Rebuilding the food system: who do we engage with for a just transition?

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”

― Buckminster Fuller

This alluring quote from the American inventor and visionary Buckminster Fuller has sat uneasy with me in recent years. In 2017, I went from managing a progressive, community-owned food enterprise with impressive social, health and environmental principles, to put a good portion of my energies into work with large, corporate food companies. I made this move partly out of curiosity, eager to learn about the global food supply chains in which I still participated as a citizen. I suppose I also hoped I might have a bigger impact. Rather than complain from the edges, I’ve now had the opportunity to support a number of major food companies as they grapple with complex sustainability challenges, bringing to the table my knowledge and understanding of how they can be a force for good. 

Exciting as this may sound, in the short time I’ve been doing this work, I’ve often found myself feeling restless and frustrated. For decades, we’ve had many warm words and promising commitments from companies, yet overall, progress has been glacial and incremental, with companies regularly missing their targets, or having no targets at all. Even today, despite the widely acknowledged environmental crisis, many large corporates are operating with no commitments around critical issues such as deforestation that exist in their supply chains.

Figure 1. Data from the 2019 Forest 500 assessment, showing the proportion of companies in each region that have no commitments to protect forests in their production or sourcing: they found 140 (40%) of the most influential companies in forest-risk supply chains, including retailer Amazon, Dutch supermarket chain SPAR and luxury fashion group Capri Holdings, do not have any deforestation commitments.

From the fringes, I’ve watched as an industry of CSR has risen-up that self-congratulates itself in award ceremonies, while the world continues to frazzle and in many spheres, such as politics and the internet, can feel more fragmented. In the mainstream of businesses, success still very much centres around increasing sales, profits and market share; and employees often toil with little awareness of the trail of social and environmental damage that is neglected or deprioritised in pursuit of this misguided view of prosperity. 

Last year, at a sustainable agriculture conference in the USA, I listened to the Head of Sustainability from one of the world’s largest food companies comfort the audience by saying: “profit is not a dirty word”. It’s an uncomfortable maxim I hear often in these circles: that “we can’t invest in sustainability unless we’re profitable first”. She then went on to comfort attendees further, some of whom will have been suppliers, that despite their big climate pledge (which is one of those “by 2050” net-zero targets), change will be slow and steady, so that suppliers can move with the times and won’t have any major surprises. If only our Earth systems would also be so patient and obliging.

A post-Covid revolution by teatime?

Thinking about the sense of urgency versus the pace of change, let’s turn to Buckminster Fuller again. Writing about a utopian revolution, Russel Brand also quotes Buckminster Fuller, but suggests his positive vision is perhaps easier said than done:

Buckminster Fuller outlines what ought to be our collective objectives succinctly: “to make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time through spontaneous co-operation without ecological offence or the disadvantage of anyone”. This maxim is the very essence of “easier said than done” as it implies the dismantling of our entire socio-economic machinery. By teatime.

Russell Brand (2013), On Revolution.

As we fret over the complexity and urgency of safeguarding our planetary health and living within a doughnut, perhaps we should also appreciate that for the most part, radical shifts often only happen when precipitated by economic and political crises. These crises may include civil unrest and it’s the subsequent interplay of new market rules, innovations in business models and practice that creates the new normal. This is the window of opportunity that COVID-19 offers us, not that we should be celebrating a pandemic. 

To help society rise-up and emerge out of this pandemic, much attention has been placed on the response of our governments. In the wake of COVID-19, we’ve seen 17 major economies invest approximately US$3.5 trillion in economic stimulus packages. Despite the many coordinated efforts from investors, business leaders, scientists and NGOs urging governments to seize this opportunity to #BuildBackBetter with a green stimulus, unfortunately, many of the packages do not seem that way inclined, as shown in this analysis from Vivid Economics, where in 14 of the 17 countries considered, potentially damaging flows outweigh those supporting nature:

Figure 2. Analysis from Vivid Economics on the “Greenness of Stimulus Index”.

Why trust in our governments and companies is so difficult

Perhaps governments could cough up a little more towards green measures if companies were more obliging in paying a fair share of taxes – and governments could prevent tax dodging for good. Some multinationals are now so rich and influential, their profits dwarf the entire tax revenues of small countries. As citizens, we must find ways to hold these companies to account, just as we try to do with our governments. 

