Notes from the Eastern Region CSA Gathering in June

We held a gathering at The Oak Tree Low Carbon Farm in June of Community Supported Agriculture Schemes in the Eastern Region

many thanks to Toni Dipple who found time in her very busy life setting up Organic Ilford to write up these notes from the day!

Eastern region gathering of Community Supported Agriculture Schemes in June

Eastern region gathering of Community Supported Agriculture Schemes in June

 

Date: 22nd June 2013

Location: Oak Tree Low Carbon Farm, Ipswich, Suffolk.

Chair: Joanne Mudhar (The Oak Tree Farm)

Rachel Harries (Soil Association)

Thanks to: The Plunkett Foundation for providing the lunch & other financial support and to The Soil Association for both financial support and Rachel H’s help.

Apologies from Danny Steele at Bennison Farm & Pam Bellinger at Community Harvest Whetstone

Introductions of attendees:

Ben Tregenna of Hempsals Community Farm (CSA) Cambridgeshire

6 acres

Been a CSA for 3 years

21 families are members.

o       Mixed farm – pigs, goats, chickens, Christmas turkeys, geese, bees, vegetables & fruit.

o       Grew out of a pig club ran with friends a year before.

o       Most members join for the pork. Very few vegetarian members.

o       Problem of accessing small plots of land in the region

o       When started, was the corner of an industrial farm (oilseed rape)

o       Had to work building fences

o       Have compost toilets

o       Lots of young families

o       Lots of toddlers onsite, so grow food in veg beds in blocks of 18 in five rotations set up around the children’s play area (trampoline, lawn, slide)

o       Parents able to pot up/work in the greenhouse and keep an eye on the children, while everyone else works in the surrounding fields

o       Older children help with the animals & growing

o       Weekly work days: Saturday morning

o       Once a month: bring and share lunch all day work day & Wednesdays after school (provide dinner for the kids & dads join after work)

o       Have different groups: Preserving team

·        Goat milking/cheese-making team

·        Brewing team

·        Bee/honey team

o       Split up the interests, so people can get together and work with what they care about

o       Featured in Country Living magazine in: A Year in the Life of a CSA feature

Ben T. suggests that linking up with other farmers to supply CSA boxes is difficult in the Eastern Region due to most farmers in the area being industrial oilseed rape producers.

Older farmers have experience of running mixed farms & can still provide advice and assistance/lend equipment, assist in cutting hedges.

Randy & Caroline Mayers – May Project Gardens  – Morden, S. London

o       Started small-scale urban community growing project in London – did this for four years Recently moved to Norfolk, getting a feel for what is around.

o       Small back garden – 25- sq metres.

o       Practice permaculture & grow fruit and vegetables

o       Work with local community and beyond to understand and show how food is grown and how to live a low-impact lifestyle in an urban setting

o       6 regular volunteers

o       Practice guerrilla gardening & wild food foraging

o       Build pallet houses and compost loo onsite

o       Have a mini-forest garden which is maintaining itself

o       Have packed lots into the space!

 

Mel – Grower for Norwich Farm Share (NFS) CSA 

o       CSA of edge of Norwich

o       Rent 7.5 acres

o       90 shares approx.: 52 ‘small members’ 37 medium & 8 large (150 people per week), although community involvement on the farm is considerably less

o       Require a 9 hours a year commitment

o       Grew out of the Transition movement in Norwich to produce food locally and connect people with how their food is grown

o       Industrial around the site – farm on the corner of the A47 & a conventional farm, so cannot be certified organic

o       Received East Anglian Food Link funding

o       Land had been in conventional farming until previous season

o       Playing catch-up to increase fertility (muck spreading and 2/7ths in fertility-building ley over two years)

o       Unable to get organic muck due to limited resources

o       Doing what they can with limited resources

o       Mel is one of two paid, part-time growers, who do the bulk of the work alongside a few trusted volunteers, plus volunteer days

o       One admin staff

o       Mentor is a local organic farmer

o       In winter, supplement from wholesalers 

o       Hafida & Harriet – Members of NFS & attending with Mel.

