Members of the buying group Southern Farmers are used to relying on the 13-strong team to negotiate good prices and arrange delivery of everything from fertilisers and fuel to forage and even electrical goods, but the service has been nothing short of exceptional since the coronavirus crisis turned lives upside down.

With farmers and growers under even more pressure than usual to keep the country fed, demand for goods and services has been unremitting, while suppliers have faced their own problems, not least dealing with staff shortages caused by sick or self-isolating employees.

In response, Southern Farmers has stepped up its efforts, taking more orders than ever before from hard-pressed farmers and growers and finding suppliers who are still operating and can deliver the goods and services those members need.
“It’s like harvest and Christmas rolled into one,” said Southern Farmers Managing Director Brigitte Fifield. “It’s been mad, so busy. We’ve been working incredibly hard on behalf of our members to get them the supplies they need.”

At times that has meant clarifying to suppliers that they are permitted to deliver to farmers, who qualify as key workers because of their unique role in feeding the nation. “Some building material suppliers, in particular, didn’t have farmers on their list of people they could deliver to, so we had to step in and make the case for our members,” said Brigitte.

“Although their counters were closed, they had re-started deliveries but some of them didn’t realise that they could supply farmers and growers as well as more obvious categories like the NHS and care homes. We had to explain that feeding the nation was pretty vital and point out that agriculture was on the appropriate list.

“On other occasions we have had to prove to the supplier that the product we were asking for was for official farm use so that they would release the goods. There have been lots of challenges, but we are used to tackling challenges and it’s something our purchasing team is very good at.”

The benefit to the farmer members, of course, is that they don’t have to deal with those same challenges. “With the weather finally brightening up after a disastrously wet winter, farmers just want to get out on the land; some of them have only just been able to finish drilling.

“With farm work to do, along with the increasing demand on food supplies caused by the current situation and, in some cases, their own family health concerns to think about, the last thing farmers want to do is to be searching the internet and making endless telephone calls trying to find someone that can supply aggregate or fertiliser.

“Southern Farmers has always been here to find the best price and get the right deal for our members and that is more important than ever when there is only a limited number of suppliers out there. We keep an up-to-date list of who has what and can deliver it to our members.”

Southern Farmers Chairman Steve Jemmett-Page paid tribute to the “fantastic” way in which the workforce – Brigitte plus six in the purchasing team and six more in accounts – had been supporting the industry “through extraordinary times”.

He highlighted one post-lockdown incident in which a fruit grower had taken delivery of 40 new mobile homes ready for occupation by seasonal staff later this year but had been unable to persuade contractors to connect them to the water and electricity supplies.

In the event Southern Farmers worked alongside the NFU to persuade the authorities once again that this was an essential task that would support the nation in its bid to keep food on the table. “We are helping to keep channels with suppliers open in order to meet members’ needs. I am really proud of the whole team,” he said. “Many businesses have stopped taking orders from private individuals, but they are still dealing with groups such as ours.”

With the Covid-19 lockdown coinciding with the arrival of reasonable weather and the chance to get out on the land, Southern Farmers was particularly busy dealing with fuel orders, supplying two million litres in a month – twice the normal quantity for the time of year.

Cereal seed tonnage is also up by 47% on this time last year, and all the signs are that the record-breaking results achieved by the group over the past few years will again be exceeded in 2020. Turnover was almost £44 million in 2019, up from £39m the year before. “This year we have set ourselves another challenging target. I’m not going to tell you what it is, but we certainly plan to hit it,” said Brigitte.

Chairman Steve is more cautious, concerned that the likely squeeze on the economy caused by the government’s response to Covid-19 may have an impact. “We’ve been growing like Topsy for the past few years, but with the wider economy contracting there may be a question mark over that continuing. We’ll be ready to deal with whatever comes though, and we will continue to maintain a tight ship.”

While life has been busy for the all-female team at Southern Farmers, it has also been safe, with social distancing measures introduced to make sure the team can protect themselves while looking after the farming community.

The accounts team, headed up by Jan Dickerson, is now operating a split shift system, starting earlier and finishing later so that only three of the team is in the building at the same time. The purchasing team is well spaced, delivery drivers have been banned from entering the office and there is a bountiful supply of hand gel.

“The biggest problem is that we have had to stop the tea run and tell everyone to make their own cuppa,” Brigitte joked.

The restricted social interaction has also highlighted another benefit of Southern Farmers membership. In more normal times the office welcomes local farmers when they call in to pick up their smaller purchases or just drop in for a chat.

