• Kenny MacLennan
Location:
Stornoway
Date:
Monday 15th February 2010
Reference:
SWI2010/004

Kenny:

My position within Lewis Crofters is that I am the chairman of the board of directors. I have been in that position since 2001 and the board is made up of people that have a genuine interest in the work of Lewis Crofters Ltd as the society that is a community cooperative working basically to help crofters. It started off in 1958 when the idea behind the whole cooperative process was that Lewis Crofters Ltd would be a vehicle to supply crofters with animal feed. The whole business has developed significantly since these days but still retaining that ethos and retaining that ambition that these men had to make sure that what we are doing is in the interests of crofting and crofters and trying to provide a supply of animal feed, together with other things now but primarily animal feed, and to have that at the most competitive rates that we can and at the best quality and standards that we can. I genuinely believe that we are trying to do that and that we’re making a very good job of it.

 

Over the years we have expanded quite significantly into what I call other products and other goods. From the early days of having purely animal feed and fertilizers, we have progressed into hardware, clothing, footwear, tools, a lot of other stuff that the croft house as a unit would like to purchase, not only animal feed stuff. We sell a lot of fencing, timber, gates, feed rings like silage rings, feeding troughs ... We’ve moved into tractor parts for a while, that was successful to a degree. Found that the stock that we had to carry to keep that viable was not really working very well. The stock element associated with that just wasn’t fitting in with the business as such, so we now just carry a basic stock of tractor parts but have the ability to order and hand have things here within a matter of days.

 

The general feedstuffs side of things is based very much on ... or was very much in the past based very much on sheep feed with a significant amount of cattle feed. Some hen feed but then that kind of ... Egg production on the islands dropped quite significantly, say in the last twenty years but now it’s picked up significantly again so one of our main sellers now is hen feed and also pig feed has moved on a pace. Stock numbers with regards to sheep on the island has probably peaked, if not dropped, over the last number of years. What we have found as a result of that is not that our tonnage of feed has dropped, it hasn’t. We have managed to retain, if not increase, the tonnage of sheep feed that we are putting out to crofters, which is suggesting to us that, although the numbers have dropped, the sheep that are on the island now are in better condition now because of additional feed being given to the ones that are there. So with these things, I’m hoping that we are providing a very good service.

 

We have a situation at Lewis Crofters where we employ on average ten or eleven people a year. We have an average wage bill of £250,000 which is money that is recycled in the local economy. We have three transport units, two 7½ tonne lorries and one transit van type lorry vehicle which distributes feed throughout the island which is a key part of the business where a crofter can order. He knows the vehicle will be in that area one day a week and delivery and transport is a big thing with the company. I would think that having that ability to transport and deliver is a big thing, with regards to the convenience that we can provide to crofters in outlying areas. It’s an expensive thing to be doing. Vehicles themselves don’t come cheap and the cost of fuel is ever increasing. We have the services of our local haulage contractor which takes all our stuff onto the island for us, everything that has to be imported, and we have a very good agreement with a mainland distributor which gives us very good rates because of the tonnage that is taken from them as our main supplier, together with various other satellite suppliers which are depending on what kind of material and feed stuff we’re looking for. So basically that’s a broad overview of where we are.

Simon:

For someone who doesn’t know what a cooperative is, could you maybe just briefly explain it and why Lewis Crofters was specifically set up in that format?

     

Kenny:

My understanding of a cooperative is a unit that is set up to help and deliver a service to the community; that it is set up to serve and that is what this is doing. It has done ... The cooperative is set up by a group of volunteers that don’t look for remuneration for themselves but want to provide a service for the community it’s trying to serve. That’s how I see a cooperative and that’s how I see Lewis Crofters and that’s how I see ‘Lewis Crofters, the vision’, that the men who started the thing off fifty-two years ago had. And I am convinced and I will always be convinced as long as I am in this position, that that is what we have to retain and achieve and something that I always am very conscious of is that, although I am here in the position that I am in with Lewis Crofters, I am only here for a very short time. I and the rest of the board members have to realise that what we have is an inheritance that has been passed to us to look after and we have to pass it on in a better condition than we found it, which is what I believe we are trying to do. And I think we are trying to do that and we are doing it. We are in the process of ... well, a number of years ago we expanded the shop, changed the yard and the storage area. Our turnover now has increased. In the last ten years our turnover has doubled and this year we have broken the £2 million turnover figure which is a huge achievement for a relatively young and small cooperative company. The board of directors is made up of enthusiastic people who are genuinely interested in crofting and I think that helps as well.

