Scotland’s Machinery Rings – thirty years and thriving!

IMG_3162SAOS newsletter’s headline story in Spring 1987 was “Borders Machinery Ring is a UK First.”

It is fascinating that despite the passing of 30 years, the article continued “Given the present economic climate in agriculture in the UK, with continuing pressure on farm incomes as costs tend to rise, farmers need more than ever to look at ways in which some form of co-operative activity can help to rationalise production and input costs.”

The case for the establishment of Machinery Rings in Scotland had been propounded for some time by the late Sandy Mackay, Senior Agricultural Adviser with the East of Scotland College of Agriculture, who could see the potential of machinery rings to contain on-farm fixed costs. Sandy’s presentation to a conference in 1986 prompted Melrose farmer and agricultural contractor, Alastair Cranston, to consider the possibility of establishing a ring in the Borders. Also, in December 1986, SAOS and Food from Britain had organised a study tour to Germany, for interested parties to visit and learn from several of the rings there (at the time there were 260 rings in Germany). The final element, according to Alastair, was probably the disastrous harvests of 1985 and 1986 which effectively concentrated the minds of many farmers who had been “well-off and skeptical” in the 70s and early 80s, and thus the idea of the ring system began to be strongly considered in several areas in Scotland.

Following two initial meetings in early 1987, it was decided that sufficient interest and enthusiasm existed in the Borders and, with the help of SAOS, the first ring was established there with 23 founder members.

Much hasn’t changed since the early days of the rings. In his Nuffield Scholarship report of 1993, Alastair Cranston reflected: “The idea is simple – it works in practice; it helps in time of difficulty and it is an aid to increased profit in times of relative prosperity.” What has changed over the years is the strength and breadth of Scotland’s machinery rings, and their pivotal role in Scottish agriculture and rural business, optimising efficiency and generating economic activity.
The minutes of the inaugural meeting of the Scottish Machinery Ring Association, held in May 1990, reflect how quickly the ring movement caught on. There were nine members, as there are now, but the composition has changed, along with exponential changes in turnover and member numbers, as well as the work that they carry out.

Initial SMRA details as at May 1990:

Borders MR:   3 years old  -   130 members
Perth MR:   3 months old   –  60 members
Skye MR:   2 years old   –  65 members
Highland MR:   in 2nd year  -   78 members
Caithness MR:   Completed 1st year  -   42 members
Tay Forth MR:   Completed 1st year  -   120 members
North East MR:   9 months old  -   104 members
Mearns & Angus MR:   End of 2nd year  -   184 members
Buchan MR:   End of 1st year  -   120 members

SMRA member and turnover details at the end of 2016:

BMR   –   930 members   –   £6 million
Tayforth   – 1001 members  -   £11.3 million
Rural Services Scotland   –  204 members  -   £1.8 million
South West   –  94 members  -   £0.5 million
Caithness  -   180 members  -   £0.6 million
HBS   –  1201 members  -   £6.2 million
Ringlink  -   2724 members  -   £38.8 million
Lothian   –  260 members  -   £2 million
Orkney  -   326 members  -   £1.9 million

Total    -   6,920 members  - £69.1 million

Since the end of last year, many new members have joined the rings and we can now safely say that membership of Scotland’s Machinery Rings exceeds 7,000.

We asked current ring managers for some thoughts on today’s rings. Graham Bruce, Managing Director of Ringlink Scotland (who was at the first SMRA meeting representing Mearns and Angus MR) told us: “As a co-operative, the business is owned by its members and it is the members that provide the direction on which the machinery ring has to focus, this has been made very evident by the vast range of services that have evolved over the years and that are now available to Ring members.

“There have been many milestones over the years, from being a one man operation to having a team of 37; the first member to the two thousandth member; from a sitting room to having four purpose-built offices. But the ongoing achievement is knowing that we can and will continue to support and provide solutions to hard working people and businesses on a daily basis.”

