When prices are rising and the supply of many products is variable at best, farmers and landowners need a reliable ally as they try to buy what they need to keep their businesses running smoothly.

In these turbulent times, more than 1,200 agricultural businesses are using Southern Farmers, the Rolvenden, Kent-based not-for-profit buying group, to benefit from group-rate prices and easier paperwork.

The Southern Farmers team works on behalf of members to source the best price for a broad range of goods and services, from feed and fertilisers to broadband contracts and building materials.

This year has seen the team working hard to bed in new accounting systems aimed at streamlining the office procedures.

Introducing new secure software to uprate the service delivered to members has been a challenge after some 30 years of sending things out by post, but the team is well on the way to completing the switchover and reaping the rewards of a more efficient, more cost-effective system.

Southern Farmers has also been focusing on streamlining the reconciliation process by moving everything online and emailing accounts to as many members as possible, although they can still opt for hard copies.

Keeping costs low benefits members as well as Southern Farmers, which charges an annual administrative fee of £125 and small percentage invoice charge. As the group is a ‘not for profit’, savings are ploughed back into providing a better service to members.

That better service includes an impressive website, with a dedicated members’ area that allows members to send in their electricity and water meter readings, place orders and advertise pre-owned goods for sale. Suppliers can also upload special offers to the site.

One of the newest suppliers signed up by Southern Farmers is Trinity AgTech, a leading consultancy with a mission to “help boost the profitability and sustainability of agriculture”.

Trinity AgTech was invited on board after director of business development Anna Woodley addressed the buying group’s annual meeting in March on carbon sequestration and regenerative agriculture.

“The AGM was packed because so many of our members wanted to find out more about this whole new topic of carbon sequestration and trading and the way farming is changing to a more regenerative approach,” commented Southern Farmers’ managing director and company secretary Brigitte Fifield.

“As a result we invited Trinity AgTech to join as a supplier so that our members have the opportunity to benefit from the advice they can offer at a favourable rate.”

To bring what is a complex subject to life for the group’s farmers, Trinity AgTech will be taking one of Southern Farmers’ members through the transition to regenerative farming and including a monthly update in the newsletter sent to members.

“Agriculture is evolving, farmers need to keep up with the changes and our job is to give them the access they need to the people who can help them do that,” Brigitte added.

Purchasing team leader Rosie Wickham didn’t hesitate when asked what members had mostly been asking for in recent weeks. “Dry weather,” she quipped.

On a more serious note, she explained that the group had been helping members get hold of animal medicines, especially vaccines, with supplies generally affected by the pharmaceutical companies having switched to Covid-19 vaccine manufacture during the pandemic and only now moving back to animal products.

Electricity prices have been on a roller-coaster ride since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but by refusing to buy into a long-term contract a year ago and settling instead for a variable rate tariff, Southern Farmers is now able to negotiate a longer-term arrangement on keener rates since market prices have dropped significantly.

Propane is another area where farmers have had difficulties securing supplies and where Southern Farmers has used its influence and its good relationships with suppliers to try to keep gas flowing to members. 

“We don’t have a magic wand, but our 1,200-strong membership does give us significant buying power and that can help when supplies are scarce,” said Rosie. “That buying power also helps us secure the best prices for our members, which is very important at a time when prices are going up across the board.”

New members of the group are once again receiving an introductory visit from a director – something that had to stop during the pandemic – with member liaison contact Abi Simms able to provide a follow up visit to members who want to know about the opportunities on offer. Abi is also hoping to restart visits to all members, something that is beneficial even to those who have been with the group for many years.

Read the full Southern Farmers feature

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