Jobs under threat as Co-op pulls plug on farming

The Co-op says it plans to continue its From Farm to Fork operation in the Borders. But six jobs are under threat as the supermarket giant looks to dispose of its farming arm.

By The Newsroom
Thursday, 6th March 2014, 12:09 pm

Last week the Co-operative Group said it had decided its farms were “non-core” and that it “has started a process that is expected to lead to a sale of the business”.

The Co-op contract farmland on behalf of several clients growing potatoes, rapeseed and cereals and has its Borders office base at Whitsome Hill Farm, Duns, which is owned by Ivor and Robert Gaston.

It employs six people to contract farm nearly 5,000 acres (2015 hectares) in the region.

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And the Co-op runs its ‘From Farm to Fork’ operation – inviting schoolchildren onto farms to learn about where their food comes from – from the Hirsel Estate at Coldstream.

A group spokesman told us last Thursday: “We are still committed to doing From Farm to Fork. We will look at continuing to do that.

“Yesterday’s announcement was the very start of the process. It’s far too early to say anything more than that we are looking into selling the Co-operative farming business.”

Asked about the future of the jobs of the company’s six local employees, he said: “It depends on what happens to the farms.”

Local politicians were quick to express concern for jobs and the From Farm to Fork initiative.

John Lamont MSP said: “The Co-op Group employ several people across the Borders at various sites, and this announcement has put all of these individuals’ jobs at risk.

“I have contacted the Co-op to ask for more information. For every one of their employees this will be an uncertain and anxious time, and I am keen to find a solution that will provide long-term job security.”

Fellow MSP Jim Hume has asked the Co-op for ‘clarification’ about the future of its local From Farm to Fork project.

He said: “Projects like this are important for educating children on healthy eating, and they also spark children’s interest in the countryside and farming which stands to encourage them to consider rural employment as they get older.

“It would be a great pity if management takes the decision to withdraw from this successful joint venture (with The Hirsel), and I’m looking for assurances that they remain committed to its aims.”

A NFU spokesman said: “The Co-op’s long-established links with farming will have given the retailer a valuable insight into the challenges faced by all primary producers. Farmers will be saddened to see that useful link broken.

“We await further news on what the plans are for the farms and packhouses operated by the co-op in Scotland and appreciate that this will be a worrying time for staff and any independent growers who supply those packhouses.

The Co-op is now one of Britain’s largest producers, farming over 50,000 acres across the UK.

It moved out of dairying in 2003 to concentrate on arable production and in recent years has been building packhouses and setting up turbines.