Producers race for re-registration

Producer organisations that failed a status audit by the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) last year could face a nerve-jangling fight for survival as the deadline for them to lodge new registrations passed today (20 January).

A role for cooperatives to balance out the market - image: HW
A role for cooperatives to balance out the market - image: HW

Groups such as Fruitlink, the grower-owned apple and pear cooperative, said they were racing to hit the deadline. Some 17 of the 39 producer organisations failed an RPA audit last year and were suspended pending a review and decision in late February. Suspended organisation could continue to run but they received no grants.

NFU chief horticulture adviser Hayley Campbell-Gibbons said a mood of worry and frustration had taken hold of the sector and producer organisation were concerned the RPA had still not looked at all of the evidence in detail following one-to-one meetings held in September last year.

Fruitlink financial controller Keven Brooks said his organisation was scrabbling to meet the deadline because the RPA had been slow to send out initial letters and this was "putting us under strain". Fruitlink lost £125,000 in grants this year, which would have gone on trees, cold-store improvements and campaigns.

"If we are expelled from the producer organisation programme, I suspect it would be the end of our group," said Brooks. "I assume growers would go off and try and join another organisation. It's hard if you receive no funding to compete against people who do. In fairness the RPA has been contacting us weekly of late, which has been helpful."

At Northern Mushrooms, chief executive Aga Danila said the RPA phoned her this week to say she could expect a decision in late February.

Despite her requests for clarification and her group submitting documents weighing 0.5kg, the agency had made little contact. She added that the initial report from the compliance auditor contained "incorrect" material on her group.

"If our status is confirmed it will be great, but if it is not our members will have to talk about the future. We would hold an extraordinary meeting to look at all the options. This has cost us a few hundred thousands of pounds to date," said Danila.

Campbell-Gibbons said producer organisations had received "largely generic" communication from the RPA since August and wanted more feedback on their position. Nobody, she added, wanted "a nasty surprise" following five months of silence on their status.

The current uncertainty left many organisations unable to make informed investment decisions for the season ahead, she explained.

Cooperatives Action - EU role welcomed

At the launch of International Year of Cooperatives 2012, European agri-cooperatives body Copa-Cogeca secretarygeneral Pekka Pesonen welcomed the EU's role in strengthening such bodies, outlined in Common Agricultural Policy reform proposals.

"It is more important than ever to concentrate supply via cooperatives to get a better return from the marketplace," he said. "In the fruit and vegetables sector, where there are strong seasonal variations in supply, cooperatives play a vital role in balancing out the market."

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