How much trust can we have in large businesses to drive the change we need? I ask myself this everyday and I know I’m not alone. There’s many folks that think about this more than me. For example, a debate rumbles on about the authenticity and transformative power of the “purpose paradigm” that has captured many businesses, helping them embed a greater sense of moral fibre. Yet, even the purpose-driven companies still seem intent on operating within a conventional capitalist and at worst, a neoliberal mindset. Until we can find creative ways to move beyond these entrenched ideologies, I reckon we’re stuck with some variation of “business as usual”. (I wrote about this a little in a previous blog – see “conscious capitalism”).

I wonder if some of my peers will think I’m being rather negative? Large scale systems change does not happen overnight and trying to write with more positivity, it’s true that there are now so many “net positive” commitments from companies that it’s difficult to keep track of them. There’s also many examples of large organisations looking deep into the future and taking meaningful action to try and shape a more positive trajectory. All of this can be celebrated. But will it ever feel enough? 

For many years, some leaders in industry and government have been committed to a green growth mantra, the idea that we can decouple financial growth from resource consumption. Hard empirical data has recently shown that no meaningful decoupling has ever taken place and that the idea was an article of ‘faith’, devoid of any evidence. It reminds me that over 10 years ago, the UK Sustainable Development Commission (RIP) published Prosperity Without Growth (which was subsequently expanded into a book by Tim Jackson), making clear the need to re-define our definitions of prosperity. But I feel that the environmental movement has struggled to present any attractive, viable pathways towards new, alternative economic models. Or perhaps politicians and the public just aren’t ready to grapple with this yet. 

The spectrum of business models: some observations

In the corporate world, there are a spectrum of business models. They range from those that are highly extractive, with fairly rigid governance models due to shareholder primacy, towards more nimble and purpose-driven businesses, as you might find in the B-corp community

We often hear a hypothesis that it’s the purpose-driven, nimble businesses that will prevail, as they are more adept in responding to environmental and social risks, while more traditional corporates will lose significance and fade away. Does this scenario hold certain assumptions about how society and governments will reward or penalise companies in the future? There’s certainly more nuance to this, but perhaps that’s a discussion for another time and place.

Another, perhaps cynical observation that I’m interested to test is that the companies with the most impressive sustainability commitments, seem more likely to sell products that are less essential for society, such as fast food, luxury fashion, cosmetics and sugary drinks. Perhaps this is because it helps them to keep their license to operate, but it also introduces some ideological, moral challenges. Many of us enjoy ice-cream, fizzy drinks, steak and booze, but in a civilisation edging closer to the brink of irreversible collapse, should there be more efforts to limit this consumption? How stringent and restrictive should our society be in this emergency?

One fear I have about giving too much energy to working with large incumbents is that they are too stuck in their ways and unable to re-orientate their business models. Is there a danger I am facilitating a slow, managed decline of the outdated business models Buckminster Fuller suggests just need replacing? What if I have been giving some companies a false sense of security, to feel okay about themselves and operate a while longer while they trash the last of our planetary resources? Suffice to say, who we work with (as individuals and as organisations) and on what terms, is a very important question. 

Engaging companies on a just transition towards a regenerative food system

Recently at my work, we’ve been testing an idea that would involve bringing together, in a workshop, people from larger food businesses with those that sit more within the UK’s grassroots food movement. By grassroots, I refer to a fairly broad spectrum of organisations focused on influencing a more sustainable food system, from campaigners and smallholders, to alternative food businesses. The hope is to explore some of the common ground that I believe exists around sustainability ambition and what needs to happen to accelerate us towards these shared goals.

As I’ve tested the idea with friends in the sector, it became apparent that for some in these communities, there would be two key issues to overcome. The first is around trust. For understandable reasons, many working in the grassroots food movement have little trust in “big food” players: around their authenticity and capacity for radical change. There might be a lot of suspicion. Careful facilitation would be required to ensure discussions are constructive, healthy and purposeful.

The other challenge relates to the working hypothesis that people hold about how a transition towards much greater societal sustainability will play out. From my experiences, I know some people working in the grassroots food movement believe we need to “tear down” the existing food system and allow a new community of sustainable food enterprises to rise up. In this scenario, our food system can become much more diverse and nutritious. In the enlightened agriculture vision that’s painted by thinkers such as Colin Tudge, agroecology, food sovereignty and economic democracy are core aims. Communities will have proper control over their food supply and Britain will have a million more farmers, many smallholders, selling direct to citizens and cutting out the “middle players”. Major retailers will presumably be pushed to the fringes and collapse, their businesses no longer viable. 

This scenario depends on some radical enabling policy from our government and while I am often an advocate this, I struggle with its realism, especially in the short term. The power and grip large companies yield over politics and our food system should not be under-estimated, and in any case, how many citizens are really on board with this vision?