Ric & Rachel

o       Works for a commercial mixed farm in N. Hertfordshire – 176 acres:  

o       Farm has an ecological ethos but not certified organic & not a CSA

o       Deeply involved with local community

o       Open to public every day

o       Box scheme delivery within a 30-mile radius

o       140 boxes weekly

o       Rare breeds – sheep, pigs, poultry

o       6 acre veg field

o       2 acre soft fruit

o       2 acre mixed kitchen garden – veg and soft fruit

o       6 acre heritage fruit trees, apples, pears, plums, gages

o       Woodland

o       Pasture

o       Polytunnels

o       Wants to consolidate with local community

o       Farm depends on interns (live and work on farm), usually UK but other countries too

o       Hoping that CSA could help consolidate the involvement with the community a little better & also ideas for setting up their own CSA

Rachel – Set up a Forest School at Stebbing Primary School (Essex)

o       Take out Reception to Year 6 for 40 minutes once a week – do a lot in that short space of time

o       To help children understand and interact with nature

o       Forest School idea has grown over last few years

o       Constructing a cob oven

o       Parents enthusiastic

o       Year 6 will make own pizzas with farm produce from veg garden

o       Some children are scared of bugs, won’t touch the soil or know about vegetables

o       Children learning lots and loving it, even in the torrential rain

o       Big learning curve for Rachel too

 

Chris Curtis

o       Has ideas and ambitions & hoping to start s community scheme

o       Interested in what people are doing and ways of doing things

o       Based in Bury St Edmunds – (Jon suggested possibly using Abbey Gardens – about 3 acres, council-run)

o       Council could be supportive

o       Would like to start with a communal space

o       At the Gathering to gain ideas & find best way forward

 

Rachel Harries – Development Co-ordinator at Soil Association, Land Trust and Organic Apprenticeship Scheme

o       Working with Joanne Mudhar and others to set up a regional CSA network, made up of and led by CSAs

o       Member of a community farm outside Bristol – was a privately owned organic business which supplied supermarkets

o       Share offer & Community Benefit Society raised £130,000 & bought an established veg business for Community ownership. On private land but rented from sympathetic landowner. CSA is the business model not the land. Has trustees and volunteers.

o       2x full-time paid growers (1 from the Soil Association apprentice scheme)

o       Volunteers and seasonal staff

o       Issues with terrible weather so had to employ fewer seasonal workers

o       30 acres of field-scale vegetables

o       Wholesale element – large scheme – 450 boxes a week. Buy-in veg from other growers

o       Wholesale & veg box business subsidises community & education/schools work (drug & alcohol addiction groups)

o       Running it as a viable business

o       Have large infrastructure – packing shed, website, etc.

o       Making connections with other small-scale growers & providing facility/infrastructure for other small-scale growers

o       Soil Association supportive of community-led schemes but also trying to link communities with farmers that already grow, so communities don’t have to learn to grow everything themselves & can support existing farmers. Works well with meat subscription.

o       Suggests buy in share of other farmers’ harvests for box scheme.

 

 

 

 

Axel Cambridge Cropshare

o       Grew from Cambridge Transition Food Movement (garden share/allotment share, etc.) in 2008

o       Asked farmers in the local area (difficult in Eastern Region)

o       Found couple in local area (used to sell to supermakets) & run box scheme on 65 acres, couldn’t afford staff, so used 1/10th of farm

o       Paired the couple with volunteers

o       First year sowed onions

o       In exchange with helping on the farm, Cropshare given 100 sq metres as their own

o       Made chutneys and spread crops to local food charities (Food Cycle)

o       Second year, diversified veg and help on all of the land

o       Began with a core team of members which would agree to do a number of farm days each season – not all members could commit

o       Now loosely run with an online spreadsheet, where volunteers can sign up on a daily basis

o       Shared lunches – seasonal share of crops

o       Surplus which is not sold through the box scheme is donated to local charities

 

Shona

From Norwich, taking over 2.5 acres of grandfather’s land

At beginning & learning about CSAs

 

Toni Dipple of Organic Ilford in Essex/NE London

o       Setting up a pilot veg box scheme (other produce to follow) receiving mentoring from Growing Communities & Bucky Box

o       Linking up with ultra-local, local, small-scale farms

o       In talks with local council over using 14 acres of an abandoned allotment to use as a mixed holistic CSA

o       1.5 ha must be given over to allotments & conservation – will provide training in organic growing for plot holders

o       Will create a seedbank in collaboration with Growing Communities & use local

o       Floodplain but water levels very low in recent years (possibly) due to climate change

o       Using permaculture design to make the most of the site

o       Must build bonds – conservation stipulation

o       Wants to make local food in Redbridge a viable, sustainable reality

o       Going into collaboration, not competition, with other local food and community groups to create a network around London of local food growing

o       Diverse community

o       Come to learn more about CSAs and meet with like-minded people in the region

