The Whitmuir Community Benefit Society Board CSA Study Tour funded by Community Learning Exchange
The Whitmuir Community Benefit Society Board have been looking into ways of making the growing activities of the 2000m² Project less reliant on funding in the future. The 2000m² team were tasked with researching Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) as one possible option. The 2000m² development manager, approached the Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens (FCFCG) to seek advice about whether there were any local CSAs we could talk to in order to find out more. It quickly became apparent that CSAs are relatively new in Scotland and the best advice was likely to be found in England and Wales, so FCFCG provided contact details for Maresa Bossano the CSA UK network coordinator.
Maresa listened to our current situation and understood that we needed to learn from a number of sources to see what type of CSA would best suit our position. We were provided with a list of six CSAs who would be able to provide us with the information we required. Three of these CSA’s were keen to help us:
● Cae Tan on the Gower Peninsula in Wales
● Canalside Community Food near Leamington Spa in England
● Five Acre Community Farm near Coventry in England
It quickly became apparent that site visits would yield the best learning opportunity. We had come across the Scottish Community Alliance at an earlier networking event (Empowering Our Communities 26/6/17) who run the Community Learning Exchange
fund. As a member of FCFCG Whitmuir Community Farm were entitled to apply for the funding, which was awarded to cover the cost of the trip. To ensure value for money representatives from two other organisations were invited; Dave Shand from Taybank Growers Cooperative and Sam Parry from Tomnah’a Market Garden along with Catherine Kwella and Sarah Sall from 2000m² at Whitmuir Community Farm.
Schedule and Contacts:
Wednesday 29th November 2017: Cae Tân CSA - Tom O’Kane; 07791696848 or firstname.lastname@example.org http://caetancsa.org/en/
Thursday 30th November 2017: Canalside Community Food - Dom van Marsh, 07758 34049 or email@example.com www.canalsidecommunityfood.org.uk
Five Acres Community Farm - Becca Stevenson, 07753149922 or firstname.lastname@example.org www.fiveacrefarm.org.uk
Cae Tân CSA
Cae Tân CSA is now three years old, producing veg boxes for over 100 local families. There is a well established 4 acres of cultivated land with poly tunnels. An additional 4 acres of land is being leased and work will start on this in spring 2018, this new land is
going to be leased from the Ecological Land Co-op: http://ecologicalland.coop/. Tom, who kindly showed us around, has spent 20 years working elsewhere (including biodynamic apprenticeship) before returning to the Gower Peninsula - as it turned out -
at just the right time when the area was keen to support a CSA. Initial consultation and publicity was achieved by linking in with existing networks (especially Gower Power) that had an interest. The consultation included:
● Survey to Gower Power members
● Flyers to local area
● Engagement events throughout the year.
In the beginning Cae Tân sought advice from the Community Land Advisory Service who provided support for the polytunnel planning process. Cae Tan supply veg shares all year round, but currently buy in for some of the winter
and early spring. Succession planting and planting a mix of fast and slow maturing varieties helps cover the entire year.
Cae Tân now have enough land to cultivate to start producing up to 100% of the food they provide through their veg box scheme. The pick up point for members is at the Gower Heritage Centre (members bring their own bags but the shares are already weighed). Value for money varies over the year - very good in summer, a bit less in winter but overall a good deal. Participants sometimes need reminding of this fact, though, especially in winter. The proportion of Cae Tân funding from grants has fallen in proportion to money from shares (more or less inverted from ¾ to ¼ ). Some external funding is still awarded to pay for educational work, which is organised by the people delivering the educational sessions rather than Cae Tân CSA.
Suggestions by Tom for a 2000m² CSA:
● More space needed than ½ acre to grow enough shares to pay a grower
● … unless we stuck to high-value crops only
● Rule of thumb 50 boxes = 5 acres
● Ask how involved do folk want to be? Regular volunteering? Harvest help? Packing own bags? Or just pick-up?
