The hike in input costs and related pressures on farmer margins over the last two years have brought the relevance of agri co-ops back into focus.

The role of co-ops in the modern farm sector and how they have adapted to a changing business and trading environment is a subject that fascinates Maurice Colbert.

Colbert, a native of west Waterford who is now resident and retired in Kildare, is a former senior official with the Irish Co-operative Organisation Society (ICOS).

He has written extensively on the importance of co-ops to Irish agricultural development.


“Co-ops have shown, and continue to show, that they can work in practice for farmers,” Colbert says.

“They have stayed relevant through an ability to move with the times and adapt to changes in the market, technology and society around them.”

Pointing to their success in the dairy, marts and farm services sectors, Colbert says co-ops have been well represented in the Irish economic transformation of the last 30 years.

Not only have co-ops acted as “countervailing agents” which broke monopolies and created more competitive conditions in the marketplace for both farm produce and farm inputs, they also provided security of service to Irish farmers, Colbert argues.

“In periods of agribusiness recession, co-operatives usually come to the fore and help to ease the price squeeze facing farmers,” he maintains.

However, he warns that the benefits that the co-operative business model has delivered for farmers is not universally accepted or appreciated - especially by younger farmers.


“Many of today’s co-ops were established by an earlier generation of farmers, born out of necessity or idealism or both. Despite their past service, some argue that these co-ops do not always meet the needs of the farmer of today,” Colbert points out.

“There are those among the new generation of farmers who feel they should owe no particular allegiance to the co-ops set up by their forefathers and foremothers,” he says.

Colbert says there is a perception among some younger farmers that co-ops are “feather-bedded, cosy clubs” that survive because of what they consider is the “forced loyalty” of their membership.

Co-ops are sometimes unfairly viewed as “inefficient, slow and cumbersome business organisations” that are dominated by the interests of the workers and their trade unions.

The Waterford native accepts that there is some merit in the criticisms.


There is a belief that some co-ops have abused their strength by exercising undue control over membership and creating effective “monopoly conditions in the catchment areas they service”, Colbert maintains.

“Similarly, co-ops were failing in the difficult challenge to get the optimal balance between protecting members’ interests and commercial and innovative agility,” he says.

The essential ingredient for the future success of co-ops lies in good leadership, Colbert suggests.

“Going forward, strong, dynamic, well-informed leadership will be key to ensuring co-op success in a fast-changing, competitive marketplace,” he says.

“Such leadership must always keep uppermost in their mind the specific mission of co-ops, to achieve commercial success while also preserving co-op ideals on the interest and welfare of members.

Co-ops must keep the finger on the pulse for market trends

"Effective management of co-ops requires remembering these goals - and achieving optimal balance between them,” Colbert argues.

He adds that co-ops must continue to “embrace the market”.

“Co-ops must keep the finger on the pulse for market trends, developments and changes. They must respond to the changes observed in the market and ensure their business remains competitive.”

Colbert is adamant that co-ops are “not just a good idea or noble, utopian concept” from the past, but are relevant for farmers now and will be into the future.

“There is a place for the co-op as a commercial partner to modern farmers, a champion who actively represents their interests in the increasingly difficult marketplace," Colbert insists.

"Through well-run co-ops, the many can come together and achieve strength in numbers and real commercial success.”