Jayne Ward, Manager of South West Machinery Ring concentrated on the variety of rural services that the ring can provide: “Don’t let our name deceive you. We are about SO much more than just machinery. Why not find out what else we can do for you?”

Alan McLean, HBS Manager told us: “It is fascinating to see how diverse an operation most of the Scottish Machinery Ring businesses are nowadays. Members can purchase or hire ‘almost anything’ through the Ring businesses that they are members of, with the list of commodities and services available to them being far too long to even contemplate scribbling down.”

Bruce Hamilton, Manager of Tayforth, added: “Machinery Rings were born in difficult times and with uncertain times ahead they have an even more relevant place in Scottish agriculture. Tayforth was delighted to welcome our 1000th member this spring and we have taken on a 6th member to join our team to help manage the increased level of demand from our members. We are the first port of call for our members when they are sourcing extra help or commodities for their businesses and we are looking forward to continuing our expansion in the future.”

In a fine example of the (roughly translated) French saying “the more things change, the more they stay the same”, we quote again from Alastair Cranston’s Nuffield report: “The economics of agriculture in the EEC for the foreseeable future appear such that the relevance of fixed cost husbandry will be as important to the future of individual farm viability as enlightened stock and crop husbandry.

“Machinery Rings, properly run and operating within a structured and inter-linked framework will be of increasing importance…”
Alan McLean, HBS Manager, concludes: ”With regard to the future of Machinery Rings in Scotland – who knows? I see Rings surviving long into the future but they may have to change to do so. However, over the past 30 years, the Scottish Machinery Rings have proven to be very adaptable, flexible, resourceful and resilient with a real willingness to change. These key ingredients will ensure that Machinery Rings remain an important tool in the Scottish farmer’s tool chest for long into the future.”

Study Tour Demonstrates Co-operation in Practice to Next Generation Winners

Three fourth-year Honours students studying Rural Business Management have won the 2017 SAOS Next Generation competition, which is run in partnership with SRUC. The top placed team of Emma Parvin, Joanne Breese and Ashleigh Nelson, produced a business plan for setting up an organic beef co-operative in the North East of Scotland.

This year, the winners’ three-day study tour took in a variety of co-ops and collaborative groups in Scotland. First port of call was Scottish Shellfish, where Managing Director, Stephen Cameron, gave them a full insight into the marketing supply chain. There was also an opportunity to see the processing operation  the Bellshill plant and apparently the chance to try an oyster for the first time was quite an experience for several!

Next stop on the tour was a visit to GrainCo’s OatCo site just outside Glenrothes, where they were welcomed by farm trader, Simon Thomson; Commercial Manager, Gavin Will and group Chairman, John Hutcheson. OatCo is the single largest supplier of milling oats into Quaker and the students learnt about the benefits of collective marketing, as well as the structure of the business.

A short visit to Loch Leven Larder allowed the students to hear from SAOS’ own Douglas Watson, who gave an insight into the benefits of setting up collaborative groups, and talked about the development of farmers markets over the last decade.

The group then visited Scottish Agronomy, which is devoted to the provision of unbiased arable advice to its farmer members. Managing Director, Andrew Gilchrist, took time out of crop walking to explain the services the co-op provides. The group visited a trial plot, where Andrew described the process of information gathering, the importance of accuracy and how these trials benefit co-op members.

Next Gen Comp ESGThe next visit was to East of Scotland Growers, where Managing Director, Andrew Faichney, and Agronomy Manager, Andrew Orr, began by giving the students an insight into the business and the benefits the co-op gives members. Primarily a group made up of broccoli growers, ESG controls the planning, and programming, agronomy, customer communications, sales allocations, logistics and quality control all from the site based in Fife on behalf of their members. A visit to ESG member Ross Foster meant they were able to see first-hand the harvest and packaging operation which takes place on farm. Ross also very kindly gave the group a fascinating insight into his relatively new Anaerobic Digester.