Simon:

Are all the board actively crofting? Or a majority?

     

Kenny:

I would say everyone on the board is an active crofter, yes, in their own right.

Simon:

And the fact that it’s set up in this fashion, do you feel that it’s able to respond to the needs of crofters across the islands in a better way than a purely private company that ...?

     

Kenny:

I think it is. I think that the fact that the way it’s set up, with ... we try and get directors to be spread throughout our catchment area, if you like, throughout Lewis and Harris, which gives the board feedback from people that they talk to, that these directors talk to, within their own locality. These issues and changes or difficulties or good points as well are discussed and will be taken to the board and discussed at the board and decisions taken on that. Board meetings are usually very good. There’s good honest and frank debate and decisions are made in the best interests of the society whereas that interest always has to be serving the person we have to serve, which is the crofter at the end of the day. But it doesn’t have to be a crofter, you know? Our shop has diversified into other products to a large scale where we have all people are welcome to the shop and will purchase whether they are a crofter or not. Many local people, even in the Stornoway town area, who are not crofters will purchase many things at Lewis Crofters Ltd.

Simon:

Earlier you were talking about it as a kind of inheritance. It’s almost that the way you’re describing it echoes the way people talk about the crofts and crofting and is there a carry over of the ethos of crofting communities into the company ...?

     

Kenny:

Yes. I think it’s the same ethos. I think it is the same ethos because crofting, I feel, is something that is in you or not and people that have been brought up through a crofting background, especially through an age when crofting was a means of survival really if nothing else ... it was the mainstay of keeping the family alive, of keeping ... every crofter was very self-sufficient. We’ve moved away from these days. Whether that’s a good thing or not, that’s for another day, but I still feel crofting should be more self-sufficient than it is within these islands but I feel that what Lewis Crofters as a company is doing is providing crofters with the goods and the services that can allow them to be as self-sufficient as they want to be. So I think there is very much a relationship between the ethos of the company and the ethos of the individual who has the inheritance of the croft, if you like to look at it that way. There is that genuine similarity between what the company as a large unit does and what the individual does on his own wee patch.

Simon:

And in a way kind of continuing that parallel ... A few generations back many crofting communities would create their own food stuffs and supplies for the animals, on the one hand, and on the other hand there was also stronger local economies where you could sell produce back into ... of course they’re still selling to the mainland ... and also facilities, like abattoirs for example and markets ... Over the past few decades we’ve seen a decline in the numbers of active crofters, which to some extent has impacted on the ability of communities to create food stuffs and therefore also a decline in the amount of locally produced food stuff and also, I guess, the market forces a drive towards having to sell to these bigger chains of food supply like supermarkets or even, in most cases, most crofters work to sell on to have the animals fattened up and matured down south and then sold into the supermarket chain ... So, it seems to me, in a way that Lewis Crofters is, to some extent, bringing back some balance to the situation. Would that be fair? Or how do you see the relationship between that kind of development and the significance of what the cooperative is doing?

     

Kenny:

Very difficult, I feel, to equate what Lewis Crofters is doing to what, say, the larger livestock or food production economy is doing locally. I don’t think there is very much of a parallel that we can say Lewis Crofters are ... I would like to think that we, as Lewis Crofters, could encourage that type of thing and we do give some ... you know, people like the Sheep Producers Association and the Cattle Producers Association and the horticultural groups, we give these people discounts. We sponsor all the sales that happen at the local auction mart, the livestock sales. And with that we are kind of putting something back to try and keep an element of encouragement with these things but I don’t think we, as a cooperative and as a business, feel that it’s our remit to try and instill or develop local production although my own personal feeling, as this is very much a personal feeling, is that there should be more local production on these islands than there is and I feel like we’re getting back to some of it in a way. There are fairly strong horticultural groups that we as a business, as Lewis Crofters, will support and will sell ... whether it’s goods or tools or whatever, to their members. I always feel that we should do more with regards to livestock finishing on the islands and, again this is not Lewis Crofters, but we did go through a phase where we were giving discounts on feed for finishing lambs and then again we have a situation where we have in Lewis probably something like 20,000 lambs who’ll leave the island as store lambs and then through ... certainly through the summer months, from April onwards, these animals will come back to us as finished lamb, slaughtered and coming to our butcher and supermarket store where I feel that there might be an opportunity that a lot more can be done at a local level, but that’s not Lewis Crofters’ remit.

