Times are hard for British farmers at the moment so it would make sense for us to club together and use our collective strength to add value to our produce. So why, then, do British farmers remain remarkably resistant to a cooperative approach?
I was reminded of just how resistant we are to the cooperative mentality at a recent NFU dinner. The discussion on my table turned to low milk prices and I reminded my fellow diners of how joyfully in 1994 farmers had abandoned that mother of all farmer cooperatives, the Milk Marketing Board (MMB). In the 22 intervening years we have seen the number of dairy farmers drop by two thirds, while the average farm gate milk price today is less than it was the day the MMB was broken up.
There were two milk producers on my table but neither of them had much time for my suggestion that a reinstatement of the MMB might be a solution to the seemingly endless crisis in UK dairying. Indeed the opposite was proposed. What was needed was a good clear out of the least efficient producers after which the market price for milk would settle down.
I pretended to be shocked by these remarks but there is something in every British farmer that thinks this way. That is not to say that we don’t see the advantages of cooperation. Being able to make a quick phone call when we need to order some diesel, fertiliser or a hundred and one other consumables and feeling confident that a co-op will get us a good deal has obvious benefits. Equally when we have some grain to sell it’s great to think that our co-op will be on the ball with market prices. But for many British farmers this is as far as cooperation goes and explains why so many British farming cooperatives are little more than glorified buying and selling groups.
Contrast that with continental Europe and France in particular. There the cooperative movement is strong. Collective storage and marketing is the norm and there is lots of farmer cooperative investment in downstream food manufacturing and regional produce branding. On top of that, to be a member of a cooperative is symbolic in the farmer member’s mind of transparency, democracy and solidarity with one’s farming peers. Similarly in Italy, farm co-ops are central both to the food economy and to the economic resilience of both large and small farms. (If British pork farmers are currently baffled at how Danish pork is so difficult to compete against they should know that 90% of Danish pork is marketed by one co-op.)
No doubt, like many British farmers, I will continue my membership of my farm co-op as I have all my farming life. But unless we up our game beyond a “buy my inputs cheap/sell my farm commodities dear” approach to the farm co-op, we will find ourselves at a permanent disadvantage to our European Union farming peers.