At the other end of the scale, the more progressive corporates with grand sustainability commitments are struggling to wrap their heads around what the radical transition looks like within their rather inflexible structures. I expect they find it difficult to imagine a scene that’s too far removed from their existing business models, where citizens are offered a seemingly unlimited choice of cheap food.

Figure 3. “Tear it down” (reform) vs “Radical transformation” (rebuild)

For a rapid transition in our food system, what might the realistic version of events be? I suspect there’s a reality somewhere between the “tear it down” version of events, and the unrealistic “radical transformation” of mainstream incumbents. It seems helpful to think of this like some continuum, and for many working in sustainability, this reform vs revolution debate is of course, not new. 

Might it be valuable to bring some of the more grassroots organisations in our food system together with larger food companies to explore major transition pathways? This may – or may not – help us move forwards and depends a great deal on how it’s facilitated. It may rustle some new ideas, partnerships or innovations that are so desperately needed. It might also help us get a clearer view of what a just transition looks like for society. It seems an idea worth testing further.

Climate breakdown, neoliberalism and wild futures for farming

Preamble: this piece contains some disparate threads of thinking going on this week for me, on climate breakdown, capitalism, ferming and farming. 


My recently-departed colleague Iain Watt, who amusingly, possibly accurately, describes himself as “eco-curmudgeon” on twitter, gave a presentation about climate change in our workplace before Christmas. Since then, I keep thinking about a slide (below) which shows a non-linear history of the Earth’s temperature through different climatic periods. It projects forward into what scientists recently announced as our new geological epoch: the anthropocene. It shows how we’re about to undergo the biggest shift in farming for 12,000 years. 

We’ve never farmed in a +3 or +4 degree world before. Runaway climate change, we know, will have severe implications on civilisation. Human migrations, access to water and future food production. Every day, more and more people are grappling with this. Resilience. Transition. Adaptation. Deep adaptation.

A few weeks back I watched George Monbiot take to the stage at the Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC). His opening gambit is that nobody at the conference was really acknowledging the juggernauts that are about to hit us. Climate breakdown. Crashing biodiversity. Partly, I felt in agreement. And I thought about the slide deck for my presentation on animal feed sustainability that very morning. George happened to be in the room when I was presenting. Perhaps I should have included Iain’s slide and gave the audience a rousing provocation. Had I wrongly assumed that people already understand this and felt the urgency? More on George in a second.

Conscious capitalism?

It’s in response to this grave predicament around climate breakdown that we must seek radical solutions. New rules and structures for our economy and society. The hallmarks of capitalism: profit, growth and market competition, don’t sit comfortably in a future society that’s responding rapidly to climate breakdown.

Neoliberalism has been described as “capitalism with the gloves off”. It’s an ideology that seeks to maximise the freedom of the market by removing all barriers to the private accumulation of wealth. The problem is that many companies and governments have become wedded to neoliberal principles and are stuck designing their strategies and policies within this wrong-headed system. Every day, I feel like we’re rubbing-up against these limitations.

The other challenge is that because of the enormous power that large companies hold over society (the same companies that have benefited the most from neoliberalism), there seems to be an unspoken expectation that they must be engaged in designing tomorrow’s economic system. As happened in Davos last week, where the words “conscious capitalism” were thrown around. There was even a Tomorrow’s Capitalism conference a few weeks ago. These are fascinating discussions to be having and perhaps expose the cracks appearing in today’s system. But are we really reimagining the foundations of economics, or just rebranding capitalism to appear a little nicer?

These musings are a gentle reminder to myself to spend more time learning from the communities engaged in discussing steady-state and de-growth economics.

Ferming not farming?

Back to radical solutions and George Monbiot. Monbiot is a journalist I have enormous respect for and have learned so much from over the years. In his latest provocation, as set out in his documentary Apocalypse Cow and this article, he is advocating for a future food system in which farming barely features. In this future, technological wizardry will mean large quantities of our food will be synthesised in labs, combined with urban-based vertical hydroponic farms, this will enable us to rewild large swathes of our landscapes, helping avert the ecological collapse that we’re currently on track for. 

Monbiot is not the only one with this vision. A few months ago, I received an email from an excited colleague about RethinkX, who have written a provocation not too dissimilar about the future of food. 

While provocations like this can often stimulate a much-needed debate. I’m not enjoying this one. It feels too polarising, too far-reached and rather unhelpful. We need to find common ground on the future of agriculture. My old colleague, Mark Driscoll, wrote an excellent piece about this here, which I whole-heartedly agree with.

