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Board changes but continuity for agri co-op Aspatria Farmers

L-R: Richard Miller, Ian Bell, David Wright, Mark Lee, William Graham and Leonard Hall. (John Swainson is missing from the photo)

Ian Bell has stood down after 23 years as chairman of Aspatria Farmers, serving more than 34 years on the board of the farmer-owned co-operative.

Ian is succeeded in the role by William Graham at a time when turnover and membership for the co-operative based in Station Road, Aspatria – which will celebrate 150 years in business next year (2020) – is at an all-time high.

Ian’s family has an association going back around 100 years with Aspatria Farmers with Ian succeeding his father John as a director in 1985. Until recently when he took semi-retirement he was farming at Aigle Gill, Aspatria, where his son John now runs the 250-cow commercial Ayrshire herd.

The handover brings continuity for Aspatria Farmers as William Graham, who farms at Fell View, Bothel, also joined the board in 1985 as one of the co-op’s youngest directors in his 20s.

David Wright, of Tarnrigg Moor, Oulton, Wigton has been elected vice-chairman.

Business has continued to grow for Aspatria Farmers which reported a turnover of £24.4 m in 2017/18, an increase of 14% over 2016/17.

Turnover and volume growth was across all product categories but in particular on feed and engineering where the business has made some significant investment. As a result pre-tax profits were up for the second year running at £135,000.

Membership is also at its highest at 985 with the anticipation that it will hit 1,000 for next year’s milestone celebration.

Mr Bell has witnessed many changes within the industry and the business since he was elected to the board in December 1985.

“At the time the business – The Aspatria Agricultural Co-operative Society – had been swamped by the much more aggressive neighbouring co-op businesses,” he said.

“Our turnover that year was in the region of £500,000 and the Society showed a small trading loss. It really was ‘mend it’ or ‘end it’ time,” added Mr Bell.

However, the Directors took the decision to recruit a new General Manager John Hunter and with his guidance and the help of a strong team of committed staff the co-op soon recovered.

During the 1990s the directors resisted joining a joint venture agricultural supply company when the larger co-ops joined forces.

Then, in 2001 the foot and mouth epidemic impacted seriously on the business with turnover falling from £9 million to £3 million, but John and his successors have since overseen continuous organic growth and the business has also broadened its offering with the take-over of the Joseph Hillary business in Aspatria in 2006 and MTS Dairy Services at Longtown in 2015.

William is as committed to the co-operative philosophy and Aspatria Farmers as his predecessor.

“Looking forward to our 150 years next year I have been going through old minute books and the co-operative was formed as a consequence of farmers being sold under-par products at high prices,” said William.

“The co-operative took the supplier of fertiliser – guano – to court and it ended up in the House of Lords with the supplier losing the case.

“Buying a good quality product at a fair price is as relevant today as it was then and that is what we strive to achieve for our customers who are our members and who we are accountable to,” he added.

Mr Graham runs a herd of 60 predominantly Limousin cross suckler cows at Fell View, selling forward stores and he follows on the family tradition of membership of the co-op from his father, also William.

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