Community supported farms, bakeries and breweries
Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) emerged in the US in the 1980s and has more recently begun to be picked up in the UK, where there are now over 100 schemes.
They are farms where local people become involved in the running of the farm through buying shares or becoming members, making decisions and even helping with the growing and harvesting of the food they eat. It ensures a secure market for farmers, who feel supported by those around them.
The consumer has fresh local food, the opportunity to learn new skills, and a say in where his or her food comes from. It is a fundamental way to build local food resilience.
Four key principles for Community Supported Agriculture projects
from Local Food: How to make it happen in your community[i] by Tamzin Pinkerton & Rob Hopkins:
- Shared risk: Food production risks such as climate and varying demand are shared between farmers and consumers.
- Transparency: Shared risk brings shared responsibility, trust and transparency. Members can be very involved in the running of the farm. As production is visible, some CSAs feel no need for expensive organic certification.
- Community benefits: Such schemes tend to benefit local economies. Low overheads mean farmers can often charge less than supermarkets, while often providing better food.
- Building resilience: CSA schemes have strong potential to build community food resilience, creating sustainable local food production for the local economy.
One of the best examples in the UK is Stroud Community Agriculture (SCA)
Set up in 2001 by four local residents who wanted to support a struggling local farmer. A public meeting generated a lot of interest. Some seed funding was raised through pledges at that meeting, and new members paid in advance for their produce. In 2002, an Industrial and Provident Society was set up for the project.
The first farm eventually failed, but a second site was found, closer to town. SCA now has 200 members (the maximum desirable number agreed by the members) and manages 50 acres of land producing beef, lamb, pork and vegetables. Another CSA project has also begun in the area. Members of SCA pay £2 a month to be members, and £33 a month for their shares, although this can be reduced if people attend work days and help with the food production. Produce can be collected from the farm or from two drop-offs in town.
Jade Bashford of the Soil Association, an expert on CSAs who spoke at the first meeting of the Stroud CSA group, has...
Five main suggestions for beginning a CSA scheme
- Start by finding out what everyone needs and wants, including farmers, community groups, landowners and those trying to start the project.
- Be clear about what you want to achieve.
- Think ‘outside the box’ about how to work together to achieve everyone’s needs.
- Make sure the money adds up; do a proper budget and business plan.
- Go and visit other projects, learn from their successes and failures, and read as many case studies as you can
Transition in Action: the tale of Topsham Ales
Transition Topsham held a few meetings, often in their local pub, which had been voted one of the ‘Top 5 Real Pubs’ in England. Their efforts included reviving the Wassail tradition, which hadn’t taken place in the town since 1936, holding an Apple Day and planting a new community orchard.
The idea emerged of creating a community brewery to link the group’s aims of localisation, community ownership and social enterprise. The fact that one member brewed beer on a small scale helped. A group formed around the project, heard of an opportunity to buy brewing equipment at half price, and was offered space at the back of the Globle Hotel. They formed themselves as Topsham Ales Cooperative, and needed to raise £35,000 to get started. Members were invited to each invest a minimum of £500. In return, they would get one vote and an annual dividend (to be agreed by the members). People could also become ‘Friends of Topsham Ales’ for a small fee and receive regular updates on the project’s progress.
Within two months and with little marketing other than word of mouth, 56 members had bought all the shares, with a waiting list of more potential shareholders. Much of the work to get the brewery established was done by volunteers, but some professional work was paid for with shares.
At the time of writing, Topsham Ales have three beers available: River (‘deep gold’), Mild Winter! (‘dark, chocolaty, hoppy’) and The Mythe (‘bright, dry and refreshing’). The group is keen that their beers be a celebration of Topsham – what they term “drinking the view”, and have done a lot of research into local history when designing the names of the beers.
Mark Hodgson, one of the founders of Topsham Ales, tips for other groups:
- Involve the community as much and as early as you can: Generate enthusiasm, show it is possible, keep it moving and keep people informed
- Create a good business plan: Send it round the group for comments, get expert help, try to get the business model right, always over-estimate and plan for the unexpected (for example, they planned for the first three months of operation not to produce any drinkable beer!)
- Be different and exciting!: Be proud of saying it will be local, community-owned and co-operative
Topsham Ales sees itself as localisation in practice. It gives its spent yeast to a local baker, its spent hops are enjoyed by local pigs, local deliveries are by bicycle and trailer, and it is increasingly sourcing hops from a grower in East Devon.
Transition in action: The Handmade Bakery in Slaithwaite in Yorkshire
is a fascinating example of a community-supported bakery and also of people with enthusiasm but no great reserves of capital to get new businesses under way. Begun by Dan and Johanna McTiernan (see above), it is “an artisan bakery in West Yorkshire producing traditionally crafted, slowly fermented bread with no hidden additives”. Inspired by the Real Bread Campaign started by Andrew Whitley, the aim of the bakery is to:
“offer a viable local alternative to industrially manufactured bread by bringing back traditional skills and community-scale produce. And, most importantly, give people a say in where their food comes from and how it’s made.”[ii]
Dan and Johanna started small, doing their first baking in their oven at home. They began building a base of subscribers, who paid for two loaves of bread a week, which were collected from a local pub. They observed that most bakers get up at 3am – something that, with a small child, they were understandably keen not to do. They also observed that most people make toast in the morning, which can be done with staler bread. The time you want fresh bread is at lunchtime.
