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PETER FROST is saddened and angry at the imminent fire-sale of historic and productive Co-operative farmland

The Co-operative Group is Britain’s biggest farmer but not for long. Today the whole future of all the Co-op Group’s fifteen farms are under threat.

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Evil pests are attacking the farms: estate agents, land speculators, asset-strippers, investment bankers, tax avoiders and a hundred other species of city sharks.

When everybody else seems to be investing in land the Co-op is selling its entire farm portfolio estimated to be worth £200 million. This will make barely a dent in the Co-op Group’s £2.5 billion debts, yet the family silver — the very earth itself — will be gone forever.

The Co-op Group has told its agents Savills that they want a single major corporate buyer for the entire portfolio of farms. So when a brave group of co-operative farming enthusiasts tried to launch a bid to keep Tillington fruit farm as a genuine co-operative they were given a quick brush off. 

Estate agent Savills has been instructed not to give particulars to any potential buyer without a proven track record in large acquisitions. 

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It means British farmland and historic Co-op farms with more than a century of ethical farming will probably be snapped up by a Chinese investor or multinational hedge fund speculator in what might be best described as a fire-sale.

British farmland is a popular investment for foreign investors at the moment, as the whole world trembles at the threat of food insecurity. Farm land values have risen by 273 per cent over the last decade.

It is, of course, because of the Co-op’s mismanagement of their banking arm by the likes of “crystal” Methodist chairman Paul Flowers (below) and his team that it is selling the farms — and indeed the pharmacies — in a desperate attempt to clear some of its vast debt.

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Let’s take a look at a couple of these Co-op farms to see what we are in danger of losing.

The rolling hills in the cider country a few miles north of Hereford are beautiful. It is at its best in spring when the apple, pear and cherry trees — heavy with blossom — can be simply breathtaking.

It is almost as spectacular in autumn when rosy red and golden russet fruit hang heavy on the bough.

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Right at the heart of this wonderful countryside is Co-operative Farms Tillington estate. It has been a co-operative since 1909 and part of the Co-op’s huge agricultural estate since 1946.

At Tillington the Co-op grows many varieties of apples (below) for eating, juice and cider. They also grow pears and cherries and the many hives in the orchards don’t just pollinate the fruit blossom but produce an amazing bonus of golden honey.

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The farm has as many as a thousand different varieties of rare and endangered apples in its orchards. Some are at the brink of extinction. In fact the farm is home to the national collection of apple varieties.

This huge gene bank of ancient heritage varieties is an amazing resource for today’s plant breeders.

Down Ampney is the home of the Co-operative’s first ever vineyard. In May 2010, Otega vines were planted on six acres of land. The first English Co-op wine will be produced this autumn but by then the vineyard will be in other, less co-operative hands.

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The co-operative movement, its farms, shops and societies were born to provide unadulterated food for working people. 

What were once fine and principled co-operative farms will soon become part of the global mega agro-business filling our supermarket shelves with expensive, imported but far from delicious or healthy foods.

Just as important, the whole co-operative movement, part of the working-class movement that we invented and gave to the world, will be weakened and diminished.

This article first appeared in the Morning Star 27 June 2014 while Robert Owen (below) founder of the Co-operative Movement slowly revolved in his grave.

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