Moss Brook Growers story
This is an attempt to describe in detail everything we have done and everything we continue to do in setting up and running our vegetable growing business. We really hope it’s useful to anyone else thinking of starting a similar project, but… we have to point out some limitations!
- Much of what’s written is specific to our 21 acre site – a small-holding growing field-scale vegetables – and might not be completely relevant to other sites.
- It describes just one way of approaching things when, in reality, there are lots of ways to go about growing.
- And it’s written by inexperienced people! We’ve only been growing since 2010. There are plenty of more experienced growers out there – some of which we’ve highlighted in the text.
Also, some things have not been included in this write-up because they’re already in our business plan (LINK to attachment) – for example, our approach to marketing, or how we assessed the need / demand of a new veg growing business in our area.
Despite all that, we hope this is a useful account. We really want to encourage other people or groups to start similar projects. Organic small-holdings growing for a very local market must surely be an integral part of a post-peak-oil society – a society that hopefully gets a much higher proportion of its nutrition from plants, sends more school kids out to farms to learn about food, insists on environmentally-friendly infrastructure, and where soil is valued for the life-defining resource that it is.
If there’s anything that’s missing in the following sections, any more details that you need, or anything else that will help you start a new project, then please get in touch – we can’t promise to have a lot of time but we’ll try and help.
Finally, we are very grateful to Sustain: the alliance for better food and farming through whom we secured funding via the Big Lottery’s Making Local Food Work programme to get our story written up. They’ve been incredibly supportive ever since we started – big thanks to you.
Our approach / aims
Our aims seemed really straight-forward when we started, as if we didn’t need to write them down. We wanted to grow organic vegetables and sell them at Unicorn Grocery. We’d both been schooled by Unicorn, so our overall approach was the same – be as ethical as possible, trade as directly as possible, end up with good food that’s as affordable as possible.
The process of fundraising, however, demanded more clarity and detail and we soon ended up with a much more comprehensive set of aims and objectives:
Develop a model of low-carbon farming, with the following objectives:
- Organic production – working with natural systems rather than seeking to dominate them. Adding organic matter in the form of compost and turning in green manures in order to maintain a biologically active soil rich in earthworms, fungi and bacteria that recycle nutrients making them available to our vegetable crops. Rotating crops to help avoid the build up of pests and diseases, controlling weeds by mechanical means. This approach avoids the use of chemical biocides (herbicides, fungicides, pesticides etc.) and fossil-fuel derived fertilisers that are used in conventional veg production and harm soil life and the wider environment
- Stock-free growing methods – avoiding the use of farmyard manure for fertility thereby avoiding significant greenhouse gas emissions associated with animal farming, as well as the reliance on imported fertility, mostly in the form of genetically modified South American soya that’s fed to livestock
- Habitat management – long-term programme of increasing biodiversity, whether it be through improving and maintaining the agricultural fringes (e.g. ponds and hedges) or through rotations to help increase diversity within a field. This means that the essential services that nature provides such as pollination and natural pest control from beneficial insects, birds and other wildlife can then be utilised
- Low-carbon infrastructure – choosing the most environmentally-friendly options, including compost toilet, biodiesel delivery vehicle
Become a model of sustainable urban food supply, with the following objectives:
- Commercial viability – developing the business so that it’s commercially sustainable within five years
- Local fresh affordable supply – delivering freshly harvested crops direct to outlets, avoiding the costs and loss of freshness associated with mainstream centralised distribution; concentrating on the local Manchester market
- Minimal packaging – avoiding the environmental costs of plastic or its alternatives
Low-carbon distribution – deliveries by biodiesel vehicle
- Responsive crop plans – choosing suitable crops based on soil, climate, growing skills and, ultimately, customer demand
Environmentally-friendly infrastructure and growing methods – as above, in Aim (1)
- Supply chain co-operation – developing a mutually understanding relationship between grower and retailer, in contrast to the cut-throat nature of mainstream supermarkets and their suppliers
- Farming co-operation – co-operating with other local organic growers for mutual benefit and market expansion
Provide learning and training opportunities, with the following objectives:
- Horticultural skills – providing volunteer opportunities and training courses for new entrants into horticulture and other prospective growers
- Local communities – school visits, open days, growing courses, volunteer opportunities, all serving to reconnect consumers with where their food comes from
We also wanted to enshrine certain ethics in our business structure – equality and democracy, in particular – as well as fitting with our overall social outlook. Having worked at Unicorn, we naturally gravitated towards a co-operative set up, but there are lots of other ways of structuring a new growing business.
We chose to incorporate as an Indutrial & Provident Society and structure ourselves as a workers’ co-operative. We had support from Gareth Nash and Dave Hollings at CMS, and the process was quick and very simple.
