It is remarkable that when the seeds of Fram Farmers were sown over 50 years ago the founders had the foresight to recognise the benefits which farmers could achieve by pooling their purchasing power. Five decades later the concept is even more relevant and Fram Farmers has become the UK’s leading farmer-owned inputs purchasing and crop marketing business.
The 1960s was a period of burgeoning scientific and commercial advancement in agriculture, which alerted a few farsighted individuals to the adage ‘United we stand, divided we fall’. Plant breeding, fertilisers, agrochemicals and mechanisation merged into one great wave, sweeping the industry into uncharted waters which were potentially rich, but certainly not shark-free.
Many existing farmer-owned businesses were saddled with high-cost infrastructures, paving the way for leaner, more agile ‘co-operatives’ to fill the gap. Amongst them were Framlingham Farmers, West Essex Farmers and Cambridge Farmers Trading Company, which laid the foundations for the AtlasFram Group. In July 2014 the cooperative renamed and rebranded to Fram Farmers Ltd.
With a high level of commitment from Members such Groups can be extremely influential and their role will become more important as the companies which supply the agricultural sector become ever larger and it becomes increasingly important for farmers to pool their collective purchasing/ marketing resources.
During the early years, the priority was to obtain good local sources of supply for fertilisers, fuel and feedingstuffs. The Group carried no stock, so it could source from the best suppliers, at the best prices. That’s still true today, although prices have changed somewhat. Back then, Fisons 42 fertiliser (16.9.9) was sourced for £29.30/ton, a 22s 6d/ton discount over merchants’ prices and 10s/ton better than even tough-negotiating farmers could achieve.
In the early days, existing old-style farmer-owned co-operatives and merchants were frequently hostile and few wanted to deal with the new breed of farmer-owned businesses, which made it difficult to obtain trade terms on some items. One company which has been with us from the start, having had the foresight to see the benefits, is Clarkes of Walsham, with whom the strong relationship remains to this day.
During the 1960s, crop protection was in its infancy, seed treatments were an entirely new idea, farms were becoming more mechanised and the demise of local agricultural mills, merchants and machinery distributors forced farmers to look further afield. It was, however, an era which marked the introduction of real change and innovation. A good example was the development of brands such as Nitram fertiliser, which was introduced in the spring of 1965 and, like Fram Farmers, it is still around today.
The 1960s were also a time when farmers were trading in old Fordson Diesel Majors and Massey-Ferguson 65 models for the new Ford Thousand Series and Massey- Ferguson 100 Series tractor models. Demonstrating the effects of inflation, in 1964 a new 65hp Ford 5000 cost £965, whereas its equivalent today would cost many tens of thousands.
At a time when farming was moving rapidly forward, creating awareness of the new-found potential and conveying it to farmers were assuming new importance, with organisations such as Morley Research Institute (now NIAB TAG) and Cotswold Arable Centre at the forefront in passing on this knowledge.
The 1970s demanded a sense of purpose and from being an amalgam of the aspirations of a few farming entrepreneurs our business had to evolve by becoming purpose-designed for the new era, focusing on increasing individual farmer’s profitability by achieving benefits in all areas of farming business activity in which the position of the individual could be strengthened by collective access to facilities.
The 1970s were a time of massive developments in plant breeding, crop protection and mechanisation, which led to another surge in production. Tramlines were, quite literally, making their mark, livestock production was being influenced by greater awareness of nutrition and its impact on performance, while oilseed rape provided a new alternative in the arable rotation. When the crop went through its initial expansion period in the early part of the decade, AtlasFram worked with a group of pioneering growers to make the crop as profitable as possible through a range of production services, from direct drilling to swathing, drying and storage. No-one can deny the pivotal role of the European Union since Conservative Prime Minister Ted Heath signed us into the Common Market, otherwise known as the European Economic Community (EEC), in January 1973. Originally championed as a means of promoting free trade between Member Countries, it evolved into the European Union, which wields enormous political influence and has had a huge impact on agricultural policy and production.