Perhaps some of us are not thinking “big” enough around the future role of synthesised foods? I don’t doubt the capacity of humans to make incredible leaps forward through technologies. However, what I’m hearing from these novel ingredient companies is different.

Putting subjects such as food culture, agroecology and the weak demand for synthesised foods to one side. Through my work, I’ve had the opportunity to speak with various novel ingredient manufacturers. While I haven’t spoken to Solar Foods (the start-up Monbiot is particularly excited about), I have spoken with various insect producers and fermentation-based technology companies using algae and single-cell proteins. These companies are starting to receive good investment and scaling-up beyond demonstrators.

Solar Foods: advert found on their Facebook page

However, with the exception of Impossible Foods, who claim they won’t stop until they eliminate the need for animals in the food chain, I’ve not heard claims from novel ingredient companies that they are capable of significantly displacing existing ingredients such as soy or palm.

Indeed, many are dependent on crop-based feedstocks. Algae, for example, typically uses sugar beet as a feedstock and as one professor explained to me, the sheer quantities of steel required to build manufacturing facilities to contend with palm oil, make it a difficult technology to provide a major substitution. Together, I’m not seeing a set of synthesised or novel ingredients that will make a serious dent in today’s agricultural system. I want to be proved wrong. Perhaps Solar Foods have a unique proposition that will overcome these sorts of barriers – but I wouldn’t bet on it.

Not to say we shouldn’t invest in novel food ingredients. They will have an important role in the future of our food and be valuable in helping ease pressure on land. But they are one of a large suite of solutions that we need to invest heavily in. Helping us move towards healthier diets, food access, fairer incomes, increased biodiversity, reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Just on the emissions front, the variety of solutions we need to massively shift agricultural emissions is demonstrated well by WRI’s analysis:

Why can’t we embrace the “less” of “less and better”?

Taking a step away from production to consumption. I’m frustrated that I still find myself having to tip-toe over using the words “Less and better” which in the UK, is advocated by coalitions of NGOs such as through the Eating Better Alliance. In the Q&A of my animal feed session at ORFC, a farmer in the audience suggested that we shouldn’t say “less. His suggestion, which I’ve heard many times before, is that we should focus on “more of the good things we want. 

Partly, I can understand where he is coming from. The word “less” is unpopular, particularly with businesses. It anti-growth. It sounds negative. Yet we really could do with less. There is widespread agreement on this across academia and in large sections of the general public. 

Tara Garnett makes the point wonderfully in her article “Has Veganism Become a Dirty Word”, where she proposes that “there isn’t a single environmental problem that I can think of that wouldn’t be improved by there being fewer farmed animals”.

Modelling future world meat production scenarios, based on FAO data.

The plant-based protein movement is happening, but it’s a microcosm against of backdrop of rising meat production. Overall there are 70 billion farmed (terrestrial) animals on our planet. This figure continues to rise and these animals need feeding. While livestock are incredibly valuable in mixed farming systems, many farms are not mixed and are incredibly degenerative. The feed, which is the biggest component of the ecological and carbon footprint, is often treated separately. Intensive livestock producers (particularly in chicken and pork) are disconnected from the impacts of animal feed and it’s often purchased with little scrutiny of its origins.

Example of the greenhouse gas footprint of chicken meat

Governments, retailers, traders and feed companies need to start saying with confidence the word “less”. “Less of x, more of y”. We need to start talking about “peak” livestock and mechanisms to facilitate a de-growth of the most damaging production systems. We’ll literally eat our civilisation to destruction if we fail to do this. It’s a hard conversation but we shouldn’t shy away from it.

I recently asked the “sustainability manager” of a major UK fish-farming company if they (or the wider industry) had ever considered environmental limits to their growth. His response: “are you seriously asking me this question!!!!”. Yes, I was completely serious. Why should this be a bizarre question to be asking?

Part II: Current Action on Feed Sustainability

This blog is reposted – it was first published on Forum for the Future’s website.

This is the second of a three-part blog series on the Path to a Better Animal Feed System. In the last blog, I outlined why action on animal feed sustainability is urgent and gave a sense of the future direction for monogastric and ruminant feedstocks.

Improving existing feed sustainability, reducing demand and scaling novel ingredients are all solutions that promise to make feed more sustainable. This blog focuses on the action being taken by organisations on feed sustainability, providing examples of opportunities and barriers to change.