 

Joanne Mudhar

o       Set up The Oak Tree Low Carbon Farm four years ago

o       Works with Tom Wilmot

o       40 + households (38 shares) – people can share a share

o       Fully subscribed and with a waiting list

o       Members receive a weekly share of the harvest for £7.50 a week & must commit to a year

o       Members required to volunteer two per hours per week in the summer and one hour per week in the winter, hours are logged on the board

o       New members pay a £25 deposit in September and receive it back in June if they have completed all their hours/paid subscription

o       Neighbours take it in turns to collect food, so local distribution groups have formed

o       Had to be a simple system as Oak Tree was run alone by Joanne until recently

o       Living experiment! Set up as a CIC this year from being a Sole Trader

o       Received £20,000 grant from the Esmee Fairbain Foundation, which supplements Tom and Joanne’s wages

o       Tom was earning £500 per month/Joanne was earning £200 per month, now earning £750 per month each on a self-employed basis/

o       Will expand slowly & become economically viable

o       When first arrived, the field was like stubble with 2% organic matter

o       Use animals to improve fertility

Jon Wright – Oak Tree CSA member & works for BBC Radio Suffolk

Kirsty (& Leon) – Oak Tree CSA member

Dave – Oak Tree CSA member

o       Researching a PhD in food and wellbeing & invites anyone who is interested in the topic to be a part of his research

o       Very interested in CSAs & other community food projects

Agenda:

Climate

Ben – Weather has been awful but difficult to know whether it is the transition from allotment scale to farm scale that is the issue or just the weather

Joanne – news reports more frequent, extreme weather (wettest, hottest, driest, etc.). Makes it very difficult to plan seasonal growing as the seasons appear to be shifting.

Rick – Last year was hell. Didn’t know what to do. Had lots of climbing beans to plant out but ground was sodden. Horrible job for the interns and the plants do badly.

Ben – Issue with CSAs & climate; begin with not enough kit. Slowly building up collection of old greenhouses, etc. can’t always mitigate the weather and labour is not available when there is a sunny week & plants need putting out. Don’t have reliability of labour. Ben keeps plants alive all week and the action happens on the weekends when the volunteers arrive.

Axel – Due to size of building used for shared lunches, no more than 14 people can volunteer on rainy days.  Have to cancel invited people else there won’t be enough shelter.

Joanne – Have to find imaginative ways each week in newsletter to say, “It’s all going horribly wrong, can you please get to the farm!”

Mel – Have two paid growers, but only there 3.5 days a week, so also just trying to keep things alive & lose a lot through not being able to stay on top of it.

 

Labour

Rachel – Conventional business would grow to the labour they have available. Do CSAs try to become bigger than they have the capacity to be due to an over-reliance on volunteers?

Mel – NFS was set up with large funding, so now struggling. Advice is to start small.

Ben – We started the first year on half a pig and a Christmas goose as that’s all that could be managed/offered. First year was dedicated to fencing, planting fruit trees, getting beds in, planting perennials, etc.

Toni – How many of you have grown up on farms? [very few hands raised] Part of the problem seems to be that those starting/running CSAs are having to learn growing alongside running a business. Volunteers can be a blessing or curse depending on who turns up.

Joanne – At times the pig club (Acorn Antics) has been more stressful than the CSA! But now there is a group of people with expertise who know how to raise pigs for meat.

Dave – Question of time. Those volunteers who have been volunteering have the skills required to feel able to help.

Jon – When setting up, have to be careful how you state what you need. Not everyone can commit to every Saturday.

Mel – Mustn’t undersell. Need to be more rigorous, else will lose out.

Joanne – Deposit system. People can only volunteer during daylight hours. When people know what to do, they use the tools from the shed and get on with it. Excellent social side. Engagement!

Ben – Have open access to the farm, so families can fulfil their monthly hour commitments in one session if they need to.