● A 2000m² CSA could switch to a Whitmuir Organic Farm veg box for winter/spring
● Engagement event; outside speaker to talk about CSA and “In Our Hands” film showing, with food - http://inourhands.film/
● Survey to all existing community composters.
● Present the CSA as an enterprise opportunity for someone self-employed? Then if the space is too small (or uptake to low) to provide a full-time wage, grower can decide how many hours are needed and do other work too.
● Education programme is complementary but run separately.
Tom’s Inspirations: Iain Tolhurst (www.tolhurstorganic.co.uk) and Lynette White We discussed how a grower-led approach is better in the long-run than a community or board-led approach. Grower/s needs enough autonomy and ownership of the growing
to be prepared to put in the hard work that’s needed (well above 9-5 in the summer).
Varieties mentioned and growing tips to try: Cucumber varieties to try - Sonja, Telegraph, Luisa, Carmen.Runner beans grown in space between two tunnels - not taking up tunnel space but out of the wind.
Canalside Community Food CSA
Dom van Marsh (grower) and Gareth Davies (treasurer/founder) welcomed us to the site. Canalside Community Food CSA has been operational for ten years and is certified organic. We walked around the site whilst Dom talked/walked us through the site plan
and rotations.Canalside have 10 acres which enables them to grow for 160 boxes. They have capped the number of veg boxes now as sociologically 160 is the size of a community. The luxury of space allows good variety and 40% of the plot can be given over to green manures. This reduces the need to buy inputs for the plot and ensures good soil fertility long-term.
Canalside organise work mornings - Wednesdays and Saturday work days regularly attract 12 volunteers over winter - generally for tasks other than harvesting. Big jobs are easier to manage with volunteers, such as fencing, potatoes. Canalside have two part time growers (Dom and Lana) - who work well together. Planning work took a while to get into (especially the office work). Dom unfortunately ends up doing this during his evenings. Not living on site has a big negative effect, not being able to live on site makes the job more difficult, given the long hours required in summer. In many places living off site is often too costly on a grower's wage.
Some members run preserving workshops on site. They don't do this under the auspices of the CSA to avoid issues around trading and food hygiene standards and organic processor licences. People bring their own bags to collect shares in, avoiding
food hygiene issues around packaging for the farm. The scales are recharged weekly. As people are taking shares rather than buying produce a yearly calibration is sufficient: as long as everyone is weighing the same amount, the produce is equally distributed.
Canalside Set Up:
Canalside budget to sell 125 medium shares as a large number of people signed up for small shares, 140 people pay for shares. Canalside work within a 10 mile radius - more members than veg box shares:
● Social Members (£24 pa) - support the farms work - come to work mornings and events.
● Work Shares - volunteer 3 hours in lieu of getting their veg box
● Veg Member (up to £50 per month for medium) - standing orders. New participants are given a trial period first (pay for a month see if it works for you if yes then sign up and set up the standard order).
Social members can become veg members. No refunds or holidays are offered; members have to find someone else to take their box if they are away. This acts as free advertising for the CSA. There is a two month notice period to quit.
A proportion of members are core members. Families with young children are their main demographic alongside young people and pensioners. Administrator (Ali) organises the veg shares and lets Dom know what needs harvesting.
Regular communication with members ensures that people know about the lean times of the year - though there is still some drop off in members during the winter. Canalside do exit interviews when people leave the scheme - moving home or losing a job are the
main reasons. Canalside communicate with members all the time, via Facebook, weekly email (news from land with photos, info next week's shares and the next two workdays, recipe of the week by a member, and events) - done by Ali (administrator - 60hrs per
month) - Dom provides the content. Canalside have large, medium, small shares. Collection days are: Tuesday up until 6.30pm (close up by 7pm), Wednesday morning and Saturday morning.