1. Where does current action focus?

While there is increasing interest in sustainable animal feed, action is limited and public pressure remains low. Our work is finding only a handful of major companies have feed-specific commitments. Buying policies and innovation are often patchy, inconsistent and lack the bold ambition that’s called for in responding to global sustainability challenges.

Most action from retailers and food service is centred around deforestation commitments and soy certification. Notable commitments include the Cerrado Manifesto and the Consumer Goods Forum commitment on zero net deforestation by 2020. The Cerrado Manifesto, launched in 2018 has had strong momentum, being signed by over 70 global companies. It puts the onus on soy and meat producers and traders, to prevent runaway destruction of the Cerrado savanna. However, without participation from major commodities firms such as Cargill, ADM and Bunge, there’s concern about how successful this initiative will be.

Figure 1. Many company commitments related to deforestation are centred around palm oil and timber. Graphic from Achieving 2020: Forest 500 Report 2017

Soy is one of the most significant feed crops. Approximately one quarter of the animal feed market is soy-based, and 70-75 percent of global soybean production goes towards animal feed (Chatham House, 2016). Next to beef, soy is one of the leading drivers of deforestation. To encourage more responsible soy production, the Round Table for Responsible Soy is one forum seeking to develop and promote a sustainability standard for the production, processing, trading and use of soy.

Yet traction is limited. Certified ‘sustainable’ soy is increasing but still only 1-2 percent of the 270 million annual tons grown is certified sustainable. This compares to 21 percent of the global supply of palm oil.

Why is this? One factor is that there is limited public demand for sustainable soy, which remains a largely hidden ingredient in the supply chain. Another factor is financial. In 2018, one industry insider suggested that sustainable soy is less than 1 percent more expensive, however, the feed industry (who buy most of it) work on very thin margins and can’t absorb all the costs.

2. Other feed sustainability wins

While frustratingly slow, the focus on deforestation-free soy commitments is critical and requires strong collaboration and supportive policy. Alongside this, what other opportunities are there on sustainable animal feed?

For existing feedstocks, improving feed sustainability can include incorporating feed production into more regenerative agricultural systems, making better use of waste-streams and choosing ingredients that optimise the feed-to-food conversion efficiency.

In smaller-scale livestock systems, various examples exist where agroecological practices enable more sustainable feeding practice. We covered some examples in the first blog. Other examples include Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm, where pastured poultry are part of a rotation requiring less grain-inputs and Kipster Farm in the Netherlands, where chickens feed on residual flows from bakeries and agriculture.

In larger systems however, there are fewer examples to draw from. In the UK, Waitrose has several initiatives on animal feed including efforts to source European soy, a collaborative Sustainable Forage Protein project and the trialling of alternatives to soy, such as locally grown fava beans for chicken, pigs, ducks and salmon.

Another example is Arla, one of the largest dairy farming co-operatives in Europe. It has collectively reduced CO2 emissions per kilo of milk by 24 per cent in Northern Europe, and optimising feed was a key part of achieving this. They now have targets to work towards net zero CO2 emissions by 2050 and to significantly reduce methane emissions.

Soya fields in the Danube Region of Europe (Image courtesy of Waitrose)

It’s clear further action and incentives are needed. One of the biggest barriers often cited is financial: that sustainable or local feed production is more expensive. So organisations need to ask, what are the financial and policy incentives we can help create to help drive action and support a more even playing field?

3. Reducing Demand for Feed

Another strategy to address animal feed sustainability is reducing the demand for feed. In the previous blog, I discussed how the overall demand for feed might shift if human diets become more plant-based. Feed demand is also shifting as animal nutrition becomes more optimised or ‘precise’. This helps reduce pressure on land and resources, and could be an important opportunity to improve costs.

Seizing the opportunity to optimise nutrition and reduce feed demand is one of the strategies China plans to take, driven by a desire to reduce its reliance on imported soy. By using synthesised feed-grade amino acids, it’s possible to calibrate diets much more precisely, reducing the quantity of feedstock required to meet an animal’s nutritional needs.

Studies at UC Davis led by Ermias Kebreab are showing how amino acid supplements can significantly reduce the imports of soybean, sometimes by over 50 percent in pig and poultry diets. The environmental impact is also considerably improved, with greenhouse gas emissions reduced by 56 percent and 54 percent in pigs and broilers. This demonstrates the potential for feed supplements to help improve the environmental footprint of feed.

4. Novel Feeds

Finally, there may be new opportunities to address sustainability with novel feeds. In our Feed Behind our Food report, we covered a number of novel feeds, including insects, algae and single cell proteins. These novel feeds continued to build in momentum in 2018.

