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Sharon Flanigan Social Economic and Geographical Sciences Group, The James Hutton Institute

One of the key recommendations put forward in the National Centre for Universities and Business Food Economy Task Force report is the need for ‘trusted intermediaries’ to act as facilitators of multi-stakeholder groups involved in landscape-level collaboration. The report outlines policies that would encourage research organisations to undertake this role, if the diverse interests represented are to work together and provide additional value to the participants involved.

As a researcher working in the area of social capital in farming at the James Hutton Institute, the importance of intermediaries in the context of group work is something I recognise.  The importance of trust in this mix is especially significant if the collaboration is to be successful.

In a recent research project (FarmPath) I had the opportunity to explore the development of machinery rings in Scotland, which are now a well-established intermediary facilitating collaboration across the farming sector.  Machinery rings were initiated in Scotland based on a simple concept of machinery and labour sharing between farmers, facilitated by staff employed to manage the exchanges efficiently across a wide group of members.  The cultural landscape of farming in which the machinery rings have become established is one of autonomy: a key challenge for rings is to balance actions for the ‘common good’ with an understanding of ingrained norms of independence among farmers, which have underpinned resistance to formal collaboration in the past.  

With their roots in local discussion groups, ‘bonding social capital’ between neighbouring farmers provided an important foundation for rings to become established: the initial rings established new collaborations between farmers who already knew each other, based on the common goal of increasing efficiency of resource use.  However, as the rings became larger and more established a shift was made towards ‘bridging social capital’ (relationships with people of different backgrounds), facilitated by machinery ring staff, who connected farmers who did not know each other, and established further links to input and labour suppliers.  Staff put in place the systems (e.g. smart IT enabling efficient financial transactions and communication with members) and institutions (e.g. flexible membership model, responding to member demands) that underpin trust in the system, and have also come to represent a significant human capital resource for members, through their knowledge and understanding of member needs and the industry in which they work.      

The machinery ring example demonstrates the importance of trusted individuals who act as intermediaries of large-scale networks, a tenet equally relevant to landscape-level collaboration for sustainable land use.  Such individuals not only need the relevant skills to facilitate processes in an independent way, but also a genuine understanding of the people and motivations underpinning the collaboration, to break down boundaries between different stakeholders and to ensure sufficient credibility and trust to encourage engagement.