(Left to right: Andrew Orr of ESG is pictured with the winners, Emma Parvin, Ashleigh Nelson and Joanne Breese.)

En route home, the final stop was at St Andrew’s Farmhouse Cheese. Owner, Jane Stewart, is also the chair of the Fine Cheese Makers of Scotland, a group of producers who share knowledge, skills, marketing and innovation amongst participating businesses. There was also a popular opportunity to sample some of Jane’s delicious cheese.

Anna Robertson, SAOS Project Manager, who accompanied the group, commented: “Emma, Ashleigh and Joanne did a great job on their co-op business case study, it was clearly evident that a lot of research and thought had gone into the feasibility of setting up an organic beef co-operative and I congratulate them. I’d also like to thank all of our co-op hosts for their time and the support they gave which helped make this study tour possible. SAOS is delighted to continue its support to educate SRUC students about the benefits of co-operation and collaboration throughout the food and drink supply chain. It’s really beneficial to show the ‘next generation’ of farmers what can be achieved.”

Pictured below: Andrew Gilchrist, MD of Scottish Agronomy, explains more about crop trials to the winning students.

Next Gen Comp Scot Agron

SAOS Annual Report 2017 now online

Our Annual Report for 2017 is now available online 

High Impact Year

Pages 6 to 10 report a high impact year in which we delivered 24 supply chain improvement projects, 14 co-op innovation projects, further advanced the progress and capabilities of ScotEID, and delivered our established co-op advice, promotion and training roles.

Opportunities for Co-operation and Collaboration After Brexit

In a year of intense discussion with Council and other stakeholders following the referendum decision to leave the EU, we identified opportunities and needs calling for increased farmer co-operation and supply chain collaboration post-Brexit in the expectation of more rapid change in the farming and food industries.

Influencing Future Policy

We made a detailed submission to Scottish and UK Governments proposing policy changes to better connect farming with supply chain partners. We also made proposals to incentivise innovation and co-operation together, at farm level, and proposals to address some of the constraints to farmer co-operation. The submission can be found here.

Scotland Food & Drink Ambition 2030

We participated fully with Board and staff representation in the formulation of Ambition 2030, which states the industry’s intent to double in value by 2030, to £30 billion pa. Supply chain improvement and collaboration feature prominently amongst the Pillars of Growth.

Thanks to Our Partners

As we continue to develop the breadth of SAOS’ development activities, our thanks go to all our member co-ops and to the Scottish Government, Scottish Enterprise and numerous organisations with whom we work productively and collaboratively.

You can find all our Annual Reports here.


Fusion Whisky lifts ‘Success Through Partnership’ Award

Success Through Partnership

The Scotland Food & Drink Excellence Awards were presented last week at a glittering ceremony attended by over 820 guests. 

The ‘Success Through Partnership’ award is sponsored by SAOS and this year’s winner is Fusion Whisky. Chef and TV personality, Simon Rimmer (left) who hosted the awards, is pictured with Alex Bruce and David Moore of Fusion Whisky, and George Lawrie, SAOS Chairman (far right) who presented the award.

Fusion Whisky Ltd produces a series of premium fusion whiskies that are an innovative marriage of blending and branding; a product of unique collaborations between distilleries in Scotland and other countries.  Formed in partnership with Fife-based Adelphi Distillery Ltd, Fusion Whisky’s premium blends are created with Scotch and whisky sourced from international distilleries (Hanyu Distillery in Japan and Amrut Distillery in India to date).  Branding for the innovative blending concept is centred on the story of iconic Scots and their positive influence internationally, with a focus on the countries from which the whisky is sourced.

The 25 category winners spanned the whole of the sector, with other winners including; Liam Pennycook of Strathearn Distillery for ‘Young Talent’, l’escargot restaurants owned by Chef Fred Berkmiller for ‘Scottish Sourcing’, Paterson Arran Ltd for ‘Environmental Sustainability’, Peelham Farm Produce for ‘Meat’, and Mara Seaweed for ‘Healthy Choice’.