We have five members (i.e. directors) – the two of us active growers (Rob & Stuart) and three non-active directors (Andrew, Andrew and Lloyd). Us two growers both still work at Unicorn (Stuart permanently part-time, Rob part-time through winter only), so – following professional advice – we purposefully outnumbered ourselves with three non-Unicorners in order to avoid any possibility that Moss Brook Growers could be interpreted as an ‘associated company’ of Unicorn. Being classed as an ‘associated company’ halves the corporation tax threshold for both companies, thereby significantly increasing the tax liability for both.
We’ve found that there have been three main benefits of choosing a co-operative structure:
(i) it works with customers / end consumers – co-operatives register quite well with customers (especially in the north-west) and give an immediate and accurate impression of a business that’s not just about profit. Admittedly we have only really told our story to Unicorn customers so far, and they are undoubtedbly a uniquely appreciative audience. But there’s probably a wider point – by demonstrating a working ethic of co-operation and equality, and by not having shareholders or bonuses, we send a strong message to customers that sets us apart from all the excess, greed and unethical practices in mainstream business.
(ii) it works with funders – co-operatives exist in a bit of a grey area when it comes to funders and their eligibility criteria. We’re not a charity and we’re not a not-for-profit organisation. But we do fit the description of a ‘social enterprise’, possibly even ‘community enterprise’, and this is enough for some funders. For most funders, however, the key factor is what you do with your profit. You might be profit-making, but are you profit-distributing? Under co-operative rules it’s up to you. We purposefully chose to remove a clause in our rules allowing us to distribute profits between our members (i.e. directors). The removal of this clause – on top of the wider social remit in our structure and aims – made us eligible for the crucial start-up funds we received through the Big Lottery’s Making Local Food Work programme.
(iii) it works for us – we get paid equally, make all decisions together, we share the ground work (manual and tractor jobs) and are careful to split the admin responsibilities as equally as possible. There’s a real strength to this set up: no-one is shouldering too much of the work, key decisions are thought through and agreed by both of us, and at the times one of us has been off on holiday, paternity, or sick, the other’s been there to cover fully. In practice, we could probably operate equally effectively as a more conventional partnership, but we believe strongly in the equality and democracy that’s engendered by our workers’ co-operative structure.
Having incorporated we then wrote a business plan – a map and forecast for the first five years of Moss Brook Growers. At the same time we started looking for grant funding to help with our initial costs, and we found the rigour and scrutiny of the fundraising process was incredibly helpful in fleshing out all the necessary detail of our business plan. It took a long time to write (5-6 months overall), and we had a lot of help along the way (primarily Unicorn colleagues and a Local Food Fund advisor), but it was definitely worth it. We feel it’s given us a really strong foundation and sense of direction; more tangibly, it’s helped bring in some vital funding.
Click here to download our business plan.
Please note that this business plan – our latest version – is already out of date. It’s a snapshot of our business as it was in March 2011, 16 months after we started, part-way through our first start-up ‘project’, and whilst we were fundraising for our other start-up projects. It hopefully provides an idea of the level of detail we went into for planning the first few years of our business, but it should be recognised that it’s an evolving document. Once or twice a year we review where we are in relation to this plan and our aim is to update it annually.
Costs involved & alternative approaches
Setting up a new growing business – let alone setting up a new farm – is not cheap. This is a summary of the costs that we/Unicorn had:
Buying land – £150,000 (see Unicorn’s website for more)
Farm infrastructure – £60,000+ (see section 5 for more detail)
Veg growing equipment & machinery – £25,500 (see section 4 for more detail)
(n.b. See section 2 for an idea of running costs)
Clearly an enormous amount of money has gone into all this, but there are some really obvious ways to avoid these costs or reduce them substantially. For example:
(i) don’t buy land, just rent it – less secure in the long-term, but how a lot of growers do it. The key is establishing a good relationship with the landlord and getting a long tenancy. In our case, Unicorn looked into the alternatives but decided it wanted to buy land and secure a local supply of food for the long-term.
(ii) get land that already has the infrastructure – water, electricity and buildings are the main things to look out for (see section 5).
(iii) borrow equipment & machinery – we didn’t buy £25k worth of equipment in one go. We only had a tractor, module planter, a couple of tined implements and some hoes for our first season (see section 4 for more). But, as well as staggering the outlay on equipment, we have borrowed equipment from our neighbours – for example, a plough, power harrow and seed drill. This has obviously relied on their goodwill, and us making sure we maintain their equipment, but has been an incredibly useful way of spreading the costs of setting up the business. We are aiming to own all the equipment we need but, in other situations, there’s no reason why long-term loans / sharing agreements with other growers or farmers can’t be made for specific bits of equipments.
(iv) use contractors – another approach is to pay a contractor to do certain big and/or skilled jobs. This soon becomes expensive, but can be very useful temporarily. For example, in our first year, before we had much machinery or skills, we paid a contractor to plough and power harrow, and got another one to drill the clover.