Interview: Mike Shapland, operations manager, Coldham Estate, Co-operative Farms

Being part of the UK's largest farming operation, you might think Mike Shapland has it easier than an independent farmer.

As operations manager at the 1,500ha Coldham Estate, Cambridgeshire, part of the Co-operative Farms network, he overseas the production of potatoes, pumpkins and onions for distribution throughout the company's Co-op food stores. In a trading system such as the Co-operative it could be perceived that growers in the chain need concern themselves less with finding buyers and getting a fair price, but Shapland says he faces the same pressures as another grower operating in the industry - and in many cases more so.

"The Co-operative Farms is part of the Co-operative Group. Other than one Waitrose-owned farm, we are in a unique position within UK agriculture and fresh produce supply.

"We can't rest on our laurels, however. Ultimately all (UK growers) have the ambition of getting the best-quality produce to our customers, and if we ourselves are outside of Co-operative specification the produce doesn't end up in the Co-op shops. Ultimately we still have to produce to the level of specification required within the cost parameters that other suppliers can produce to, and we still have to do an equivialent standard of job, if not better, otherwise there is a compromise for the customer.

"In terms of end produce specification the Co-op is largely on a par with other retailers. The main point of difference from supplying other retailers is that the Co-op has its own pesticides committee and its own lists of monitored and prohibited active ingredients and it has a full protocol on the production of fresh produce that needs to be adhered to. This gives us some additional criteria that needs to be adhered to above and beyond other retailers."

This year hasn't been an easy one for reaching the high quality expected from Co-op stores. While he fared better against wet summer weather than a lot of other UK growers, Shapland's onion crop was hit by internal rots, reducing the crops to 80 per cent yield. "Problems stemmed from the wet weather in June and July," he says. "High levels of downy mildew infection brought about bacterial infections in the crop. Potatoes fared much better, there was some impact from the wet weather but we were fortunate in that we didn't have the deluges that parts of Shropshire, Lincolnshire and Yorkshire had - we didn't have any flooding of crops."

With the support of the Co-operative retail buying team, Shapland introduced a trial 1.6ha crop of Harvest Moon pumpkins to target the Halloween season and, despite ripening issues with some of the crop, he is confident pumpkin production will increase in 2008. "We're waiting on feedback from our retail colleagues and as long as they are happy with product we have a strategy ready for building up supply. I expect we'll be producing three times the amount we did this year."

Close ties with the Co-operative retail arm allows its farmers to keep on top of product developments and Shapland is welcoming a move into broccoli production in 2008: "We have 60 acres (24ha) put aside for broccoli production next year. Again, this will be a trial with a view to expanding in future."

He says it's a timely move, as UK-grown broccoli was extremely short this year: "A lot of the broccoli that gets grown around Lincolnshire on the good silts was hit by flooding and at certain points growers in the region were out of product, so suppliers were importing produce from the US to meet orders.

"When we introduce a new product it effectively means we are replacing another supplier, so it's a sensitive thing to do. We need to be well-researched and resourced to make sure it's a smooth switch over."

Much of the opportunity has arisen on the back of a clear retailer focus on supplying local and British where possible, something Shapland welcomes. He has been involved in repackaging work that has seen more Co-operative Farms produce labelled as British and grown on the company's own farms.

Shapland says joining the Co-operative management trainee scheme set him in good stead for a progressional career within the industry. "Working with the Co-operative Group has given me a clear career progression. It's the main advantage of working for a large corporate farming business. It's served me well and I can see myself remaining with the company in the future."

It's not just future prospects that keep him focused. Being able to see the results of his work also keeps him inspired. "It's a tangible job in terms of results," he says. "You can see them and measure them easily."

But one of the hardest things has been keeping on top of the weather in recent years: "It seems we are moving into new weather patterns. Trying to adapt your systems and still deliver what the customer wants is a challenge. You need be in a position, in terms of planning and resources, to maximise your opportunities when the weather is right."

CV

1990-1993: BSc Agriculture at Newcastle University

1993-1995: Farm consultant at Stratton Parker

1995-1996: Joins Co-operative Group management trainee scheme

1996-2001: Moves to mixed dairy and arable Co-operative farm in Cheshire. Later promoted to assistant manager

2001-2004: Moves back to Goole Estate as manager

2004 to present: Coldham Estate operations manager.


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