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.”