Joanne – Social side works with members forming small distribution groups to take veg to neighbours. Get to know each other.

Ben – Serve three villages.  Three drops at three households.

Mel – Harvest each Thurs then crops taken to a bicycle repair shop/food hub. Members given an allocation of weight and they weigh the veg themselves. Some is picked and stored but not a lot of storage on farm.

Ben – Sometimes do two drops. One on Wed., one on Sat., if perishable seasonal produce requires picking earlier.

 

Share prices and wages

Rachel – How do you set the price of a share? Discussion around wages. Is there an argument to increase price to pay a fair wage and rely less on volunteers.

Joanne – Began at £6 a share and fewer hours. Found out what people were prepared to pay. If we charge more than £7.50 a week, it would restrict access for a lot of people.

Rachel – Possibility of low-wage shares? Also, farmers should get a fair wage. Are we perpetuating the issue? Do we value to work of farmers?

Ben – Makes £300 a month in a good month from farming five days a week. Also works two days a week in old job which brings in 4 times as much as farming does.  Farm has to pay for itself. Breaking even is good for the start-up. Don’t have time to spend money! Most smallholdings are hobbies. There’s sustainability in terms of not pumping the land full of chemicals and sustainability in terms of being able to make a living. Seem to be more focused on the first than making a living wage. 

Joanne – Also worked part-time (2 days a week) & set up other activates (training courses/geese/cutting flowers, etc.). Also a freelance writer. Created a business plan – by doubling size of CSA & using livestock to improve fertility of soil – hope to make extra income. It’s a living experiment. 

Lesley – From a members point of view, it’s not just about the veg., but it’s the ethos that drives it. Symbiotic relationship for farmers and members. Some harvests are excellent, some are poor.

Ben – We have a board of five that meets once a year (AGM) that determines costs & things that need to be done.

Rachel – Some CSAs get volunteers to pack the veg boxes.

Toni – As a volunteer at Growing Communities, I pack veg boxes but it’s fun as you’re working alongside people who share your ethos. Volunteering first before setting up a CSA gives you a useful perspective of what needs to be done and the level of work involved. Started volunteering in February when there was thick snow but thought if I can’t volunteer at these times of the year, then I’ll never be able to run a CSA.

Joanne – Was an engineer. Saved up money & lived on little. Bought this land & sank all funds into it. Once the infrastructure is in place and experience available, CSAs will become more viable. Also, people are starting to understand some of the dangers of what is happening to soil, price of fuel & food going up, horsemeat scandal, understand the benefits of pasture-fed animals, etc.   

Ben – We shouldn’t be under the illusion that conventional farmers are making money. 

Rick – Food has been too cheap for too long. After the war, the advent of cheap food in the 60s, was very welcome. The idea of food being more expensive is offensive to some people.

Lesley – We don’t use food well enough. We abuse & waste food.

 

Marketing

Hafifa – CSA: Community is the first bit. Part of having the community around the growing is that people know their farmer and will pay a bit more. With such a big membership at NFS, getting all members together is difficult. It’s difficult to be transparent about how much the farmers/founders earn and the whole process without making it sound like a sob story. 

Kirsty – We voted to pay more [than the value of the vegetable due to the poor harvest].  We wrote what we were happy to pay on a piece of paper.

Mel – We use leaflets & word of mouth.

Ben – We use word of mouth and take a petting farm down into the village. Usually have Americans calling to join the CSA due to them being established in the USA. Members that live closest (about two miles) stay but those even five miles away, tend to drop out.

Joanne – Some people interested are too far away and want to know if there is something similar in their area. Is there a value in creating a network, so the public can find a CSA in their area?

Rachel – Perhaps link to each other on each website.

Jon – Use Twitter to have conversations with each other each week to make the public aware of what each group is doing. Friday Follows. #FF

Axel – Retweet particular events, farm days, etc.

Ben – We gain more interest though Facebook than our website.

Mel – I’d like to see a CSA map.

Rachel – One available on the Soil Association website but only as comprehensive as those who put themselves on there.

Toni – Bucky Box run cloud software to help CSAs run their business smoothly and give advice on marketing. Sam Rye is giving a free workshop on marketing for CSAs/box schemes on 24th August in London.

Axel – We should all link to it to publicise CSAs.

