Stepping up and looking forward: what next for Sutton Community Farm?

I was recently in an interview pitching for some scale-up funding, when the interviewer asked me “what’s the big vision for the farm?”. She understood perfectly what we do and why we do it, but she was after a sense of our next steps and the scale of our ambitions. So I want to paint a few pictures that hopefully help describe our vision and the projects we are exploring that might lead us in that direction. This is described in five chunks: 1) doing what we do, but even better 2) increasing and diversifying production 3) creating new income streams 4) strengthening partnerships and 5) maintaining a spirit of openness. 

1. Doing what we do, but better

Since our beginnings 4 years ago, the growth of Sutton Community Farm has been consciously organic in its tempo and activities, as we have learnt about our land, our capacity and the needs of our community. As we look forwards with a vision and strategy, it’s important to reflect on what we have. I believe that our greatest asset is the sense of community. It’s a pleasure to share this with visitors that we welcome to the farm for tours and shared lunches. Our farm should be a place where people feel a sense of belonging, trust and can build friendships and enjoy that feeling of togetherness.

Balancing a commercial enterprise with an eagerness to welcome volunteers to our farm can sometimes create tension. Take the community out of Sutton Community Farm and it’s likely we would grow a different variety of vegetables using a different approach. Welcoming people to participate influences what we grow and how we grow. It enables us to achieve a high yield per acre and also recognise that food is not our only yield. Our farm is a place for sharing stories, nurturing friendships, renewing hope, increasing confidence and learning new skills to pass on to others. These yields are immeasurable.

While we yield such great things, we still must balance the books. So while we exist for we benefit of the community, we put on our business hats and think hard about how we can support land-based employment with a business model that is financially robust and replicable for other farms on the urban fringe.

Doing what we do, but better includes:

  • Improving the volunteer experience: keep improving the physical space to make the farm more welcoming and accessible. By training up Buddy Volunteers, we can also increase our capacity to support more volunteers, particularly those that need extra support.
  • Improving our VegBox scheme: as a project this barely breaks even let alone helps support the educational work on the farm. So we need to make it more profitable. This predominately comes through having more customers, but can also be supported by the existing customers spending more and improving our efficiency. We will continue to work hard at marketing, developing a sense of community around the box scheme and making the product more attractive and desirable. 
  • Find corporate volunteer groups: organisations coming to the farm for their team away day  help enormously with the workload, while providing a good income.

2. Increasing production: Farm Start and additional land

One of our core objectives as a farm is to increase local food production. We are working on two approaches to achieving this: the first involves us growing more, the other involves us supporting others to grow more:

Increasing our production: together with better crop management and soil-building activity, there is a small patch of additional land on our site that is becoming available in September. We are hoping to install an additional polytunnel on this plot. Polytunnels are valuable  as they enable us to grow higher value crops through the winter. We are planning to focus on increasing our wholesale income in this additional space, in particular the higher value crops such as salad. 

There is also 7 acres of vacant land adjacent to the farm.  We are exploring the opportunity to apply to Surrey County Council to take on this tenancy. This would be step change in our production and can open up the possibility for keeping chickens and increasing the Farm Start project…

Supporting others: we are really excited to have just launched a new project called Farm Start. This is a Food Growing Business Incubator that seeks to support new entrants into farming by helping them test out their commercial food growing enterprise ideas at a minimal risk. This is based on similar models that have been working in Canada and the edges of Manchester. With a close proximity to central London, we want to support some of the unique opportunities for food growing on the urban fringe.

3. Establish new income streams

There was a time when we hoped that the VegBox scheme would provide enough income to support most of our activities as a farm. We have put huge amounts of energy into achieving this however it’s clear that it will always have very tight margins and that other income streams are needed.

Secondary production is one avenue to explore. This is about turning our produce into higher value products. Another avenue is to have a shop front. We have experimented with a shop before. Our mobile VegVan operated in the early days of the farm (2010-11), selling affordable organic produce in different parts of the community. Financial viability meant it was not possible to continue this project and in 2012, we decided to invest our energy and time into the VegBox scheme.

However we believe there’s a strong case for a farm shop of sorts. So we are exploring the potential for opening a food hub that serves as an outlet for our produce, a cafe, and a hub for teaching people cooking skills. We would look to place the Food Hub on the high street, operating as a trading arm of Sutton Community Farm. This is currently being researched.

4. Strengthen partnerships

When I talk with people at our farm, it’s clear how passionate people are about our relationships between food and community. Food is central to our relationships, our health and our natural environment. We would like to be part of a bigger conversation about food in our community. So we have been leading on conversations with local partners and the Council to advocate for a local food partnership, enabling us to have a dedicated forum to help drive forward various sustainable food projects.

Over the last year we have also collaborated with a number of local organisations such as Sutton Housing Partnership, Carshalton College and Brassarie Vacherin. We would like to continue strengthening partnerships like this and finding new ways to collaborate.

5. Maintaining a spirit of openness

The experience of buying food in supermarkets and the abundance of processed food in our lives can make us feel quite disconnected from the source of our food. 

The process of nurturing seeds to plants, then harvesting, preparing and eating the food is beautiful and we want everyone to experience this joy. It helps us feel rooted and connected to the earth, which provides us with all our physical needs. The process is a pleasure, but it can also be back-breaking. We want to share these pains and these joys with the community. 

There’s an African proverb that goes “ubuntu ngumuntu nhabantu”. It translates as “I am because you are”. The concept is that we share a common humanity, a oneness; and when one person’s circumstances improve, everyone gains, and if one person is oppressed, everyone is diminished. We would like our community farm to be a positive building block in the community that helps other people and organisations to thrive, creating a positive ripple effect. 

Sharing our story is an important part of that process. Enabling people to have access to local food, to connect with how it’s grown and be part of growing it.

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