Laurencekirk-based agricultural co-operative’s AGM outlines hopes it can build on recent successes as economic outlook improves.
The UK’s largest business ring, Aberdeenshire-based Ringlink Scotland Ltd, has enjoyed another highly rewarding year in the face of some very challenging conditions.
Its 3,000 members were hit not just by the global economic storm but by weather conditions that badly impacted harvests.
Despite that, there were record numbers of sales made via the co-operative’s services.
These are helping members secure good prices for the range of commodities on offer – electricity, fuel and labour – which helped it register throughput of £94million and a profit of £220,000 across all operations.
Some of that profit was invested in equipment for a new training facility in Laurencekirk as an expansion into training also goes from strength to strength.
Nearly 40 young people took part in the latest round of Ringlink Scotland’s land-based pre-apprenticeships, which are aimed at addressing the sector’s labour shortages, more than ever before.
This year the scheme also expanded to include a pre-apprenticeship devoted to forestry,which will continue next year with 10 places available.
Managing Director Graham Bruce said that while economic pressures would be “with us forsome time”, signs of a move away from the “horrendous” inflation that put such a damaging squeeze on so many members and others over the last 12 months were positive.
“My hopes for 2024 are to see a more settled period economically, more investment by government into the agricultural sector and more settled weather conditions than what we have recently experienced,” he wrote in his annual report – the 35th he has produced since the fast-growing outfit was literally a kitchen-table operation run from his home.
Group operations manager Gail Robertson said: “One key priority is to secure continued government backing for the pre-apprenticeships, with funding only guaranteed at the moment until 2024/25 as part of a three-year pilot.”
Accredited by the Scottish Rural College (SRUC) and administered by Skills Development Scotland (SDS), the successful scheme is seen as a perfect way to attract new blood.
Half of all agricultural workers in Scotland are aged 50 or above and the sector needs some 21,000 extra people to join the ranks between 2025 and 2032, according to SDS data.
Ringlink Scotland Chairman James Porter said that while the Scottish Government’s record on supporting agriculture was “something of a mixed bag” – highlighting a number of areas where policies risked significant damage to the rural economy – its support of the “vital and unique” pre-apprenticeships was “very welcome and valuable” and should continue.
“There is only funding for one more year as it stands, but Scottish Government have indicated a strong desire to support and expand it in the future, so I am very hopeful that this vital and unique programme will continue,” said Mr Porter.
“I am also very encouraged by the recent announcement from Cabinet Secretary Mairi Gougeon that £570,000 will be made available to Lantra for training courses for women and the next generation in agriculture. This will help plug the massive shortfall of skilled workers in agriculture, and Ringlink and the other cottish machinery rings are the ideal partners to deliver that training.
“The Scottish Government has thankfully also now confirmed that Single Farm Payments will not be conditional on businesses paying the Real Living Wage until the new scheme is announced.
“However, Ringlink’s members will be deeply concerned to see yet another £28million stripped from the supposedly ring-fenced agriculture budget on top of £33 million last year.
“The Scottish Government budget is undoubtedly tight, but farm businesses and the wider rural economy and infrastructure is in desperate need of investment that can’t happen without this vital support.
“They have promised the money is ring-fenced and will be returned. It should come back into the agriculture budget before the new agriculture scheme is announced.”
Praising the “outstanding performance” of the Ringlink team, he joined the managing director in sounding an optimistic note about the year to come.
“If future agriculture policy and funding commitments remain unclear, there are still manypositive signs for agriculture. Inflation seems to have peaked, and there is a real prospect of achieving sustainable prices for our crops, livestock and produce in the marketplace,” he said.
“There is a newfound desire amongst farmers to work together to resist being squeezed in between high input costs and low output prices, and to share machinery, improve on farm safety with better training, and bring young people into the industry.
“Ringlink Scotland and Ringlink Services will continue to support our members on that journey”