They wanted to expand, but had no premises or big oven. Ingeniously, they approached a local pizzeria, whose oven was used only during the evenings, and came to an arrangement to use it in the mornings. For two days a week they baked bread for their subscribers. Every Saturday morning the pizzeria became an impromptu bakery where people could drop in.
Their next opportunity came when a grocer’s shop in Slaithwaite was in danger of closure.
Transition Slaithwaite and others took the shop over as a customer co-op and so, after six months, the Handmade Bakery left the pizzeria for its own premises in the back of the shop. It is an ideal partnership, supporting both businesses. They now bake 1,200 loaves a week, most of which are sold within 7 miles of the bakery, and employ nine part-time staff. 30 per cent of what they sell is sold through the shop. The rest retail through other outlets and directly to subscribers. Subscribers receive a discount and can collect it when it is convenient for them. They know they won’t find their choice has sold out, and they are emailed options for what they would like the following week.
Dan told me that for him, the CSA/subscription-based approach is best at the earlier stage of the business. When they started, 100 per cent of their business came from subscribers; it is now more like 10 per cent. The advantages, he told me, are that you build instant customer loyalty, create many champions in the community, and much of the risk of starting a new business disappears. Amazingly, many of the initial subscribers signed up without tasting the bread!
When I spoke to Dan, he told me that the business has grown so well that he plans to use the subscription model again to finance a move to larger premises. The Handmade Bakery runs courses in breadmaking and how to start your own bakery, which have become very popular. To have a larger space for baking, training and community events, they need to raise £20,000. The idea is to invite investment as three-year rolling loans offering 7 per cent interest, but with the interest paid in bread. This is a very attractive borrowing rate.
Mick Marston, the Soil Association’s Community Supported Agriculture expert for the north of England, said that while the subscription model is experimental, it is a great way for new businesses to look at finance. Having been involved in supporting many such operations, he is unable to see a disadvantage.
New businesses must either risk their owners’ own capital, or approach a local bank. Subscription means your customers fund the difficult start-up period. He told me the approach has been used by beekeepers and cheesemakers, and is being looked at for woodlands. It can be a great way of using the networks and goodwill generated by your Transition initiative to start new food enterprises and food infrastructures.
Transition in Action: Sustaining Dunbar’s Community Bakery
by Philip Revell
It was early in 2008 that we became aware that the only bakery in town was going to close later in the year due the retirement of the family who owned and ran it. Unbeknown to us, they had been trying for a couple of years to sell the business as a going concern through trade channels. Having failed to do so, they were now looking to sell their whole property, a large high-street tenement block with a double shop front, two large flats, the bakehouse and the backlands area, as a property development opportunity – offers over £900,000.
As far as we were concerned, no self-respecting Transition community could function without a bakery in town, plus we were seeking a flagship project to help get beyond the ‘eco-warrior’ label that our young group was still tagged with. However, despite all manner of creative ideas coming to the fore, it soon became clear that we didn’t at that stage have the ability to take on such a large project. In any case, there was no way that the asking price could be justified by our desire to use the land as a market garden and training centre, rather than for building flats.
Undeterred and, belatedly realising our complete lack of expertise in starting a retail business, we managed to raise some funds to employ a consultant to help us carry out a feasibility study and to draw up a business plan for setting up a bakery in alternative high street premises. Unfortunately, before we could finish this, these premises were sold. We were then offered a short lease on the existing bakehouse, completed the business plan on this basis, set up as a community-owned cooperative and launched a share issue to raise as much of the working capital needed as possible.
The share issue proved very successful, not only in bringing in funds but in attracting a whole new group of people to become involved, excited by a different way of starting a business and regenerating our struggling high street. Many of these people had no particular interest in peak oil or climate change but did share a passion for our community and developing our local economy –and they brought a huge range of business expertise on to the cooperative’s newly formed management committee.
As it turned out, the old bakehouse needed much more investment to satisfy current environmental health standards than we had originally estimated, and a short lease could not be justified. There followed a frustrating search for another suitable property, which only ended with the signing of a long lease on a former newsagent’s shop in the autumn of 2010.
A local firm of architects was appointed and detailed conversion plans drawn up. As I write, we are expecting our planning permission and building warrant to come through. Then it will be a question of appointing a building contractor, purchasing equipment and recruiting staff – not to mention raising the remainder of the finance.
It has been a long saga and a steep learning curve. Starting a business by committee is never going to be easy. But, we now have a business owned by over 250 local people who have invested more than £36,000 to date and, all being well, the smell of bread being baked will once again be wafting down Dunbar High Street in the autumn of 2011.
Hackney’s Growing Communities have a great model for community social enterprises and have developed training for groups keen on their approach: see www.growingcommunities.org