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21 September 2020
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H2: Community vegetable production - adding values to local food

Chair: Ben Raskin (Soil Association)

There appears to be a ground swell from con-sumers about closer connections with their food supply including active participation in community schemes. What can growers learn from the experiences so far and what help is available? (Organised by OGA and Soil Association)

Session summary

The session started with an introduction from chair, Ben Raskin, of the Soil Association. Ben set the scene by describing how simply producing good organic vegetables is not enough; many consumers increasingly wish to have a tangible connection with their food supply, which is where Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) has a pivotal role to play. The first presentation, entitled ‘Investment in the farm and the impact of CSAs in England’, was given by Jade Bashford, also from the Soil Association. Jade explained the concept of CSA in terms of the community acting as a source of finance to enable more local, hands-on food production schemes, rather than funding them through bank loans. Three ways to raise capital were outlined, and the relative advantages and disadvantages of these approaches were discussed. A recently published evaluation of CSAs prepared by the Soil Association indicates the scope, challenges and multiple benefits these initiatives are providing (www.soilassociation.com\CSAs). The following two speakers gave a practical perspective of CSAs from first-hand experience of running schemes in Leamington (Canalside) and the Chew Valley (The Community Farm).

Will Johnson is the main grower at Canalside (www.canalsidecommunityfood.org.uk), an 8 acre site with approximately 130 members. With a small staff, the voluntary support from its community members, who also own shares in the scheme, is integral to its success. A share equates to a vegetable box of seasonal produce each week, which members pack themselves on-site. The community benefits are multiple: members can access to locally grown vegetables, and also have the opportunity of getting involved in the growing itself. This underlines the increasing role Canalside plays education not only of the adult volunteers, some of whom may have had little prior experience of growing, but also local schools whose pupils now go regularly to the site to learn about how food is produced.

The Community Farm (www.thecommunityfarm.co.uk) is a 22 acre site with over 400 investors, and 15 staff who provide a vegetable box delivery service and run the wholesale side of the business. John English became involved as a volunteer and stayed on to become a full-time Soil Association organic apprentice. His presentation described this journey, and outlined the central role education has to play on the farm. Regular activities, courses and special events are arranged to encourage investor involvement. In addition to year-round volunteer input, community farm days with up to 25 volunteers are held to achieve specific projects, allowing exchange of skills drawn from the wide experience base of the community. A new educational programme is due to be launched this year, and in the future it is hoped to make links with local school and special needs groups.

Discussion points:

  • Continual and consistent communication is key to the ongoing success of CSAs and maintaining member enthusiasm.
  • Having both permanent experienced growers involved, plus a regular turnover of new volunteers and temporary staff provides a balance between continuity and freshness.
  • There is a need for diverse routes to market in order to avoid a ‘ceiling effect’ within the community.

Individual speaker presentations and abstracts

Will Johnson (Canalside CSA): Connection to the farm – a grower’s experience of a CSA (PDF 2.2MB)
Gives the growers experience of working on the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project at Canalside. How does the community get involved and what benefits does this bring both to the farm and grower, and to its members? How much does the close connection the farm has with those that eat the food produced on it ensure the long term success of the farm? Will also examines what changes have occurred in the community as a result of having a CSA.

Jade Bashford (Soil Association): Investment in the farm and the impact of CSAs in England (PDF 699KB)
Community investment is becoming more popu-lar, Jade looks at some of the more inspiring models used by food producers to finance local food production without having to borrow money from the bank. CSAs can operate on a range of financial models from full shareholding to more informal membership arrangements. Jade explores some of the benefits and risks of different options. Jade also gives some headlines from the latest evaluation of CSAs in England, what does this mean for community vegetable producers.

John English (Community Farm): Learning on the farm – an apprentice’s view (PDF 644KB)
Many people who volunteer on, or buy from their local vegetable producer do so because they want to learn more about growing their own food. The Community Farm in Bristol puts education at the heart of its business, but how does this work in practice. John talks about his own experience of starting as a volunteer to becoming a full time apprentice on the farm. John also takes us through how the farm manages its volunteers to ensure they get a good experience while still making a useful contribution to the farm’s work.