The subcontracting, an european phenomenon
According to data provided by the "Guide to European subcontracting", produced by the Ceettar (European Confederation of agro-mechanical companies), there are 150,000 rural agricultural and forestry subcontractors operating within the EU, estimated to be employing over 600,000 people in the sector at the Community level
“By offering services to farmers, landowners and the rural world, the contractors really help to meet the many needs of civil society, including the supply of food and wood, as the primary product for use in construction, energy production, the paper industry, the development of the territory, and in the maintenance of natural areas. Therefore, the time has come to shed light on subcontractors and what they do.”
Towards the end of 2015, Ceettar (European Confederation of agro-mechanical companies) presented the first edition of a guide to European subcontracting, which it will try to keep updated regularly. The survey conducted by the Confederation is based on estimates, according to which there should be about 150,000 agricultural, rural and forestry subcontractors operating within the European Union. Because the industry is dominated by small and medium-sized enterprises, Ceettar estimates that 600,000 people are directly employed in the sector at the Community level, including managers and self-employed workers. The services provided to the agricultural and forestry sector cover a wide variety of processes and professions, and include all types of agricultural operations, from soil processing to fertilization, from harvesting to transport, as well as agricultural and livestock management services. This adds to the wide range of maintenance services and rural land management.
The numbers speak
Half of the regular work in the sector is being carried out by subcontractors, and for certain harvesting activities this can reach 80 or 90%. In this regard, Ceettar cites some examples: more than 65% of arable farms and 75% of livestock farms uses subcontractors who, for the sugar beet harvest alone, cover an area of over 250,000 hectares; in Germany, agro-mechanical companies harvest and ensile about 90% of the corn; just for this crop, we are talking about 1,350,000 hectares and 54 million tonnes of product; in Ireland, over 80% of the 25 million tonnes of silage are harvested annually by agro-mechanical companies; in Italy, subcontractors carry out soil processing on more than one million hectares, while agro-mechanical services for arable crops are close to 2.5 million hectares; in the Netherlands, subcontractors are responsible for the maintenance of 10,500 kilometres of roads and 140,000 kilometres of waterways of various sizes; in the forestry sector, almost 70% of forestry work (maintenance, felling and skidding of timber) in Europe is attributable to subcontracting.
Six billion a year
Within this highly competitive context, agricultural, rural and forestry subcontractors are continually committed to adopting the latest technologies available on the market. This means that within the production chain, these companies are offering services that can not be achieved without the use of advanced equipment, and they need an efficient fleet equipped with the latest features, which ensures working at the highest qualitative and quantitative levels. According to research conducted by Ceettar, the sector invests a total of almost 6 billion euros a year. This “capitalization” indicates that it is precisely the subcontractors who apply new technologies in the primary sector: precision agriculture, agriculture 4.0, and sustainable intensive agriculture are concepts that have already been introduced in the current agricultural practice or are becoming widespread. The subcontractors essentially provide cutting-edge technology at competitive prices and at the same time are able to operate in a flexible manner, on the basis of contracts, while their customers can use the services they need just at the right time. In addition, farmers do not have to invest in owning machines and can avoid certain financial risks, which is more important than ever for young farmers.
Precisely because of this innovative dimension, these subcontractors are also characterized by the use of skilled and experienced professionals. Adopting technological innovations requires trained and qualified employees able to learn new professional skills. Indeed, officially recognized vocational training programmes are already operating or are being introduced in several Member States. The combination of these two factors is therefore necessary for the subcontractor to ensure the quality of the services provided. For this reason, although it is not mandatory in some cases, certification is common practice in much of the agro-mechanical industry. Despite regulatory restrictions and processes subject to certification, the agro-mechanical sector is aware of the added value that it can offer, and the certification ensures that the customer actually receives the level of service they deserve, through the promotion of specific standards of professional agro-mechanical services. At the same time, it stimulates high standards in terms of health and safety, strengthening compliance with environmental standards.
The subcontractors then provide important services to public bodies, complying with safety rules on roads and in the maintenance of infrastructure, roads, and waterways. The unpredictability of the climate of recent years has shown on several occasions that, in critical winter weather conditions, there is a risk of complete traffic closures in the absence of snow clearance and de-icing services. Many subcontractors have become specialized in the maintenance of roads and waterways, and they take care of all kinds of green areas during the whole year. Finally, in forestry the use of contractors also provides greater added value for the end product, helping to improve the economic value of the timber and limit storage volumes.
Although it is little known to the public and to those who make the political decisions, agricultural, rural and forestry subcontractors are key partners for the agricultural and forestry sector.
This lack of visibility significantly impairs the recognition of the contribution made by subcontracting and leads to unfair competition, which prevails in many European countries. This unfair competition falls into a grey area, in which services are provided outside any rules by non-agro-mechanical entities, together with an unequal treatment between equivalent companies in terms of public funding related to the Common Agricultural Policy.
Other difficulties still to be resolved relate to road circulation of agricultural and forestry machinery (a substantial problem for subcontractors, who have to travel frequently) and access to credit.
Finally, although the number of jobs in traditional agriculture is steadily declining, agricultural subcontracting is now a new industry in continuous development, creating quality jobs and offering vocational training opportunities.
To keep pace with these developments, the industry must ensure that this profession continues to attract skilled workers, given that expectations for workers are constantly increasing and this requires talented figures that are difficult to find.
by Piero Balzani