Special recognition was awarded for Product of the Year (Whisky Nibs from Chocolate Tree), Business of the Year (Bruce Farms) and Outstanding Contribution (Alastair Dobson, Taste of Arran).

James Withers, CEO Scotland Food & Drink, said: ”Congratulations to all winners. With the new food and drink strategy, ‘Ambition 2030’ we are aiming to double the industry’s worth to the value of £30 billion by 2030, so it was fantastic to see new start-ups as well as established businesses come out on top. The industry is constantly growing, but there is always room for young pioneers, innovative products and enterprising businesses, and it’s this that will help us achieve Ambition 2030.

“Scotland is home to some of the most innovative producers and these awards give us the chance to celebrate this. Thanks to all those who entered this year, and I hope to see you back there next year.”

More details and the full list of award winners can be found at:


Scotland Food & Drink Excellence Awards – Success Through Partnership finalists

AS01252 SFD EA 2017


Things are hotting up as the annual Scotland Food & Drink Excellence awards presentation dinner draws closer (the event will be held at the EICC on the 18th of May).  SAOS is once again sponsoring the  Success Through Partnership Award, which was won last year by Aldi and The Natural Fruit & Beverage Company.

We’ve had entries from some great partnerships again this year, and our finalists are:



Scotty Brand: 

The opportunity for Scotty Brand arose when the Albert Bartlett team identified a gap in the market for branded Scottish produce.  The Rooster potato had been a great success as a branded potato and the team realised that Scotland has huge potential for further branded produce, but neither the Rooster nor the Albert Bartlett brands could credibly stretch to cover a range of non-potato products.  Working alone, the company would be limited to supplying potatoes, but working in collaboration allowed the company to offer a broad range of Scottish products, which has opened up new opportunities with retailers.  It was logical to team up with partners who were experts in growing other products in Scotland and Scotty Brand was identified as the ideal umbrella brand for the consortium.

From its beginnings in primary produce with 4 SKUs (“stock keeping unit” – each individual item is given a unique code) the Scotty Brand portfolio has expanded to encompass prepared fresh produce, ambient, meat, bakery and prepared soups and almost 30 SKUs.  It now has a range of products which sits across multiple categories, giving year round presence in the major retailers.  The strategic fit is strong – Scotty Brand provides the sales and marketing expertise; the partners provide the product expertise.

Fusion Whisky:

Fusion Whisky Ltd produces a series of premium fusion whiskies that are an innovative marriage of blending and branding; a product of unique collaborations between distilleries in Scotland and other countries.  Formed in partnership with Fife-based Adelphi Distillery Ltd, Fusion Whisky’s premium blends are created with Scotch and whisky sourced from international distilleries (Hanyu Distillery in Japan and Amrut Distillery in India to date).  Branding for the innovative blending concept is centred on the story of iconic Scots and their positive influence internationally, with a focus on the countries from which the whisky is sourced.

The Bay Fish and Chips:

The Bay Fish & Chips in Stonehaven has a strong partnership with Compass Group UK and Ireland for the distribution of the bespoke Bay Batter and Bay Fishcake. The partnership began with the distribution of The Bay Batter to the Compass Group’s ESS Offshore units in the North Sea. Compass focuses on top quality produce, traceability and supports health and wellbeing.  Bay Batter is a high quality product, produced without any colourings or additives, driving the healthy agenda.  It was never about just securing a contract with Compass, it was about maintaining a long-term relationship and this meant going the extra mile, providing offshore and army barracks training for chefs in how to use the product and attending showcases in London.   Now entering into the third year of its partnership with Compass, The Bay Fish and Chips is concentrating on getting its Bay Fishcake into every Compass sector, alongside The Bay Batter.

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