In particular, we saw increased momentum for insects as feed, where the sustainability opportunity is their high efficiency in converting food waste or industry by-products into a high quality feed ingredient, with little land-use.

Several insect companies are currently scaling-up beyond demonstration plants, such as Ynsect(France) and Protix (Netherlands). In 2018, the Dutch retailer Albert Heijn launched a soy-free egg made from insect-fed layers (live insects are permitted). Protix also launched a ‘friendly salmon’ brand, in which the fishmeal content of the feed is replaced with their fly-larvae based feed.

As insect production starts to scale, will they reach cost-parity against mainstream feedstocks and offer nutritional advantages? Are there market incentives that will support this scale? These are outstanding questions. At present, the end-markets for insect-based feed are primarily pet food and aquaculture, because these are higher value markets but also because of regulation barriers. In Europe, the use of insects for feed has only been allowed since 2017 but is only limited to aquaculture.

Promising animal feedstocks: Insect mealworm, microalgae and single-cell proteins

In aquaculture we are witnessing the commercialisation of algae in feedstocks. In Norway, some salmon producers have been replacing fish oil with fatty acids from natural marine algae. We are watching this closely in our project, and intend to conduct an evaluation of the sustainability implications.

While novel feeds are receiving increased coverage and investments, concerted and collaborative action are required to help support and accelerate their scaling. Particularly as there is limited demand from the public or value-added marketing opportunities currently.

We also need to understand how much of a step-change they can help deliver. Some companies we talk to are also feeling overwhelmed by the mindfield of novel feed companies coming to the market with different claims about the potential of their products.

5. The Power of Collaboration

What’s clear in our learning is that organisations acting alone cannot drive change across the system. Crucial to success is the power of collaboration. By working together, we stand a better chance.

Covered in Part 3 of this blog, I’ll explain how the Feed Compass collaboration aims to drive this concerted, collaborative action and help companies navigate the complexity. Looking holistically at the sustainability of these novel feedstocks, in relation to nutritional and financial outcomes.

Why I Bought Shares On A Community Farm

For many people, the experience of volunteering at a community farm fulfils a deeply held desire to get closer to the land. It stirs a comforting sense of feeling rooted and valuing the simple, nourishing fruits from the earth. In the patchwork of greenbelt that surrounds London, there’s a huge potential for projects that fulfil this desire, while helping to increase food production. An excellent example is Sutton Community Farm, a bustling enterprise on the greenbelt that’s owned and shaped by a community of 141 people.

Sutton Community Farm sits on a beautiful seven-acre smallholding overlooking the city skyline. Each week, an enthusiastic troupe of volunteers, young and old, come together and grow 15 tonnes of vegetables through the year. The majority of the food goes into a VegBox scheme that serves south London with the rest sold to restaurants and given away to volunteers. The farm employs four growers and three administrative members of staff who manage the box scheme and other farm activities; an impressive number of good jobs for such a small patch of land.

London skyline from Sutton Community Farm

What makes this project also stand-out from others is that it’s entirely community-owned. The farm has just launched their second share offer and is inviting people to invest. The investment will help the farm build a much-needed barn so that it can expand it’s Veg Box scheme and better accommodate groups. For as little as £30, it’s possible to buy shares, own a piece of the farm and help support a new approach to farming; one that’s sustainable, resilient and benefits people as well as the planet.

I have been deeply involved with the farm since 2012 and have seen thousands of people from all walks of life come to enjoy, learn and experience growing food. I’ve witnessed how it gently lifts people’s moods, helps them make new friends and feel re-energised from the fresh air and meaningful exercise. For some, particularly those that are retired, live alone or are unable to work, a weekly trip to the farm has helped them to step outside of their house and boosted their confidence. I’ve even seen people dramatically change their careers direction to pursue work in community food and the voluntary sector as a result of their experience on the farm.

On a typical Wednesday, there are 30 volunteers that come to help grow, harvest and pack vegetables. It’s a friendly place with many volunteers that have been coming for several years. At the heart of the farm is the VegShed where the packing operation, office and lunch is served. It’s a tight space that has to be transformed throughout the day depending on the activity – it’s this that the farm’s hoping to transform into a new barn through the capital raised in the share offer.

Veg Shed packing

Community shares are a growing movement as people look beyond traditional charitable structures to social enterprises, that are democratically owned by the community they serve. This model empowers people to take a stake in local assets, opening the door to participation and feeling more connected. It means you can run a business where the community truly takes centre stage.