Simon:

Quite a few crofters have spoken about that they feel a stronger local infrastructure would help them in terms of sustainability of crofting.

     

Kenny:

It probably would but crofting as what was community crofting, say twenty or thirty years ago, has moved and has become more of a self-sufficient, certainly minority group, type of crofting where most people will tend to work away on their own and the only communal things that would happen would be sheep gathering off the hill, shearing, that type of thing. The individual aspects of crofting nowadays tends to have that, with the local abattoir being operational here and it’s a great facility that we can’t under any circumstance afford to lose, allows the individual crofter to slaughter his own stock and use it in his own freezer for his own family and friends and that is what most people will do. They will finish lamb or year old stock, kill their own and have their own supply of meat for the year. And that is very much a self-sufficiency situation in a way, but there is still not the drive to have, say, something like a community finishing shed for lamb or calves or that kind of thing or large scale egg production or things like that whereas there are small units that will work on lamb production for the family and beef for the family and egg production for the family. But the larger aspect is a step, or a couple of steps, further down the line. But again something that certainly Lewis Crofters would support but it’s not something we can start promoting as such, although it would be nice to feel that we could do something to help.

Simon:

You talked about recycling money into the local economy, which is again an issue I’ve come across elsewhere. Could you maybe just say about the significance of that? The economy’s much more mixed now than it was a few generations back, would it be fair to say?

     

Kenny:

The way that we, as Lewis Crofters Ltd, help the local economy is through the employment as well. Like, we have ten full-time employees and some part-time staff at Lewis Crofters Ltd. I think it would be fair to say at this stage there’s about twelve full-time equivalent posts there. The money, or the earning capacity of the staff, is obviously money that is being put back into the local economy. The use of a haulier that is on the island to take all the stuff over, that is again money that ... his haulage rates is something that Lewis Crofters pay. Again it’s money being put into the local economy. The sponsorship of livestock sales at Lewis Auction Mart is another means of assisting. We also have the opportunity for groups that feel they want some small elements of funding to help a crofting venture but it has to have a direct benefit to Lewis Crofters Ltd before Lewis Crofters will support it and also it will be that Lewis Crofters Ltd could only offer that money if there was significant profit in that year’s trading. Profit within the company as well is always returned into either infrastructure or services and that’s what has been done over the last fifty years where there has been profit. And profit, because of the ethos of the company, is usually very low. I always, as chairman, feel that it’s great to talk turnover and we’ve had a £2 million target but the turnover target is not ... or the turnover figure, I should say, is not really our target. Our target has to be that we, as a business, have to make some profit each year, however small that profit might be, but we have to be a viable, vibrant organisation and the ethos of the company is to do that and to keep things going and, at a good pace, to help people. Profit can be low but as long as we are in profit then we’re all happy, and I would hope that what we’re providing is a service that is competitive. We will always have the situation with Lewis Crofters Ltd where an individual will choose to bypass Lewis Crofters and go directly to a mainland supplier for his own requirements and that is entirely an individual’s choice and we would have no problem at all with that. We would, however, like to be given the opportunity to quote in these situations and maybe find that we are competitive. The other issue that we can guarantee our customers is that we have a quality of product that is exceptionally good and it is a guaranteed quality mark that we operate with and by avoiding maybe the quality marks, that some individuals can go to a mainland supplier that probably end up coming back with something that is slightly cheaper but I think if we were given the opportunity to quote on bulk feed purchases then we are as competitive as anyone.

Simon:

In a sense, you’re talking about profits being low at the end of the year but in a sense the true returns seem to be more about the social benefits of the company. Profit motive is more about quality of service but there’s a social gain that the presence of the company provides, that is in a way the real incentive. Is that fair?