“Southern Farmers is not just a buying group but a community,” said Brigitte. “Quite often members will have a question about something or will ask if anyone knows how to fix a particular piece of machinery. We circulate that on an email and someone inevitably comes up with the answer. This is a very sociable group, which makes the lockdown even harder.”

In more normal times, the main benefit for farmers and growers who join Southern Farmers – the only requirement is to have a business interest in agriculture – is undoubtedly the cost saving that joining the group offers.

Suppliers are carefully checked before being added to the list circulated to members, and virtually all of them offer a discount that is specific to Southern Farmers.

While members can make direct contact with any Southern Farmers supplier and quote their name and membership number in order to receive the discount, they can also make use of the highly experienced purchasing team, which can offer information on current offers and the most appropriate supplier.

It’s particularly useful for members who are taking on a new project, such as converting a farm building. One of Rosie Wickham’s purchasing team can help put together an entire shopping list of items, from skip hire through to aggregates, rainwater goods and electrical fittings, before placing the orders and arranging delivery.

“It is so much easier to let the purchasing team do it than to try to do it yourself and make dozens of phone calls,” said Brigitte. “And you can almost guarantee that when you get to the end of your list, whoever you are talking to will remind you of something you have forgotten.”

Joining Southern Farmers

Joining Southern Farmers costs £125 a year, plus an additional administration cost per transaction of between 0.35% and 2.1%, with the exception being electricity, which attracts a 2.5% charge because of the more complex administration involved. “We estimate that if you are spending more than £5,000 a year on products, membership is definitely cost effective,” Brigitte said.

For most farm businesses, that level of spend is easy to achieve, particularly given the vast range of materials and services on offer. Along with fuel, electricity, solar PV and bottled and bulk gas, it includes fertilisers, tyres, cereal seeds, fuel cards, hop string, chemicals, minerals, blocks and liquid feeds, forage, baling and silage products, motor spares, horse and pet equipment, mobile phones, horticultural supplies, machinery, bedding sand, fencing and veterinary supplies.

Veterinary service

The veterinary service has been enhanced by the fact that two members of the team, Sarah Tester and Abi Sommerville, have recently been awarded their RAMA (Registered Animal Medicines Advisor) qualifications, which have replaced the old SQP (Suitably Qualified Persons) awards.

One new area that has taken off for Southern Farmers is water. Farmers were hit hard when one company took over water supply and began billing farms six months in advance while also only supplying one bill even when farm properties had their own sub-meters.

Southern Farmers worked with The Consumer Council for Water to resolve some of the issues and can now switch their members to a new supplier with different standing charges and a more flexible approach to billing. “Take up for the new offer has been huge,” Brigitte said.

Southern Farmers is a member-owned, not-for-profit, limited liability company, with the membership fee and the administration charges paying for the running costs of the operation, which is based at Windmill Farm, Rolvenden.

Alongside the cost savings, one of the main benefits of the system is that members only receive one account, even if they have used their Southern Farmers membership to buy dozens of different items right across the range of products and services available. Each individual invoice is attached to the account for checking, but they only pay one sum each month, by Direct Debit, saving a considerable amount of time.

Business booming

With business booming, Southern Farmers is planning to introduce new software that will help the accounts team deal with the many thousands of invoices they handle each year.

The business is also working on a new website and has a Twitter presence – @SouthernFarmUK. “This is a changing world and we need to keep up,” said Brigitte. “We have younger members joining and we need to cater for them.”

Applications for membership are currently on hold as it’s difficult to pick up trade references and because the normal director’s visits to new members are impossible in the current situation.

“One of our directors visits each potential new member to talk through what the group offers, assess the farmer or grower’s needs and make sure they understand the full range of benefits,” said Brigitte. “They are then supplied with their membership pack, complete with a full list of suppliers.”

Abi Somerville, a member of the purchasing team, makes a follow-up call or visit to every new member to encourage them to make the most of their membership and let them know that the team is there to help. “Abi has been making follow up calls for a couple of years now and those visits are making a big difference,” said Rosie Wickham. “We notice a real increase in purchasing from members she has talked to.”

Chairman Steve Jemmett-Page believes the coronavirus challenge has given Southern Farmers a new mission and believes that the group needs to build on the new loyalties that have been created.

“We need our members to be more group minded going forward,” he said. “We need them to use Southern Farmers for all their purchases in future, not just because it saves them money but because it helps to make the organisation stronger for all the members. We have got a lot of people out of trouble over the past month or so and we want them to repay that by helping us continue to grow in future.”

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Photos: ©Martin Apps, Countrywide Photographic