Farming Cooperatively

The largest single farmer in Britain is The Co-operative Farms, a subsidiary of The Co-operative Group. They farm 55,000 acres at 15 locations throughout England and Scotland. Of those acres, 20,000 are owned by The Co-operative Farms and the other 35,000 are rented or leased to The Co-operative Farms by other landowners, including the Crown Estate. The Co-operative Farms is one of the most progressive farming organizations in Britain, although they have now been farming since the 1860s. Their history is as fascinating as their future—but more on the past later.

A commitment to responsible farming

Today's commitment of The Co-operative Farms to responsible farming is also a commitment to their customers, the environment and the communities in which they farm. Here is how The Co-operative Farms fulfills this commitment:

Biodiversity: expanding their farming practices to increase the diversity for wildlife; cutting hedges less frequently, creating wider field margins; establishing ponds and planting more trees.

Green energy to combat climate change: for example, on the oldest farm owned by The Co-operative Farms (1912) the Coldham Wind Farm was established in 2005. The energy created provides 4 percent of the annual needs of The Co-operative Group and is enough to power over 9,000 homes. Many more wind farms are now in the planning stages on land managed by The Co-operative Farms.

Pesticide reducing, controlling and monitoring: The Co-operative Farms uses Integrated Pest Management (IPM) techniques, which eliminate or reduce the use of pesticides such as crop rotation, encouraging habits for pest predators and taking other actions which lessen the impact on the environment.

Recycling: The majority of plastic (70,000 containers a year) and cardboard used by The Co-operative Farms is now recycled. At their Lincolnshire farm, they work with Agricycle, Ltd. to provide a recycling service for all the farmers in the county.

"Grown by Us" is The Co-operative Group's program for growing, packing and distributing the agricultural crops from its 50,000 acres. The Co-operative Farms has four packing houses. The key items packed for Grown by Us are potatoes, broccoli and strawberries.

The main crops grown on The Co-operative Farms are grains such as oats, rapeseed, wheat, cereals, spring and winter barley; vegetables such as asparagus, beans, beetroot, carrots, onions, sweet corn, shallots, sugar beets, vining peas; honey; and fruits such as apples, cider apples, apricots, cherries, pears, plums, and strawberries.

"From Farm to Fork" is an educational program initiated by The Co-operative Farms in 2005 to reach out to schoolchildren. Since then, 30,000 schoolchildren have visited one of the farm sites. "From Farm to Fork" describes its objectives:

The farm visits aim to inspire children to get passionate about fresh, good quality ingredients and cooking with them. We hope that children who have visited will be encouraged to make healthier lifestyle choices about the food they eat.

For some, it will be the first time they have experienced the countryside and all it has to offer. We hope they will leave with a greater appreciation for the outdoors, gaining an understanding of the importance of farming, both in supplying food and protecting wildlife within its natural habitat.

The origins of cooperative farming

The active role of The Co-operative Farms today traces back almost 200 years in the history of cooperatives in Britain. Seminal thinkers who wrote about cooperatives and agriculture included Robert Owen (1771–1858) and an Irish landowner-turned-philanthropist, William Thompson (1775–1833). By the mid-1800s, cooperative communities were the ideal of many different political movements. In particular, the Chartists (1830–1850) were imbued with cooperative farming. Many of the Rochdale Pioneers (1844) had invested in Chartist settlements.

The Chartist legacy can be seen in the early objectives of the Rochdale Pioneers:

As a further benefit and security to the members of this society, the society shall purchase or rent an estate or estates of land, which shall be cultivated by the members who may be out of employment, or whose labour may be badly remunerated.

That as soon as practicable, this society shall proceed to arrange the powers of production, distribution, education and government, or in other words to establish a self-supporting home-colony of limited interests, or assist other societies in establishing such colonies.

Acquiring land for farming and housing continued to be an objective of the co-ops in their pursuit of an ideal society.

In 1863, co-op leaders from around Manchester decided they should create a Cooperative Wholesale Society (CWS) as a central purchasing and distributing organization. They chose to meet at Lowbands, a Chartist farm near Rochdale. Concurrently, changes in the law would soon remove the smothering restriction that co-ops could not own more than an acre of land.

From that meeting, and with their foresight, the CWS leadership plunged into making their own products, building their own factories and running their own shipping fleet. The immense success of the consumer cooperatives was heightened by their unity in support of the CWS as a secondary co-op. The small shopkeepers of England were no match for the organizational efficiency of the cooperatives. Both the individual co-ops and the CWS entered an era of sizeable profitability. Part of the profitability went back to the members in the form of dividends, and the remainder went into funding the local and national development of cooperatives.

From the 1860s to 1915, local cooperatives used their capital to buy land and build over 50,000 homes for their members and staff. Quite often, the local co-ops also bought farms and farmland.

In the "Co-operative News" of Nov. 4, 1871, an ad appeared requesting capital investment in the Co-operative Farming Society: "The object of this society is to raise a sufficient capital to establish a farm in a convenient location, within easy reach of Manchester, for the purpose of supplying its members and the public with pure and unadulterated articles of farm produce."

In 1896, the CWS bought its first farm at Roden, and they have been adding more farms since. The CWS, now The Co-operative Group, is the only British retailer to also oversee a national farming operation. Clearly, during this next century, The Co-operative Farms will increase its emphasis on sustainability, meet a preference for British-grown produce and uphold its reputation as a responsible farmer.

For more on these efforts, see: www.co-operative.coop/farms.

See other articles from this issue: #154 May - June - 2011