     

Kenny:

I would like to think that that is the case, that that would be ... there is a strong social aspect to the business. There’s a social aspect to people that come into the shop and there’s an interaction between staff and customers that is good and healthy and that interaction comes from ... When I mentioned earlier about the transport situation, you could have a driver delivering several tonnes of animal feed through various locations in a township or in an area on Tuesday, for example, and meet individual crofters at their own holding and have good social interaction with that person and the next time they meet them they might be in the shop and, again, there is this social link, both with the individual and with the community, and the fact that our green van is seen in an area on this specific day has a social impact as well when you’re talking about small, close knit communities. They will know that the Crofters van is coming on Wednesday and they’ll know to phone in advance and have their order on it, so there is a strong sense of ... a strong sense of pride in the company with all our employees which I think is really, really good.

Simon:

How would you describe the relation of Lewis Crofters to the wider economy of the islands?

     

Kenny:

I don’t know, it’s a very difficult one. Although we’re turning over £2 million a year, that’s not huge in the Lewis and Harris economy scale in larger companies. It’s very, very difficult, I think, to equate what we do at Lewis Crofters Ltd to any significant economic ... huge economic benefit. There is definitely an economic benefit. When you look at all the spin offs that will happen as a result of what we’re doing, with regard to animal feeds, with regard to what that then does ... you know, without Lewis Crofters being there and without the transport Lewis Crofters offer as part of the service we offer, if that wasn’t there I feel there are a number of areas that people would just stop keeping livestock. So, with that kind of caveat there, there is a huge impact. If Lewis Crofters pulls out, say, then what impact will that have on livestock production on the island? I think it would be catastrophic. So, what that then does is it reduces the amount of income that comes in to the island from things like Less Favoured Area support, from Single Farm Payment support. That all comes into these islands as a result of livestock production and I think that we, or I would like to think that we, as Lewis Crofters, have a duty to keep what we’re doing as good and as strong and as vibrant and as customer friendly as we can possibly make it to allow these things to continue because I think we are a key link in the chain. Although we’re seeing livestock numbers decreasing, I think it’s fair to say that we’re kind of plateaued out as far as numbers go and, like I said earlier, as a result of animal numbers going down we haven’t noticed a significant drop in tonnages which would suggest to me that people are better to their livestock and having now a better quality of livestock on these islands than before.

Simon:

I guess you’re kind of saying, if there was only someone operating out of a mainland private enterprise then there’d be less incentive to support these other factors that make crofting possible. So the transport for example and stuff like that?

     

Kenny:

Transport would be a huge problem, especially where you have crofters with small ... see, crofting is a small scale, small holding type business where a crofter would probably, running twenty or thirty ewes, rely on Lewis Crofters for his weekly delivery of feed. That crofter might not have adequate storage capacity at his own holding to keep his year’s feed supplies so he relies on Lewis Crofters’ weekly delivery service. Maybe he’ll only use it every three weeks or something but there’s a reliance on this delivery and this service that Lewis Crofters provide to allow this small unit to work in remote areas of these islands and I think that’s where you have the link, and a strong social link as well, that allows these things to happen. And I would think that we at Lewis Crofters are a vehicle to deliver these very, very important, small scale ... It’s more than self-sufficient units out there in rural areas and we as a business have some kind of input into keeping people in remote areas because the tendency now is to urbanize and to pull people into centers of population and we need this element of remoteness, that we can still operate, and that a crofter can still operate as long as he has communication links and as long as he has transport links to these centers he can be perfectly happy in a remote situation and perfectly adequately well catered for in these areas.

Simon:

A cynic might argue that this is unrealistic and sentimental and to make crofting sustainable it should be opened up to market forces and that is the way to make it sustainable, rather than what you’re talking about, a managed economy, you know? What would your thoughts on that be? Is it a fair point or ...? You talk about the need for remoteness and ...