Gaia - a small food health shop buys some veg (small income). However all of Canalside marketing is aimed at the community - really restrict themselves to selling the surplus to Gaia (shop puts up a sign and acts as a drop off point for 12 veg boxes who
pay a supplementary fee for the packing of their veg box). Canalside have four events per year - one for each season:
● Spring - onion planting,
● Summer barn dance,
● Autumn potato lift,
● Winter last pick up the year - fire and mulled wine.
Provides an opportunity for feedback, a simple questionnaire to see how they are doing - what do they want more/less of - what do they like about being a part of Canalside. There is an apple pressing day too (bring your own apples, press and take juice away).
This and the barn dance are open to the general public, other events are for members only. Social events are for marketing - not for raising money. Canalside promoted themselves by going to local events.Stalls at events main external marketing.
Canalside have an AGM - discuss what money spent on, growers wages. Volunteer input is an integral part of Canalsides business plan.
- Staff and founders get a free share.
- Steering committee meetings every month:
- Growers (provide a growers report)
- Work Share members
- Couple of members
- Ali (administration)
- Gareth (treasurer)
Gareth thinks these are really important - timing is difficult (evenings). [Steering committee away day is important]. Draw out the people who are going to do these aspects and take that away from the grower/s, so as they can concentrate on growing the food. The business trusts the grower to do their job well - no micromanagement. Pay NI and Pension (pay above £10 per hour) - now linked to inflation gives this CSA extra security - members will carry the CSA farm through the rough times. Wages dictates the share price.
Overheads high as a community company - this tends to be the case. Accountants do the payroll etc. Gareth does all other bookkeeping. Insurance - Canalside went to the NFU for advice - PLI and Employers (£400 to £500) farm specialist insurance. Can insure stored produce and business losses too. Canalside mentioned that it was great that NFU came out to look at the stuff and talk through the options. Gareth is the director of the company so would be personally liable if not insured.
Main costs other than wages:
● £2000 rent per year.
● Organic certified £500 per year.
At the beginning having an annual sign up by members really helped. This and loans helped get set up. Now it’s mainly monthly payments - works well for now as it evens out cash flow and they can check monthly. Canalside budget to make a 10% surplus to build up a reserve. Now have 6 months running costs in reserve. Canalside is currently a Company Ltd by guarantee - steering committee is the only structure needed at the moment. Use a consensus approach - had consensus training. Going to convert into a Community Benefit Society next year. Looking to purchase land (£10k per acre). Unique point is local, seasonal, organic - 100% from here - not bought in. CSA replaced the market garden idea - cities use to be surrounded by markets.
Suggestions for a 2000m² CSA:
- No competition between CSA’s because of the nature of them - you concentrate in the local area.
- Minimum of 60 shares (sole sales) - for ethical employing.
- Figure out our point on the CSA spectrum - perhaps Canalside is pretty extreme by being 100% grown, whereas others buy in main crops (potatoes and root veg) and concentrate on the leaf crops.
- Hold onto your members all year around if you can.
- Green Shares as a starting idea - polytunnel greens - build up into full shares.
- Communication is key with the members.
Five Acres Community Farm
Becka Stevenson is the grower here, she mainly works by herself. Five Acres has pick up groups organised by members to take it in turn to pack and deliver veg boxes to each other - Becca does help them pack when she can. Holidays - people encouraged to gift their veg box to other people - free marketing! Drying beans as hungry gap filler as well as herbs and strawberry plants to put in boxes over winter to encourage home growing. Becca adapted the field when she started to even up the bed sizes to better enable rotation. Have summer growing area seperate from main crop for soft fruit.
