'It's easy to blame the co-op for milk prices but the co-op model delivers'

Eamonn Farrell ICOS; Martin Keane ICOS President; Patsy Ahern, Glanbia and TJ Flanagan, ICOS Chief Executive at the ICOS agm in Portlaoise. Picture: Alf Harvey. No reproduction fee
Eamonn Farrell ICOS; Martin Keane ICOS President; Patsy Ahern, Glanbia and TJ Flanagan, ICOS Chief Executive at the ICOS agm in Portlaoise. Picture: Alf Harvey. No reproduction fee
Margaret Donnelly

Margaret Donnelly

Farmers may frustrated at their co-ops and blame them for the price of milk, or cattle, but they need to remember that the co-op model delivers, outgoing ICOS President Martin Keane.

He said that while it is sometimes tempting to disregard the value of owning and controlling those businesses; maybe we get a bit frustrated because the price of milk, or grain, or of cattle in the ring, as they may might not be to our liking, it's easy to lay blame on the co-op.

"But we should always remember the value of having those tough decisions made by ourselves, ordinary elected members, trying to do our best by the business, and by the members.

"If we want to see the alternative to farmer ownership and control, we just have to look at the weak position of dairy farmers in the UK; where the lack of a co-op culture, and strong farmer control has led to weakness and uncertainty."

Speaking at the ICOS agm, he said if there was ever any doubt as to the strength of the co-op model, then then the past winter should dissipate it.

He said that after an almost non-existent summer, particularly in the west, with very poor grass utilisation, or conservation, followed by a hurricane, an extraordinarily wet winter, then, when cows should have been moving out to grass, a record snow event, followed bitter cold weather, and then a disastrously wet Easter time, farmers were under huge physical and mental pressure.

"Whilst we couldn’t solve many of the problems, and farmers had to face many of the difficulties alone; nonetheless, the Co-operative movement put in a huge effort, sourcing and fodder, locally and overseas, providing discounted feed, working round the clock, in mills, and delivering feed and fodder, and ensuring that milk could be collected and processed."

However, he said that the work of co-ops is only possible with replenishing the system by investing in leadership and governance system; to ensure to continue to retain control over our businesses.

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"We have to constantly challenge ourselves, to ensure that our Co-op structures are robust and relevant.

"We’re not, nor should we be, looking for blind loyalty from members.

"They should be challenging to us, to ensure we’re always doing the right thing by our co-operatives."

He said that there are two particular challenges at present, namely getting younger people to engage with the co-op movement and the running and management of business that have grown dramatically in scale and sophistication.

"Our governance model evolved at a time when co-ops were smaller, products and processes were simpler, and a price move of a penny a gallon was big news.

"We are now expected to provide strong governance, and to oversee the management of extraordinarily complex businesses, where the stakes involved are very high, and where mistakes are very expensive."

To do this, he said, co-ops must employ increasingly more highly trained and motivated management teams, and it must, if it is to retain control of our businesses, demonstrate strong leadership, and competence.

"While most farmers actually underestimate their own skills, derived from managing their own, increasingly complex farming businesses; we would be naïve to think we can just walk into a boardroom and immediately demonstrate our competence and authority.

"We need to invest in training and development structures for current boards, and right down through our representative structures.

"If we don’t invest in structures which will provide a pipeline of motivated, committed, educated, current and potential leaders, we will lose control of our businesses, and they will ultimately fail to deliver what we need from them."

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