Friday, February 28, 2014

So, farewell then, CWS Farms

Faced with a £2 billion deficit, the Co-op is to sell off its farms. The group now regards them as 'non-core' and thinks that they distracted from its other activities. Most of the farms are arable, although there is also some soft fruit production.

Now is a good time to sell as farmland prices are rising and these are good farms in attractive locations which have been well looked after, although there have been some expressions of concern that their arrival on the market may depress prices (but I think that is unlikely). There are still individuals with £30m or more in cash willing to buy farms in the UK. They could be worth £350m, although presumably would be sold separately. Some of the farms are thought to have development value. They are located in Cambridgeshire, Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Leicestershire and Yorkshire. There are also farms north of the border in Aberdeenshire and Perthshire.

CWS was, I think, Britain's biggest farmer, certainly after Sentry Farming disappeared from view, although there are other contract farming companies, notably Velcourt: Velcourt . Farmers Weekly commented in an editorial that 'The C0pop's exit from farming is in part an acknowledgment of the high capital requirement of modern commercial agriculture relative to the returns.'

The CWS owns 15 farms that cover 19,830 hectares (49,000 acres). Only 2 per cent of production ends up in the Co-op's own supermarkets, with cereals sales to bread manufacturers accounting for 70 per cent of production. The Co-op has owned farms since the 19th century and had argued that they provided an edge over its competitors as consumers were becoming more concerned about the provenance of food (in practice only some consumers).

When I was growing up in London in the 1950s we got virtually everything from the Co-op from milk and bread to clothes. The return for customers was a declining 'divi' whilst the stories failed to modernise as competitors strengthened their offer. The Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society, then the biggest in the country, was known locally as 'Rob All Customers Slowly.'

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