Andrew Gow looks back on his Nuffield topic, to research how co-operatives can work and grow
Andrew Gow is a 2012 Nuffield Scholar, from near Glenstal Abbey, Co. Limerick in the heart of Munster Rugby, operates a low cost grass based seasonal dairy farm. Andrew examined the relationship between co-op shareholders/farmers, their committees, boards, government and public. He investigated how internationally successful co-ops have educated their members to realise the potential of fully integrating their joint businesses under one common goal. He travelled to New Zealand, Denmark, Sweden, Holland, UK and Chile, to assess the lessons which may be applied in order to encourage greater and more rapid integration between dairy co-ops in Ireland.
Hello Andrew Gow here, I am a dairy farmer in Limerick, and was awarded my Nuffield scholarship in 2012, to research how co-operatives can work and grow.
I was able to travel, visit and interview top farmers, co-op members and senior executives in dairy businesses all around the world.
The best experience in my life started with the Contemporary Scholars Conference in The Netherlands. I met 60 other scholars from all over the world, all a similar age and stage in life, all with a huge interest in advancing agriculture in their own way. We experienced the very best of Dutch agriculture and food production, from eating raw herrings at a metre below sea level to the flower market where roses from Africa were distributed all over the world. Did you know the Dutch are the largest sellers of oranges in the world, though they don’t grow any?
I spent time with families of strangers in many countries, where I got a warm welcome, food and bed, thanks to the amazing Nuffield network.
I recently read my ten-year-old report and wondered where the time has gone. I look back at all the people that have come and gone in the various co-ops and organizations I encountered. I travelled to the northern half of Finland, to the southern end of New Zealand, from Tasmania to Amarillo Texas (now, that was a long flight!), and many places in between. I investigated mainly dairy co-operatives, how they had developed, how they encouraged the young and elected new board members. Those questions remain very relevant today. Another relevant topic then as now was how members could realize their investments or shares if they wanted to leave or retire. I visited a rice farmer member of a co-op in outback Australia. They had just been through a ten-year drought and maintain their brand by importing rice from California. Most interesting for me was that they were facing the same issues as co-ops in Ireland. They were debating the value in their co-op and that of their shares, and how this could be realized while being fair to the young and retiring.
Much has changed in the intervening ten years. Irish dairy farmers have invested over three billion euro into their family farms and their co-ops to help produce, process and market the 73% expansion in milk output. We are now rightly placing the environmental challenge to the fore, and we are changing our farm practices. Yet, it is crucial to remember that for every €1 worth of dairy product exported, 90c is spent within the Irish economy, most of it in the local community where the cows are milked. Milk production has increased from 5.2 billion litres in 2012 to around 9 billion this year, and the value of 2021 dairy exports topped €5bn.
But our co-ops structures remain largely unchanged. Co-ops still lack a structured process for selecting and electing candidates to committees and boards; it remains possible to sit on a regional committee for 20 years without having to retire; co-op structures remain male dominated; and while board members now do more training when elected, this is still not compulsory. All of these issues need serious attention.
On the upside, the evolution of the Irish Dairy Board into Ornua and the development of Kerrygold into a billion-euro brand are huge success stories. Kerrygold becoming the number two butter brand in the USA, and number one butter and Cheddar brand in Germany are to the credit of Ornua board members and management team.
As I write, I look at our co-operative dairy industry with huge pride. I watch how dairy farmers and the dairy industry they own take decisive action to reach the next level in a more environmentally sustainable countryside.
You can read more about Andrew’s Nuffield study topic and download his full report here