So what does it meant to be a shareholder? As seen in the creation of community-owned shops, pubs and community energy projects, Sutton Community Farm offers an ownership stake through purchasable shares.  The minimum investment is £30 and each member has one vote, no matter how much they invest. The share capital is withdrawable after five years.

Even if you don’t live close to the farm, you are invited to buy shares and be part of this project. Every investor is hugely appreciated and for this share offer, every pound invested is matched by the Community Shares Booster Programme. As a member, you have the option to be involved in shaping the business and assisting with decision-making. This largely takes place through the management committee which is elected each year from the membership at the Annual Members’ Meeting.

People often ask whether community shares offer dividends or interest. The answer is yes they can,  however like with all investments there is risk. While Sutton Community Farm’s financial forecasts include future interest payments, investors should generally expect a social dividend rather than a financial reward. As one of the first shareholders at Sutton Community Farm, it has been the best social dividend I’ve ever had.

If you’re interested in investing in shares, you have until the 26th May 2017 to support the farm and help them reach their target of £68,575.

Here’s the link: pic aug16

Sustainable Nutrition: A New Focus for 2017

Last week I left behind the world of freelance life to start a new job. While the going was good (and smooth like this excellent William Onyeabor tune), it’s really exciting to be part of a team again and getting involved with some bigger projects. I’m at Forum for the Future and working in their food team. The big theme in my role is responding to the challenge of sustainable nutrition. This is about people eating healthy, nutritious diets of sustainably produced food.

It’s a smart concept to focus on because it brings together two major areas of concern: sustainable food production and nutrition. More often than not these concerns are considered separately and this can be problematic. For example, a business may deliver more sustainable production yet create food or a service that contributes to unhealthy lifestyles. On the flipside, advocating nutritious foods but neglecting to act on the sustainability of resources e.g. a highly wasteful system, endangered fish stocks, or foods requiring high amounts of processing and packaging. In short, sustainable food is not just about how we produce food but the types of food we produce.

Sustainable Nutrition

With the scale of challenges facing our global food system, helping businesses to view food through a sustainable nutrition lens is a smart approach. Using this approach, businesses must consider their direction of travel, the future they are shaping and the role they have. This is the other main angle to my new role at Forum; helping diagnose challenges in the food system, understanding the risks ahead and use these as a mantle for driving change. To this end, Forum have a variety of futures tools to help people draw out scenarios for the future and design for scaling up impact. After all, many of the solutions we need exist today and the challenge is identifying the levers that will help them to develop and scale.

Many of the deep and complex challenges in the food system can only be solved through collaboration; between organisations and across their supply chains. This is a critical characteristic of a healthier, more resilient future and described beautifully in John Grant’s book Co-opportunity. An example of one of Forum’s food collaborations is The Protein Challenge 2040 which is a global coalition exploring how we feed nine billion people enough protein in a way which is affordable, healthy and good for the environment.

For effective systems change, another aspect is trying to answer the question: what does it all add up to? While many organisations and governments are now creating and promoting sustainability strategies, few are able to demonstrate coherence against global challenges such as staying within 1.5°C, or helping meeting Sustainable Development Goals. Articulating what everything adds up to and embedding it deeply within a business or across a supply chain is a transformative process, and exactly the direction we should be heading.

Behind the Scenes: Creating an Efficient VegBox Scheme

The two most well-known national VegBox schemes in the UK are Riverford and Abel & Cole. Like freckles dotted in between, there are many smaller box schemes1. These are usually associated with small-scale farms and provide the ideal way for local people to access good quality, super local and seasonal produce from farms on their doorstep. Sited on the edges of south London, Sutton Community Farm is one of these schemes and serves around 250 weekly customers. I’ve been involved with developing their box scheme over the last four years and this blog is about some of the technical systems that lie beneath the surface.

Box schemes are one of the most promising ways we can re-localise our food system and support productive, more sustainable mixed-use farming systems. In terms of managing them, they are notoriously bureaucratic to administer considering the value of product sold. Each week, a new box is designed in conjunction with what crops are ready. After this, there’s the customer support, order administration, packing and managing deliveries to households or pickup points. To be financially viable, it’s vital that the systems behind the box scheme are designed to be as efficient as possible.

While scaling-up can create efficiencies for an enterprise, there are challenges involved in pulling this off. It involves co-developing each element of the system from the food production to delivery logistics, the packing operation, customer service support. All alongside constant sales and marketing and remaining rooted in local food and community. Riverford is an example that shows it can be done. Despite these challenges, box schemes are enormously rewarding and honest enterprises, giving farmers a fairer price for their produce and enabling consumers access to high quality, seasonal produce.

