Pete Riley writes:
Thanks for your support to ensure that the Co-op Group Farms remain under Co-operative ownership. The deadline for bidding for the farms has now past and we await the announcement of who the Group Board selected as their preferred bidder. The timing of the announcement is not clear but the decision is likely to be taken at the July 2014 Board Meeting and completion is due by the end of September.
Community purchase of two farms was considered but neither was progressed. I was involved in assessing a bid for the Co-op‘s fruit farm in Herefordshire.
Following a farm tour and successful meeting to gauge public interest in the county in early June, which was attended by over 40 people, it was decided not to proceed with a formal bid for the farm. Three factors led to this decision.
First, the lack of time remaining to research, write and present a credible bid by the deadline set by the Co-op Group. Second the difficulties in filling information gaps needed for such a bid, such as Tillington farm accounts, details of farm tenancies and marketing/grading/packing contracts. During our visit to the farm in early June it became apparent that tenancies and contracts would need to be re-negotiated and that the delays in obtaining the accounts due to confidentiality agreements would have made meeting the Co-op’s deadline virtually impossible.
Another major factor in deciding not to bid was the Co-op Group’s very strongly stated preference to sell the Farmcare business and land as one portfolio because this maximised the price and minimised the Group’s costs. People who attended the meeting in Tillington felt that it would not be ethical to use funds raised by our very successful Crowd Funding appeal to underwrite the production of a bid knowing that a top quality bid had a very good chance of being rejected because of the Co-op Group’s stated position.
Our intention was to establish a Community Land Trust (registered as Community Benefit Societies) to buy the farms though a public share issue. This is the model that has led to several successful co-operative farmland acquisitions, for example Fordhall Farm in Shropshire in 2006 and the Biodynamic Land Trust. Community Land Trusts can create tenancies for co-operatives or individual farm businesses to provide much needed access to farmland for new entrants or existing tenants wanting to move to larger farms.
The initiative to mount a community purchase of Tillington produced some positive outcomes including a new group of individuals and organisations in Herefordshire who want to look at different models of small farm viability and options for a countywide community co-op farm trust capable of securing access to other sites suited to small scale, diverse, community engaged farming, fruit growing and market gardening.
The Co-op Group, and their agents Savills, did not go out of their way to help bids from local communities for individual farms. Detailed information about Tillington only became available from mid May and as indicated above crucial information was still needed very close to the deadline for bids. A more open and transparent process following the announcement of the sale in February 2014 would have given co-operative buyers a realistic chance of producing credible business plans and bids for individual farms.
All this raises the question of how the Co-op Group will handle the sale of its other assets as it strives to meet its obligations to pay off the debt that largely arises from the mismanagement of the Co-operative Bank.
We wait to hear from the Co-op Group management and board who they intend to sell the farms estate and business to before judging whether they are adhering to the co-operative principles that enabled the Group to build its land, property and business portfolio over the last 150 years.