     

Kenny:

It doesn’t have to be remote. Crofting can work ... We’re sitting here right in the centre of Stornoway and there are crofts within half a mile of where we are which are worked the same as a croft that is forty miles away in the extremities of Uig or South Lochs or Harris. It’s ... The cynical approach might be: “Just let it go,” and it might even itself out and people will stop producing sheep and cattle in remote areas and there’s a total reliance on the supermarket chains and, you know ... we’re in an age where we’re talking about reducing carbon footprints and what have you, we can’t with what we are doing in remote crofting communities, where an individual is producing his own meat and his own eggs and his own vegetables, it’s reducing the carbon footprint that that person requires to produce these things. I don’t think we should move away from that at all. This may be ... if we look at the support that is put into crofting, the support that is put into crofting is minimal and minimalistic. There is support put into crofting and farming in the same way where anyone, no matter where they are, will qualify for Less Favoured Area Support within the Less Favoured Areas and will qualify for Single Farm Payment. That is a right that anyone has, not just crofting. There is a huge benefit, there’s no question about that, there is a huge benefit to the crofting communities from these support schemes but I still believe that even without the support schemes, the large majority of people that are crofting today would continue to croft and still make it sustainable. I would think the numbers would drop drastically but there would be still a large number of ... I would say the majority would still continue. What effect that might have on a company like Lewis Crofters Ltd, we would have to look at probably more diversification. But I think there are opportunities for individuals to diversify, for companies to diversify, but I still believe that crofting is a sustainable activity, a healthy activity, a labour intensive activity that keeps you fit, an activity that tends to channel people into community work which is what we’re losing today in society. We’re in the age of email and Internet access, we are in an age where we don’t have to communicate. There’s doesn’t need to be eye contact, there doesn’t need to be a chat with someone. There’s this remote, faceless communication which is not healthy, not at all healthy. Crofting develops things in people that I think are worthwhile and meaningful and I would say crofting is very much a sustainable, healthy activity that people should be heavily involved with.

Simon:

There’s a view that, in a way, examples of doing things or lessons that can be learned from crofting and the way that crofting is continued that are applicable elsewhere, that are of benefit elsewhere. Do you think that’s the case? Do you think that ...?

     

Kenny:

I think there are lessons to be learned, how things are done elsewhere and what is successful in certain areas. I think that is true with regards to individual crofting as well as Lewis Crofters Ltd. Certainly in my own experience of crofting, where we used to ... winter keeps was done through securing hay whereas now we secure all our winter keep through silage. That is a progression that has probably been forced on us due to weather and climate change but again it’s something that has developed. It’s something that has again had a community impact where you have ... a contractor in the area will go and do the contracting work for the silage. It’s a more expensive thing to do but there’s a security of a winter keep whereas ... rather than an unsure weather reliance to secure hay. That’s just one example. I think there’s always scope for change. There’s scope for change like in livestock production where the change of breed, where historically this is an area where black faced sheep were kept with black faced lambs. Then over a period of time there was an introduction of North Country Cheviot, there was an introduction of Suffolk rams, there was an introduction of cross breeding, improving the quality and size of the animal that produced for sale. The same with cattle. Going on to continental bulls and these things are developing and changing the way crofting was twenty or thirty years ago, to where we are today. Some of these changes are good. Most of them are good but we have lost the community element of crofting, there’s no question of that. People are getting more individualised. But with regards to the company Lewis Crofters Ltd, that has also changed over the years and there has to be change from the other organisations. If we can do that ... Lewis Crofters Ltd are a member of SAOS (Scottish Agricultural Organisation Society Ltd) which helps us with a lot of things to do with cooperative work and there are things that we can learn from the interaction that they have from other similar companies that they can pass on to us as well and improve our method of working, improve our constitution, this kind of thing. So there is always and always will be room for improvement and always will have to be. We can’t be saying: “We’re so good, we can’t improve,” because that never ever has to be the case. We will always have to be improving. The involvement of staff at Lewis Crofters Ltd is a key factor that certainly I, since I took the chair, have been very, very keen to have more staff involvement in the decision making process of the company. And if there are any major projects or even minor projects that are happening through the company, they will be made very aware of what’s happening and that their thoughts and ideas are taken to the board in order to influence the board’s decision. Because I am very conscious of the fact that the staff that we have working in the premises on a day to day basis are the people that are actually seeing what needs to be done or what the changes should be, rather than your board member who is not there on a day to day basis and who is in the fortunate position of coming round the table and making decisions whereas ... these decisions have to be sympathetic and in line with what the staff want and what the staff deserve. So these are things that are very important in society but again my feeling on that is how I feel any business should operate, that they should be making their staff very much aware of the decision making processes that are within their own company which is not always the case. But we are in the fortunate position that we do have a relatively small enthusiastic company and that’s the way we try to operate.