Increasing uncertainty over what life will be like after Brexit is driving many farmers and rural businesses to keep a closer eye on spending and where savings can be made.
For the 600 members serviced by agrena, the rural co-operative branch of the RAMSAK group, the hard work has already been done for them. “With Brexit no one wants to spend money unnecessarily, but not all have the time to shop around,” explained Karen Wheeler, RAMSAK group manager. “Members know we are price checking, we have done the leg work and saved them the money.”
From its roots as a local machinery ring, agrena now boasts an extensive list of the amenities it can provide to its members, from construction and plant hire, to chemicals and fertilisers, to forage, and even fuel. “agrena does what RAMSAK has always done for the last 26 or so years, but alongside the machinery we have been able to add a huge portfolio of other services to support our members; it’s an endless list really,” said Karen.
With its ethos centred on bringing the rural community together, agrena aims to both support and promote its membership. “Our members and suppliers are one in the same,” she said. “We do have some distinct suppliers, such as the fuel companies, but the majority who offer their services will also take advantage of sourcing their materials and fuels from us.” Members can profit from the opportunity to market their business and services alongside the usual money saving benefits co-operatives provide.
Fuel is a rapidly expanding area of the business, and from a standing start five years ago agrena is now processing about 5.5million litres of fuel orders a year. Capable of sourcing everything from 500ltrs of domestic heating oil to artic lorry loads of red and white diesel, members can take advantage of competitive prices, and a new agreement also allows members across Sussex to collect direct from their nearest Local Fuels service station.
This demand has driven the team to increase fuel suppliers from one to five and early morning prices keep the fuel companies on their toes and the members happy. “We don’t go back to bargain so when our members ring up they know what they are getting is the best deal,” explained Lynsey Denness, marketing and office administrator at RAMSAK. “The fuel suppliers are not allowed to get complacent, otherwise they just loose out as they don’t get a second chance to quote.”
This best price, first time policy has been a driving force of agrena’s fuel offering. Phoning in for a fuel quote transforms what would normally be a morning on the phone bargaining with several suppliers down to a quick 5-minute conversation. “Members know we are price checking for them and for those who set up regular repeat fills it is just one less thing to worry about,” said Lynsey.
Saving time and money is only a fraction of the service that agrena prides itself on. While all members have to adhere to the ring’s regulations, Karen and her team go further to make sure that jobs and services are provided at a high standard first time round. “We know our members and it’s as much about finding the best person suited to the job as it is to get the right price,” explains Karen. Understanding the farm businesses who make up the co-operative helps the team recommend the right machinery, right personalities and right skills for a job as well as the right price. “You have to be able to work with someone you trust and by coming to us first our members are not just picking names from a search engine and hoping for the best.”
The co-operative’s developing list of services no longer hinges solely on project or contract work and agrena now covers all aspects of their member’s business. Changes in legislation have seen a large boost in the number of training courses it now arranges for its members. “The training has always been there on a small scale, but a lot more is being done now,” said Lynsey. “Pest control is a great example, you never used to need certification but now you do we will be able to find out who has the best course and which is the nearest, soonest and cheapest for the member.”
“For our members, we are often an extension of the farm office,” said Karen. As well as agreeing discounts, price checking, arranging repeat fuel deliveries, sourcing the right machinery and contractors for jobs, agrena also takes care of the administration. “If you are a busy contractor we have already done your paperwork for you, so it’s one less job to worry about. We can even look after the basics day-to-day things like electricity contracts, water suppliers, insurance and discounts on new vehicles.”
With confidence visibly growing from the members, the team are expanding out across West Sussex, Surrey and South Essex, although Karen admits that county boarders are no restriction. “We have members in Wales, the West Country, the Midlands, Ireland, and even Holland who are linked to our forage trade, which now generates about £1 million worth of hay and straw sales,” explained Karen. “If people want to join from outside the South East and they can provide value and advantages for the existing membership then we are happy to accept them.”
And it is not just the list of service which is growing. Alongside Karen, Lynsey, Jo Finch, accounts, and Anita Head, field officer in Kent, Lucy Cozens joined the team earlier this year to further promote the group in Sussex as well as maintaining good working relationships with current members and suppliers.
Behind the scenes the office is backed up by a voluntary board of proactive and supportive directors who meet quarterly to provide advice, support and who also act as a sounding board for the team.
Organically growing in its own right, the agrena team are keen to keep providing their membership with the best value for money as possible. “We were set up as a machinery sharing business from farmer to farmer and that is still a very big part of agrena and something we are not moving away from,” concludes Karen. “A few years ago it used to be essential to join different groups for different advantages, but now we have been able to add benefits, such as fuel, it really comes back to looking at money saving. If we can provide all the services you don’t need to pay for more than one subscription to get the best out of your membership.”