Ben – Issue that no-one seems to know what CSAs are. Midway between having an allotment and getting a veg box. Like sharing a very large allotment with a group of people, which is essentially what we’re offering. More work than a veg box, less work than an allotment. Our members didn’t know these things (pig club, etc.) could be done.

Joanne – other ways of working together?

Dave – Job swap, where those who need work done can call on us to do it. Transport costs would need to be paid.

Rachel – In Bristol, there’s a community transport organisation offering a minibus & driver for £35 a day for charities.  In Manchester, there’s The Land Army – volunteers who want to work and farmers who call at the beginning of the week stating what needs to be done. Funded supervisors make sure the volunteers are doing what needs to be done properly. Gain horticultural skills. Could perhaps share machinery.

Axel – Could have a wiki to share experiences, how to handle volunteers, marketplace to share equipment, etc.

Ben – Only issue is distance with this group.  Need more CSAs in the area.

Rachel – Bulk buying? The Thames Valley has a strong organic growing group. Have it delivered to one place and other groups go there to collect it. 

Axel – We bulk buy chicken feed.

Ben – Field crops are an issue. I need ½ acre of barley seed but farm-scale bulk buying is 5 acres. Don’t want to waste anything. Can share bulk of beans, etc. with allotments.

Joanne – Shipping & petrol costs are an issue. Time is even tighter. Having issues finding suitable livestock (calves), also problem with level of experience.

Mel – Perhaps become members of the Smallholders Association.

Rachel – Perhaps don’t limit scope to just CSAs but find other farmers who don’t know what CSAs are yet.

Axel – The farmers tell us what they need doing and we deal with the organising of the volunteers.

Toni – It could be a regional issue as I’m closer to London and the CSAs/box schemes there all have a paid volunteer co-ordinator & that role is often one of the first to filled. These roles are usually externally funded and then organisations have to become viable after a year to maintain that role. They also usually work a few days a week which is when the volunteers are there and the majority of volunteers help on those days. 

Regarding marketing, Sarah Gayton at Farmers on Film has produced postcards which can be scanned with a smartphone which then activates a video of that farmer/producer advertising their product. They are stocked in tourist information centres around Cumbria and at Farmers’ Markets in Stoke, so the public can see how the product has been made/produced/grown as they are deciding whether to buy it. They also post them around the world to promote tourism. Perhaps then use interactive marketing. Use the infrastructure that’s there; use film students to film your farm, which then gives you a video and adds to their portfolio. We’re going to film community members demonstrating recipes (with the recipe on the reverse) using the seasonal produce in the box and we’ll put those postcards in the veg boxes.

Mel – We have a specific target. We need another 20 members to be self-sustaining. We’ve applied for an Awards for All grant to hire a Marketing Co-ordinator. We didn’t have the infrastructure/resources last year to get a grant application in for a volunteer co-ordinator.  We’re trying to consolidate what we have. We’re a CIC but not yet fully self-sustaining. We have a small management team made up of the members. We have limited resources in terms of processing and overseeing applications. We’re just about getting the veg out.

Ben – Growing and animals can’t wait. Forms and applications can wait, so you don’t do it.

Harriet – It’s the result of having started large. The member involvement is so much lower than Oak Tree. Members need a sense of ownership from the beginning [to sustain it].

Dave – Work days are the main socialising times. If members want more socials and NFS needs more work, people might be more willing than you think they are.

Mel – A lot of our members are there for the veg. It’s not what we’d like it to be but that’s the reality of it.

Joanne – We started with an armchair membership where people paid more to not work. We don’t offer it anymore.

Mel  We also ask members to do the same.

Rachel – Huge growth of CSAs when we had funding. Know there’s demand for help. Trying to create a support structure without being tied to a central body which might have its own agenda (e.g. organic).  Creating regional hubs – grow and support that regional presence. One CSA in each region acting as a hub for that area. Then someone centrally/nationally doing the policy work. Regional network: Connecting CSAs, advice on how to set up a CSA, training events, numbers, pricing, educational policy at a wider level to get the idea of CSA out there at a national level. Federation-style membership. Launch at national conference on 2nd December in Stroud. Also is a Facebook group. 

Local CSAs can provide an advisory role to those who want to set up a CSA. Charge for this to cover time and open day food costs and weed out the timewasters!

 

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