On the 30th of June 1924 at the auction mart in Thornton Fife owned by John Swan & C0, twelve men decided to set up an agricultural co-operative which they called West Fife Agricultural Trading Society Limited. That same year it became affiliated to Scottish Agricultural Organisation Society (the parent group of Agricultural Co-operatives).By 1927 they acquired a former butchers shop with three rooms, at 51 High Street Lower Methil where Memorial Court now stands, and their name was changed to Central Farmers Limited.
The turnover in that first year was £11,000. Farmers were able to purchase shares in Central farmers and thus become members. Any profit made, less allowances for depreciation and expansion, was returned to the Members by way of a bonus on purchases they made during the year.
It should be noted that Central Farmers was a co-operative society and at no time was it attached to any political party. Only people connected with the land could become members which stopped any private party or group taking control of the firm.
A large selection of goods were offered for sale to farmers including Fertilizers, Animal Feed Stuffs and practically every other item used by farmers (and indeed their wives) such as mouse traps, carpets, brushes, furniture, inexpensive jewellery and even a steam roller. Central farmers became a profitable and well run organisation respected and trusted by farmers.
In 1928 Mr. Archibald Dryburgh O.B.E. became chairman and he held that position until 1959, when he was succeeded by John Arbuckle. Mr. Alex Mitchell was appointed General Manager in 1932 and remained in that position until 1959 when Andrew K.Smith was promoted to General Manager. Andy had been with Central Farmers since leaving school, being employed as office boy, tea maker and general assistant. When World War Two began he joined the services where he served with distinction being awarded the African Star and the Military Medal. He returned to Central farmers in 1946, these four men were instrumental for the ongoing success of Central Farmers which had moved to new premises in Aberhill in 1933 to allow for expansion.
An historic milestone was reached in 1934 when it was decided to begin manufacturing Compound Fertilisers and Animal feeding Stuffs at the Aberhill site, and Central Farmers went on to be a force to be reckoned with in the agricultural world.
After a long number of profitable years, autumn 1962 however, saw a downturn in Central Farmers fortunes and a small trading loss of £37.000 was made. This was due partly to the potato department which had introduced pre-packed potatoes in small bags. Unfortunately this system was a little before its time and shops were not willing to stock the small bags. That and one or two other problems led to the loss situation.
However in 1971 Central Farmers acquired the firm of Smith Leslie a well know Kirkcaldy Fruit & Vegetable merchant. This allowed them to supply farm produce (including pre-packed potatoes which were now being accepted by the housewives) direct to shops and hotels. During this period they also took over Fife Farm Freeze which allowed members to reach new markets for their meat etc. In spite of the blip in profits in the early sixties turnover and profits gradually increased and by 1976 profit reached over a quarter of a million pounds and a record bonus was paid to the farmer members.
During the next few years Central Farmers gradually expanded. They took over Fife Oil Supplies and became distributors of BP Fuel and Oils (including agricultural and domestic fuels).C.F. Heat Services was established to install and maintain central heating systems.
Sutherland & Watt an agricultural contractor and crop spraying specialist also came under Central Farmers wing. In 1991 the agricultural business of Gray & Harrower, with depots in Alloa and Milnathort was acquired and integrated into the group. From the original few members’ numbers grew to around 2,500 and Central Farmers traded all over Central Scotland and through to Helensburgh in the West and from Stonehaven in the East right down to Berwick and the Borders Region.
In 1976 Methil Docks began to play a big part in the success of Central Farmers and in 1984 a profit of over £358.000 was made from a turnover of 24 million pounds. By 1987 around 40 to 50 ships per year brought cargoes of between 600 & 1800 tonnes of fertilizer to the Methil Dock complex which was built in 1985.
By 1989 all Central Farmers fertilizer activities were centered there and around 65,000 tonnes per year were handled by a very experienced Methil Dock and Central Farmers workforce. However the production of Animal Feeds continued at Aberhill and manufactured between 30,000 and 40,000 tonnes per year.
Andy Smith retired in 1986 and Bob Scott became the new general manager---a position he held until his retirement in 1997. Jeremy Saunders then took over the post. As well as selling goods and services to farmers Central Farmers operated a large grain purchasing department and bought grain from farmers. This included wheat, oats, barley and oilseed rape. Some of the grain was included in the Animal Feeds or sold to oat meal and flour millers or exported abroad. In the case of barley much of it was sold to maltings and distilleries. There was a large grain drying and storage complex established at Aberhill which was capable of holding thousands of tonnes of grain. The grain department handled the sale of seed grain and grass seeds.
Another branch of the business, installed dairy milking parlours and bottling plants. A maintenance service was offered for these plants. The company wholesaled fertilizers and feeds to other merchants throughout Scotland and beyond. An interesting point to mention is that Central Farmers supplied fertilizers to golf courses, including St Andrews and Carnoustie and to football grounds including Ibrox, Hampden and Bayview.
Central Farmers operated their own fleet of around 12 large haulage vehicles and had a number of van sales vehicles selling dairy chemicals, ironmongery goods, waterproof and other clothing items, household goods, horse and dog food and many other products to farmers and their wives throughout Central Scotland. Retail shops operated in Methil, Perth, Bucklyvie, Duns and Milnathort.
A few men spent their whole working lives with Central Farmers among them Robert Milne who joined the firm in August 1951 and was promoted to sales manager 20 years later and remained in this position until he retired in 1999 (after over 48 years service) He took over from Bill Mitchell who had been with the firm more years than anyone cared to remember.
Farming saw great changes towards the end of the century. The sale of seed potatoes fell, as about 70,000 farmers in the United Kingdom had grown potatoes in years gone by, only about 7,000 farms grew them as a crop by then. It was also more profitable to import fertilizer from other countries than manufacture, blend and bag it at the Methil depot. Farmer’s methods of ordering goods dramatically changed as they started ordering goods by computer and were able to compare prices very easily and profit margins fell. Fewer and fewer representatives were required to call on farms (Central Farmers had 16 reps. on the road calling on Farmers).
The Methil docks complex was closed down as were the plant and offices at Aberhill and the business was re-located to Milnathort depot.
On the 14th September 2000 Carr's of Carlisle (a large merchant and flour milling group) bought over Central Farmers Ltd. This was the end on an era.
In all their years of trading as Central Farmers they had employed a great number of local people and others throughout Central Scotland. They made friends with many people all over the world as Central Farmers welcomed many agricultural students from overseas who came to this country to study agriculture and to see at first hand how the co-operative system worked.
Students from Kenya, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Tonga, Argentina, Denmark and many other countries have all studied at Methil. This is the end of The Central Farmers Story---a well respected business, which supplied quality products, and it all started from small beginnings in an old butchers shop in Lower Methil, Fife.
Thanks to Robert Milne for helping to write this story and for the use of his Central Farmers Archive.