Keeping growing: ensuring success (Organised by OGA)

In recent years with the success of the CSA movement and the apprenticeship schemes there have been many new growers and growing enterprises started. How do we ensure their success once the funding has finished?

Alan Schofield (OGA): Chair

Session summary

The session started out with Alice Holden and Jon Goodman, describing their experiences during the years after their apprenticeship, how they got on with growing and which paths they chose to stay in the business and working in the sector. Each following a different approach, with Alice taking over a council nursery in the urban setting of Dagenham Farm, where she is able to directly involve the community and make use of the short sales channels; and with Jon starting up his own business with three friends, growing in Ragmans Lane Market Garden as a cooperative share farming business. Both gave great insights on their approaches to financing their businesses and identifying innovative solutions to all the obstacles they came across over the years.

This was followed by Simon Crichton from Triodos Bank, giving great advice on financing such start-up businesses from a Bank’s point of view. He pointed out for example that renting land to grow on is usually much cheaper than buying your own land, even in the long-term; stating that often also large amounts of money are spent on the land costs, leaving too little for actually setting up the business. He also described the priorities of funding options, where family and friends should be the first priority to lend money from (as they are usually rather flexible when it comes to terms of paying back the loan). Secondly it should be explored what options there are to involve the community (e.g. the model of a CSA, crowd funding, housing associations, green tourism etc.); and Banks should only be involved as a last resort, because they normally have the strictest and most expensive terms and conditions. For larger tools and machinery, he advised hire purchases; if that is not an option, second-hand items should be bought (“always buy the oldest second-hand in cash”). Generally, he stressed the importance of sound business plans when approaching banks for a loan, detailing cash flow for the first year.

Referring to the example of Jon, who has an external part-time job, parallel to his growing business (as do his business partners), to support it during the first years of establishment; Simon told the group that this is actually a very widely applied and used model of financing, not only for small or organic businesses.

To a question addressing the more experienced growers in the room, about how long it took them to establish a stable and successful business, the answers ranged from “42 years and counting” to living in a caravan for the first 8-10 years, before really getting to know the land and the system. But generally, they agreed that every business is in a constant state of adaptation and innovation, stability is not very common; the first couple of years usually involved a caravan or yurt to ensure viability.

Key conclusions

The discussion that followed the presentations brought out the following points:

  • To take an external job, parallel to the growing business, is a valid and common approach to finance new start-up businesses in the first years of establishment
  • Every growing business is in a constant state of adaptation and innovation
  • It often takes several years to stabilise a start-up business, to get to know the land, the system and the economic environment.

Individual speaker presentations and abstracts

Alice Holden (Growing Communities): Setting up an urban farm in Dagenham – the benefits and shortfalls (7.57mb pdf file)

Dagenham Farm is part of Growing Communities (GC’s) wider vision of how we create a more sustainable, resilient food system to feed our cities. In a report commissioned by GC it was calculated that around 17 percent of a citiy’s food could be produced from a city’s outer limits- the peri-urban zone. This type of production would decrease pollution through cutting down on transportation/ refrigeration and would enable further food resilience for cities. Alice took on Dagenham farm in 2012 as the first trial farm for GC within this zone. There are many challenges in applying the theory to practice. What is a viable scale where land is scarcer? Is it possible to feel enough security on a prime urban piece of land that you do not own? Given the intensive history of land use how can we assess contamination and protect against pollution? Can a healthy balanced and biodiverse farming system exist in the midst of a suburban context? Such issues ultimately pose the question of whether it makes sense to farm at all within the city fringe. Two years in, after many challenges, Alice will talk about the journey, trials and successes of this unusual farm.

Jon Goodman (Ragmans Lane Market Garden): Setting up a cooperative share farming business (366kb pdf file)

A big question for many new entrants to agriculture and horticulture is what to do when their apprenticeship or temporary employment comes to an end. Stable em-ployment can be hard to find, buying land with planning permission is hugely expensive, and CSAs, while attractive, take a major initial commitment from a large group of people. Land partnerships offer an attractive way for would-be farmers and growers to start their own business on a tight budget. These arrangements vary in terms of the landlord’s level of involvement, but they generally involves a tenant renting part of a farm to set up their own business, and can also involve rental or shared use of infrastructure and equipment, and even branding. I will discuss my collective’s own experience of negotiating and starting a tenancy at Ragmans Lane Farm, as well as general issues to be aware of when thrashing out an agreement. I will also explore the great benefits such arrangements can have for both tenants and landlords, and the wider potential of land partnerships as a viable means for many more people to gain access to land.

Simon Crichton (Triodos Bank): Financing a growing opportunity – a banks perspective (598kb pdf file)

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