AT THE end of the Second World War there was a farmers’ supply co-operative at virtually every significant railhead in Wales.

Today, there are only three, including the largest, Clynderwen and Cardiganshire Farmers (CCF).

With today’s farming sector under pressure and facing the threat of a changing Single Payment system, the chairman of CCF, RICHARD FRANCIS, shares his thoughts on the relevance of co-operatives and his vision for their future.

Q. While CCF is a financially strong farmer-owned business today, it was not always the case. What do you credit with the change in this circumstance?

A. As a society, it is fair to say we had lost our focus in the late 1990s. We have worked hard to regain our focus through a different management style, recognising that first and foremost we are here for farmers.

Q. Explain how the organisation has changed.

A. The board and senior management work as a team with total disclosure, so there are no surprises. We have an agreed strategy to be a farmer-first business.

Q. Should that not be the obvious case with a farmer-owned business?

A. Of course, but like others we had lost our focus because, to a great extent, we had been run by our suppliers in many ways.

Q. Can you provide examples of where the business has changed?

A. We have brought in experienced graduates who are able to offer sound help and advice, with no commercial bias to help our members’ bottom line.

We have established our own branded compound products made to our formulations and our own blended feeds, which we manufacture at Glanrhyd.

With all of our feed products we offer complete disclosure and, on our top end diets, we are happy to declare ingredients by percentage on the label.

Q. Why is this important?

A. All the livestock farmers who sit on our board were clear that when they buy a feed, such as one with 20% protein and 13.0 ME, that is what they expect.

Currently, legislation allows manufacturers to take a tolerance on declarations – our belief is that through our disclosure policy, the farmer or his advisor can simply do the additions and work out for themselves what they have bought.

Q. If others do take advantage of legal tolerances in their feed ingredients does this put you at a disadvantage?

A. In some ways, but we believe our members and customers should know exactly what they are buying, and that should always win through. This approach applies to all of our own brand products and, where we buy other products, our staff are honest with our customers regarding product quality and information.

Q. Your annual accounts confirm that CCF has changed in the last decade to be a consistently profitable business enjoying steady growth, while strengthening your members’ asset base. Where do you see the future?

A. We firmly believe that we must put our members first; they are who we work for. Staff are important so we are always looking to develop our workforce.

These strategies help us to increase our membership and customer base. We currently have two small collaborative initiatives where we are working with other companies on the arable side of our business which we hope will bring an improved offering to our members. We also believe we need to work with and collaborate with others.

We would happily talk to any farmer-owned business to see if we could work together.

Q. Do you think your business can remain robust and secure for the medium to long term?

A. That is a difficult one, but I would hope so, providing we stick to core principles and remember we are here either directly or indirectly for farmers. As one of the few businesses who are quite simply here just for farmers, I would hope we can earn their respect and work towards truly being their first port of call for inputs and advice.

Q. If you had a wish for farm co-operation what would it be?

A. That all farmer-owned supply cooperatives remember why they are here and work together, not against each other.Wewould welcome the opportunity to work with other like-minded companies for the benefit of farmers and, of course, to provide much needed job and employment opportunities in rural Wales. We hope that farmers would always give us a chance and where we need to improve they must tell us.

Co-operatives are the one business that farmers can directly control. If there are not at least one or two businesses like ours working for farmers then farmers will be disadvantaged both when they buy and when they sell.