All three CSA’s had their own tractor, in addition the following equipment was in use by
some or all of them:
● Seed Drill
● Potato Harvester
● Flame Weeder
● Cornstarch Mulch attachment
Summary: We started the CSA Study tour with three main learning objectives:
1. Different methods of running a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) scheme
2. Which methods would best suit our circumstances and the steps we would need to take to set up such a scheme.
3. Information about the financial aspects of running this version of a social enterprise.
Thanks to the generosity of our three host organisations we left with a wealth of information that they kindly shared with us. In answer to the above questions, for the 2000m² project based at Whitmuir Organic Farm the following answers apply:
1. We have seen CSAs at various stages of their development. All three provided a small, medium and large share although there was discussion around how simplifying to small and medium size shares (as large shares were sometimes just too much produce per week - which can put people off) could be of benefit in terms of administration. We learnt that there is potential for growing some rather others can provide 100% from their own sites. We saw that both grower lead and community lead CSA’s can work (provided growers are given the autonomy to plan and deliver what is needed). We saw that most sites lease their land however the potential for purchasing land to safeguard the CSA is desirable. We saw that a central pick up point for veg boxes is essential - this includes space to sort and store that weeks harvest.
2. We learnt that it could be possible for 2000m² to set up a CSA veg box scheme without curtailing the farms existing scheme if we concentrated on the very local community (West Linton, Rommanobridge, Lamancha, Penicuik and Peebles). We learnt that the space we have is probably not enough - we were advised that 60 shares equates to ethical employability of a grower and that as a rule of thumb 50 boxes = 5 acres. The fact that Canalside is moving towards being a Benefit Society shows that Whitmuir Community Benefit Society is already well placed to legally be able to govern a CSA scheme at Whitmuir. Our next steps will be to; inform and seek approval from the Board, then survey our existing mailing list (from the food waste recycling service which has c.160 participants), from there see if enough people are interested, in which case we would organise an event (invite a speaker from another CSA, show a film and provide hot food). This would inform our next steps and how the CSA should be set up (depending on how much time people would want to volunteer, how much they would be prepared to spend on their veg box share etc).
3. We received in depth information about Canalside Community Food financial status ten years on, and from Cae Tân three years on. The guidance to set share prices depending on grower/s wages is sound advice and has been shown to work in these three examples. Setting up standing orders helps reduce administration time, as does a trial one month payment to enable people to opt out easily if the scheme is not for them. We would need to research how much the Whitmuir Organic Farm veg box scheme would cost to cover the hungry gap and ensure we had adequate space and resources to properly store produce. In addition we have learnt that there is a potential future role for Whitmuir a Living Learning Space to trial growing methods and equipment on behalf of the Scottish (and potentially wider) CSA community and to report back on results. This would enable shared learning on a wider scale and improved best practice.
Quotes from participants:
“As a new entrant farmer coming to the end of our 2nd season at Tomnah'a Market Garden it was fantastic to visit other Community Supported Agriculture projects. We are currently running a similar scheme to the 3 farms we visited and it was inspiring and informative to see how other sites are set-up, practices and strategies used and how the community is engaged and involved in the projects. We will certainly be taking onboard some of the things we saw and learnt about directly from the other growers / project coordinators”.
“Visiting different market garden sites was a really valuable experience for me, both in terms of practices and plans to scale down and bring back to the 2000m² site at Whitmuir, and for my own development as a grower. Getting a clearer understanding of what makes a CSA viable and successful provides food for thought for the future of 2000m² and how growing could complement the educational vision for the farm. Hearing about other growers' journeys was both inspiring and informative of directions I could take towards a sustainable livelihood in local food”.
Our thanks go to:
Amanda Cornish at Scottish Community Alliance for helping us to access Community Learning Exchange funding.
Roz Corbett at the Federation of City Farms and Community Gardens for providing us with much needed contacts and for authenticating our funding application.
Maresa Bossano at CSA UK for putting us in touch with three fantastic CSA farms.
Tom O’Kane, Dom von Marsh, Gareth Davies and Becca Stevenson who kindly gave up their time to show us around their sites and talk in depth about their own CSA journeys.
Dave Shand and Sam Parry for sharing their experience and knowledge during the trip, with special thanks to Dave for sharing all the driving!