A sleeping giant is at work for our farmers

Have you enjoyed Dominic West’s portrayal of a fat cat executive in the latest TV advertising campaign for The Nationwide Building Society? Looking down loftily from his glass-sided office, he sneers at a branch of the UK’s largest mutual organisation (and part of the booming democratic economy) but there’s a glimmer of realisation that the giant may not be asleep.


Nothing to sneer at

It’s boom time for mutuals and cooperatives. There are 7,586 independent co-operatives in the UK, operating across all industries from energy to education, finance to farming.

The AF Group is a co-operative, one of the largest in the agricultural sector, registered with Financial Conduct Authority on Valentines Day 2003, celebrating 20 years of loving our Members!

Co-operatives are owned by our Members. We’re obliged by law to act in their best interests and are a thriving alternative to shareholder-owned businesses. We share our profits with our Members, not institutions and investors focused on generating private wealth.


Going for growth

According to Co-operatives UK, the combined annual income of co-operatives exceeds £40 billion with more than 14 million Members. In 2022 there was a 1.1% increase in the number of cooperative businesses, a sharp contrast to the 1.7% fall in the number of overall businesses.

In the cut and thrust of business it’s easy to portray co-ops as cosy places for nice people who don’t like competition or tough conversations about performance. Nothing could be further from reality. We’re as driven and determined as any commercial business and we’re more powerful because we have a purpose that goes beyond the bottom line.


Characteristically built to last

In his book “Built to Last”, Jim Collins worked with Harvard University to define the characteristics of 50 companies that had delivered lasting value over more than 100 years. Their findings sound remarkably familiar to those of us who belong to a co-operative or, like me and my team, work in one.

Successful businesses are motivated by a purpose more powerful than the pursuit of profit alone; chasing cash simply isn’t enough to create lasting value. Long term companies stay religiously close to their primary competence (in our case procurement) and have the focus and self-discipline to avoid distractions. Great businesses are led by people with a combination of “passionate humility and indomitable will” and not afraid to set “big, hairy audacious goals”.


Hairy times ahead

Farming businesses are contemplating the hairiest challenges we have faced for 50 years, not least the removal of subsidies on which 42% depend to remain solvent.

At a conference recently, I asked outgoing President of the NFU Minette Batters why 70% of Dutch farmers (some of the most productive on the planet) are members of a co-operative but only 16% of UK farmers? Minette smiled and politely suggested it had something to do with “living on an island” but she wished more farmers would work together. The less polite answer would have been that it’s a no-brainer for farmers to work together.

The good news is we’re seeing a resurgence in the appeal of the co-operative. Collaboration is the new business model and Generation Z, who’ve grown up in the sunlight of transparency driven by the internet, are much more inclined to share their learning and experiences for mutual benefit.


The giant that roars

Inflation may have fallen slightly but costs remain at record highs and the supply chain is quick to use the tactic of divide and rule to extend their margins.  It’s been encouraging to see sugar beet growers, many of whom are AF Members, standing up to British Sugar together, but that’s just a beginning. Manufacturers,  processors and retailers are only getting more powerful. It’s never been more important for businesses to work together and there’s no better way to collaborate than through the unique and dynamic structure of the co-operative.


Horton-Fawkes, D. 2023. A giant at work for farmers. East Anglian Daily Times p.44. 2nd December.