As the head of Farmcare, a program that integrates farm management and sustainable development, Christine Tacon administers the biggest farm in England – 30,350 hectares, formerly the property of the Cooperative Wholesale Society (CWS). This cooperative society, composed of retail stores, bought its first farm in 1896. And, in between the two World Wars, it has kept its hand in other properties with the goal of provisioning its member stores with the resulting agricultural products.

Agronomist John Fraser grows royal potatoes on the grounds of the Howard family.

Tacon’s arrival in 2000 came a bit after CWS almost went private. It was a victim of a plot fostered on the inside, in the likes of the Parmalat and Enron scandals (1). The assets of the largest consumer cooperative in the world, now called The Cooperative Group, can certainly stir up envy. Farmcare may be its agricultural arm, but the group as a whole stirs up business in every sector of daily life: banking services, insurance, the Internet, funeral homes and travel agencies. The turnover in 2003 was $19 billion Canadian. And 2004 looks to be even more profitable.

In 2003, Tacon got rid of a herd of 4,500 cows, even though “the animals give 10,000 litres of milk a year (per cow),” she says, stating humbly that she has no training in farming. She also sold the milk quota of 30 million litres for $11.5 million Canadian. This decision came from the mother organization, The Cooperative Group – to sell its dairy factory, Associated Cooperative Creameries (ACC), to British dairy producers in August 2004. The transaction, worth about $175 million Canadian, made CFB the largest dairy cooperative in the United Kingdom, owned by 3,250 producers to British dairy producers. And it made the enterprise the third largest dairy producer in the United Kingdom.

“We weren’t competitive compared to other dairy producers,” says Tacon in an effort to explain the sale of the herd and milk quota. She adds that Farmcare had to include the price of land rent in its production costs. Over a managed area of 30,350 hectares in total, 11,000 belong to The Cooperative Group and the rest – 19,350 hectares – are rented to small farmers and big landowners, so the lot sizes vary from 40 to more than 400 hectares.

Fraser, accompanied by potato graders who are members of a gypsy family. The hourly salary of a farmhand in England is $12.

Along the way, Tacon has also reorganized the whole of farm production and compensatory services that Farmcare offers by recruiting eight managers (mostly agronomists), all in function of one reality: The market. She says she had a heavy heart when she dismissed about 100 employees and tenant farmers. Under her leadership, Farmcare operations have changed in three years from a deficit of $10.5 million Canadian to a surplus of $3.7 million Canadian.

The range of services Farmcare offers vary from simple management of accesses to bodies of water, to land development such as the construction and repairs to the famous stone walls that separate fields and help give the English countryside its charming mien. This services ranges from rodent control to the making of compost to use to grow organic produce. To this, add a fleet of combines, tractors to spread manure and turn over soil to prepare the ground for plowing and sowing.

Tacon also offers a panoply of commercial agreements where the risk and profits are shared between farmers and managers. A pilot project to grow small fruits was begun in June 2003. The crates of strawberries and raspberries, inscribed with the mark, “Product of Co-op Farms,” are sold in about 140 stores – sales that have allowed beneficiaries to increase their profit margin by 11 per cent. “We have chosen varieties to extend the harvest season and carry out an effective promotional campaign,” says Tacon, who holds a degree in business management.

Thirteen of the 20 Rochdale pioneers, who founded the consumers’ cooperative movement in 1844. The cooperative movement soon expanded to cover the world over.

There is no question, however, to produce transgenic food for the network. “This is a choice of our members,” she says. About 4 million people do their grocery shopping in around 1,000 stores. Co-ops have spread notably in rural areas. And on their tables, counters and display cases, consumers can also buy imported products branded with the mark, “Fair Trade.”

How does one go about recruiting farmhands to the daily operations of Farmcare? “With the intervention of recruiting agencies certified by the government,” replies Tacon, tapping her fingers, a bit on the defensive. Living in conditions like the Middle Ages, far from making a minimum salary of $12 Canadian an hour, millions of economic refugees supply daily certain large supermarkets with fresh vegetables (2). Last November, the British Parliament adopted a new law to oversee the activities of gangmasters, or agencies that recruit farmhands.

At the request of this reporter, Tacon picks up the telephone to organize a visit with agronomist John Fraser (one of eight Farmcare managers) on a property 200 kilometres away from Farmcare headquarters. On site, Fraser explains how he manages the 1,200 hectares leased to the Howard family. The chateau here is as famous in England as Buckingham Palace, thanks to a popular television series on BBC, the national broadcaster.

Dorothy Graves recounts with fervor the story of the movement’s very first pioneers. These two pennies were used to found the first food cooperative in Rochdale. Today, the little house is a museum. (To find out more, go to the web site, www.co-op.ac.uk.)

The potatoes produced over 53 hectares are all sold to the McCain company, which owns two factories in England. But the lords of the manor also use their aristocratic profile to penetrate the “organic” market, where they draw an even better profit margin. At the moment, their harvest of organic wheat and beans – grown over 80 hectares – is sold to national grain merchants. Recently, about 100 Aberdeen Angus cows have begun to graze in about 121 hectares worth of organic pasture. The packages of wheat flour and future organic roast beefs will soon be sold in the boutique in the Chateau Howard under their own private label. The purchase of these products by thousands of visitors annually, as well as orders over the Internet, will contribute to the maintenance of a property where needs are such that 51 gardeners must be employed.

Starting this organic production under the wing of Farmcare, the Howard family is following in the footsteps of even more famous people, such as Prince Charles, who owns an organic food enterprise. Nevertheless, Christine Tacon does not cultivate relations only with the aristocracy, which owns 30 per cent of the land in the United Kingdom.

After the successive crises of mad cow disease and foot and mouth disease a good number of English livestock breeders have abandoned the profession without leaving any replacements. In knocking on their doors to offer her services, Christine Tacon is tapping fertile ground. Farmcare exemplifies a trend: From now on, in the absence of new producers, private companies will do a great part of British farm production. With financing from its parent company and its tradition of ethical values, Farmcare wants to distinguish itself from its competitors.


(1) “Les voleurs de grand chemin,” Colette Lebel, Le Coopérateur agricole, March 2004.
(2) Felicity Lawrence. Not on the Label, Penguin Books, 2004.




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