A key development for AtlasFram was to pioneer a new concept in agronomy during the late 1970s, when there was a groundswell of demand not just for independent agrochemical advice but also access to the most advanced wheat husbandry guidance, from stubble to stubble. Freed from the constraints of hyper-cautious ADAS advice and brand biased company recommendations, early participants increased wheat profits by up to £40/acre, a significant proportion of total gross margin.
In 1964 the average wheat yield at Morley was 22cwt/acre, but in the 1970s the ‘Wheat Race’ and ICI’s 10-tonne club got arable farmers discussing how to do things better. New agrochemicals such as cypermethrin, which allowed farmers to control barley yellow dwarf virus, led to a significant rise in yields, which created grain surpluses, so to stabilise the market the EU introduced Intervention. The introduction of Holstein blood made a huge difference to UK milk production, with average yields increasing from 5000 litres in 1975 to 6945 litres today. Huge improvements in ley mixtures and varieties subsequently increased dry-matter yields and boosted production, which was further increased by greater awareness of ration formulation along with new techniques such as strip grazing, silage, multi-cut systems, the growing of maize in milder areas and improved parasite control.
Throughout the 1980s, developments in farming technology and agronomy continued thick and fast, with four-wheeldrive becoming widely accepted as a means of more efficiently transmitting the increasing horsepower of larger tractors and events such as the Long Sutton Tractor Trials becoming popular with farmers wishing to see competitors pitted against each other in the field. Increasing awareness of soil structure led to the development of wider, low ground pressure tyres, while on the political front the European Union, which was spending 70% of its budget on agricultural support, was taking increasing notice of a vociferous public who could see no reason to fund the cost of a grain mountain and wine lake.
Since then, farming has seen a stream of significant changes, in terms of ever-larger machinery, huge reductions in labour and new technologies which have increased production from crops and livestock. The industry has also been through some very tough times, the increasing influence of end-customers such as supermarkets keeping prices in check, an explosion in the quantity of legislation and regulation, the massive impact of diseases such as Foot & Mouth and Bluetongue, together with the globalisation of food production. More than ever the UK is exposed to greater competition and the vagaries of international markets.
So what of the future?
The world continues to change and agriculture will be a part of that process. Between now and 2050 the world population will increase by 38%, from 6.67 billion to 9.19 billion. With agricultural production failing to keep pace with consumption, farming and associated industries should enjoy significant opportunities. Half of the expected doubling of demand for food will be due to the increasing population and half from a reduction in poverty leading to greater consumption. Increasing affluence and dietary changes in emerging economies such as India and China are creating strong demand for food, while bio-energy and other bio-products are other factors.
During the last half of the 20th century genetic and agronomic improvements allowed farmers to raise average global grain yields from 1.1 tonnes to 2.7 tonnes/ha, but another advance of this magnitude is unlikely. Set against the need for increased food production is the fact that 40% of the world’s land is too dry to support production, 21% is too wet, 21% is too cold, 6% is too rough and 2% is on unsuitable soils. At most, therefore, only 10% more arable land is potentially available, while the degradation of many
The doubling of agricultural output in recent years has been achieved by tripling water consumption and although the longterm effects of climate change are uncertain, water availability will undoubtedly limit our ability to increase food production. The challenge for farmers will be to double food production and produce more biofuels using less water. Technological advancement, including biotechnology, will undoubtedly continue, creating the potential to improve the efficiency of land/water utilisation through new cultivation and soil management techniques, the recycling, conservation and desalination of water, the use of biotechnology to improve plant breeding, pest, weed and disease control. There will also be advances in animal genetics, postharvest treatments to reduce crop losses in store and technology to enable food to be produced without land, plus many more. The need for sustainable production is beginning to have an impact on food production, but whilst the immediate focus is on greenhouse gas (GHG) and emissions it will ultimately be defined in terms of food production for each unit area of land and water used.
Fram Farmers has changed beyond all recognition during the last 50 years, continually evolving to meet the needs of Members, many of whom have been with us from the start. We will continue to evolve during the next 50 years so that future generations can enjoy the benefits which joint purchasing, grain marketing and streamlined invoicing and bank payments generates for them as individuals.