MY first real commercial involvement with the agricultural industry was in 1974 when I joined what was then Shellstar – subsequently UKF Fertilisers and then Kemira.

My area was Cornwall with my role being one of support to some of the many agricultural merchants that frequented not just Cornwall, but the whole of the country. The county back then was serviced by a total of nine fertilizer representatives – three from ICI (one being exclusively on farm costings), three more from what was then Fisons, one covering imports plus yours truly and a marketing colleague from M Thomas. My, how times have changed!! Nine fertilizer reps covering Cornwall 35 years ago and now you would be lucky to find nine covering the whole of the south of England. We all know the reasons behind these changes – money, profit – or latterly, the lack of it!! You were making lots of money back then – you knew it, but you didn’t admit it, but as time went on and profits ebbed away, the agricultural supply industry changed with it also. It had to!! When you people made money, you tended to re-invest it with new machinery, buildings, vehicles etc. to name but a few, but when money became tighter, there was consequently less to re-invest and the supply industry suffered as a result. I have recently spent a bit of time comparing the supply industry of today with that of 35 years ago and although I do not for one moment claim total accuracy, the picture within the circulation area of the South West Farmer has changed dramatically. Many companies have either been completely dissolved, gone bust or taken over and here is a bit of a summary of those companies that we no longer see.

Cooperatives (12), Animal Feed Companies (12), Animal Feed Mills taken out of production (10), RHM companies (3), UAM companies (3), Smaller Independent Companies (32), One Man Bands (8). That’s a minimum total of 70 companies that have completely disappeared off the radar and if you include your own figures for the ones that I have forgotten, I think that you are starting to get the picture. It’s not all negative though. When one door shuts, another one opens and the entrepreneurs of the industry have reacted accordingly with some companies actually being born over the last few years and are doing extremely well, but the company that I wish to highlight in this article is one that has withstood everything that the market has thrown at it over the years and emerged as what I believe to be the only true national agricultural merchanting company remaining in our industry – namely Agricultural Central Trading – or, as we tend to know them – ACT. Based in Chesham, Buckinghamshire, ACT was established in 1962 by a small group of farmers within the NFU and since then, they have progressed into a large national enterprise supplying farmers from Cornwall to the Shetlands.

It is a farmer owned business, supplying essential farm inputs and its considerable buying power, coupled with low operating costs, enables the company to pass substantial savings onto farmers on popular branded products as well as those sold under their own ‘’Action’’ (bold face) label – this popular marketing arm incorporating such items as compound feeds, silage additives, grass seeds, mineral supplements, feed blocks and buckets and dairy chemicals.

In selecting products to meet the needs of its farmer customers, the over-riding aim of ACT is to provide value for money – and that means paying close attention to quality as well as price. Last year the company turnover was £107m with fertilisers and feeds being the largest contributors, with 2009 also being a record year for sales in forage maize and grass seed.

ACT is one of the largest distributors for fertilisers in the UK, providing competitive prices and sound on-farm technical advice and support through its national team of FACTS qualified area managers. The company has traded profitably for each of the last 20 years, has a strong balance sheet and in the last five years alone, has returned £3.2m in trading bonus to its shareholder customers.

The ACT as I knew them 35 years ago, did not provide any level of farm support at all and tended to do most of their business either at the end of a phone, or by small farmer evening meetings in a mutually convenient farmhouse and if I were to be brutally honest, they were often the butt of some negative competitor comments – some of whom who now themselves have long since disappeared or have been taken over. But farmers continued to support them and ACT have stood the test of time and please, have no doubt whatsoever, they have emerged the better for it. Their staff recruitment policy has meant that farmers, for nigh on 20 years or so, have been able to easily access sound technical advice on a wide range of key agricultural topics – this success and service being reflected in continued company growth.

ACT’s John Hamilton has been with the company for 26 years, the last four being as Managing Director and during his time with the company, John has seen many changes – not just within the industry, but also within his own company. From day one, the company’s message was to ‘’provide value for money’’, but several years ago, John identified technical advice and farm support as being two key issues that were seemingly being eroded or disappearing altogether and that if the company wanted to survive, or indeed thrive in a market that was becoming tougher by the day, ACT had to change and provide the customer with both value for money AND quality service.

The rest, as they say, is history. ACT have now developed into a company that carries a clear reputation with both farmers and trade alike. A reputation of both value and quality – this reputation being somewhat unique as I believe that they are now the only national agricultural merchanting company that remains. Whilst some companies have come and gone during that time, ACT have weathered the storm, looked carefully at their market and identified what needed to be done in order to survive – AND had the guts to do something about it.

‘’We saw the need to change’’ said John Hamilton ‘’and change we did. While we will always believe that value for money and quality service will be at the forefront for our farmer customers, we will never allow ourselves to become complacent’’ he continued. ‘’We listen to our customers and endeavour to give them what they want – value for money and top quality service. That has and always will be the company philosophy, we will never waiver from that,’’ he said.