The 40th ICOS National Conference was held in the Convention Centre, Dublin on Tuesday, 8th November. The theme of this year’s conference was “Better Governance; Better Co-operatives”.
In his opening address, ICOS President Martin Keane examined the three pillars of co-operative governance – compliance, strategy and communications.
Compliance: The compliance function of Board directors is the key headline responsibility that many co-op members associate with the role. Key issues include: Are directors discharging their legal responsibilities, and asking all the key questions with respect to the broad suite of regulatory and compliance regimes that apply to us as co-operatives, and to our subsidiaries or joint ventures, which in many cases are registered as private companies? Mr. Keane noted that while farmer directors cannot be expected to be experts across the wide regulatory framework on the day they are elected, or assume the role, but they must become responsible, so we need to work to ensure that they are familiar with, and can discharge those responsibilities.
Strategy: The strategic challenges facing our co-operatives are substantial and growing. In relation to the dairy sector, Mr. Keane stated that we are and will continue to be, in the midst of an ongoing, dramatic volatility cycle in dairy prices, which is damaging for the family farming model, undermines confidence among current and future milk suppliers, and damages the prospects for dairy as an ingredient for use by our customers. In addition, we are faced by sustainability challenges, with respect to climate change and water quality. We also have a supply chain characterised by the increasing strength of the retailer. Moreover, we are now faced with planning our business around possibly the greatest challenge of all: How do we insulate ourselves from the worst effects of a Brexit process, when even the instigators of that process seem to have no idea what Brexit means, or how to achieve it?
Communications: The third pillar of Governance, as we see it, which can be characterised as Communications. It could also be termed Leadership, or Representation. Mr. Keane stated how do we, as Boards of perhaps 12 or more, represent the interests of members, perhaps numbering in the thousands; and how do we make sure that we can do what is in their long-term interest, whilst sometimes having to make unpopular decisions; to ensure the ultimate sustainability of the business? We also need to ensure that, as well as serving the interests of members, we can keep them engaged with the co-op, its business and representative structures.
Mr Keane concluded by addressing the need to involve young farmers in co-op structures. He said that this challenge is particularly important at a time like this, when we are welcoming younger farmers into the industry. Those young men and women are extraordinary farmers and business people; they’ve travelled widely and have honed their farming skills to a high level. They are, however, of a different generation, and may not have had the opportunity to be immersed in the co-op ethos to the level that some of us were. They have somewhat different expectations of their co-operative as a business partner, and may not have the time to commit to being part of the representative structures we have developed.
By Eamonn Farrell
Agri-Food Policy Executive
21 Nov 2023