst a significant number of farmers that co-operatives are rigid, inflexible and need to improve their leadership, governance and communication.
Recommendations to come out of the research are:
- Collaboration between co-operatives needs to be reinforced by government policies that support and facilitate farmer co-operation and collaboration.
- Initiatives are needed to support the development of the next generation of farmer co-operators and create the leaders who will change attitudes and perceptions.
- The report also suggests that Defra’s £10 million ‘collaboration fund’ – announced in 2018 to help farmers navigate the transition after Brexit – could be used to help farmers benefit from co-operation.
“This fund could pay for advice, development and innovation support for existing co-ops to help them transition from being run by farmer members to having professional staff. Strengthening governance should be a priority for advice and development.
“Advice could also extend to busting myths about co-ops, including clarifying their status in competition law for farming industry bodies and advisors,” said Professor Tom MacMillan, who led the research.
“It would be truly game-changing if farmer co-ops teamed up to lead and support a wider co-operative movement in farming – one that extends beyond their current members and into new areas like data sharing and farmer-led innovation.
“Some of the most exciting ways farmers now work together are happening in spite of co-ops, not because of them. Co-ops are big enough to help make these the norm, and would benefit from backing them.”
Richard Self, Agricultural Manager at Co-operatives UK said: “We welcome this report as it provides an accurate picture on the situation within the sector. It shows that there is a lot that needs to be done to help farmers to co-operate more successfully, but if we can do this then we will have a much more resilient and profitable farming community going forward.”