Some of the team that pack the Veg Boxes
Some of the team at Sutton Community Farm that pack the Veg Boxes

Off-the-shelf solution or bespoke?

I’ve had a lot of headaches over the years running a box scheme and most of it comes down to technology. In recent years, more off-the-shelf software has been emerging to help local food distribution such as BuckyBox and the Open Food Network. This is welcome news especially in the case of Open Food Network, which is UK based and started as a collaboration between box schemes that had shared challenges. If I were starting afresh with designing a box scheme, I would opt for one of these platforms. They take a small percentage cut of the sale but to avoid the headaches of administration and system design from scratch, it’s worth it.

It’s also worth mentioning new sales and distribution platforms set up to support small producers such as The Food Assembly and Farm Drop. These are aiming to disrupt the market, making it easier for small-scale producers to find their customer base. The Food Assembly is essentially a smart, modern day farmers market where customers buy in advance and this gives producers assured sales. Of course, this comes at a price and for The Food Assembly, their cut is about 16% of the sale (8% to the market manager giving them the incentive to market your business, and 8% to the central organisation).

Designing the Box

Designing a VegBox is a bit like going grocery shopping for several hundred people and working to a strict budget. Over the years, we’ve constructed a spreadsheet tool that makes this process as simple as possible. Not only does the spreadsheet help design Boxes to budget, it also summarises the supplier order, generates posters for the packing day and enables easy upload of the box contents to an email or website for sharing. Here are some screenshots from the spreadsheet:

VegBox designing
Spreadsheet for box design (containing dummy data)

Customer Insights

For marketing purposes, it’s important to understand where customers come from, how long they typically stay and why they leave. We’ve embedded these questions into the customer journey so they are easily captured. On signing up for a VegBox, it’s compulsory for customers to answer how they heard about the box scheme and if they cancel, we seek to understand this through email or phone, capturing this information in the database. By standardising data fields (while also allowing space for custom text too), insights data can be generated in seconds and summarised on a dynamic dashboard as shown below. Previously it would take hours to compile this data.

Insights dashboard for the VegBox scheme (with dummy data)

By geocoding customer data, we are also able to generate an interactive map of our customers which can be filtered by average spend or type of delivery, as shown below:

Map of customers and mode of delivery (containing dummy data)

Order Management and Logistics

SCF’s ordering system is custom built using Ruby on Rails. One of the reasons we haven’t used off-the-shelf software is because of the flexibility we want to offer our customers, which include features absent from off-the-shelf systems. One of the greatest challenges when building the online shop was providing a flexible Direct Debit solution so customers can have a regular order which can easily be amended, by the customers as well as an administrator. For payment providors, the cheapest and most suitable one I’ve found is GoCardless which has a good API.

The routine for SCF box scheme is outlined below. Over the years we’ve aimed to minimise the time taken to process the order data and to plan the delivery logistics. When I started working on the Box scheme, this job was taking the best part of a day with many headaches and unreliable data coming out of the ordering system. Today, this job can be done in around 10 minutes if all goes to plan.


The order data that is downloaded from the backend of the website is a CSV file which is uploaded into a specially designed spreadsheet that presents the data in various useful formats. The first requirement is a summary of the total orders which enables the box designing to begin straight away on Monday morning.

Following this, the delivery route is established. I’ve had mixed success with route planning software in the past, mainly because it’s not just about finding the most efficient driving route. Some deliveries require time prioritisation; for example, pick-up points in pubs require delivery in the afternoon, while shops usually require delivery in the morning. Route planning software has often struggled to deal effectively with these demands. We have used software on and off and established reasonable manual systems for editing the routes each week.

Recently, I have been trialing a logistics software called OptimoRoute and this is looking a promising solution, so the farm will trial this in the new year. The order spreadsheet has been designed so that data can be quickly exported into this route planning software and back into the spreadsheet, so driver sheets and bag labels can be printed off with ease. The route planning currently takes 1-2 hours per week and the aim is to reduce this to around 15 minutes.

OptimoRoute software for route planning

And when you’ve got it cracked…

By making full use of available technologies and designing smarter spreadsheets, staff can be less bogged down in confusing spreadsheets and can focus on delivering a better product. Furthermore, the farm can comfortably increase it’s customer base with very little additional administration in order management.

Box schemes are a fantastic route to market for small, mixed farms and my hope is that they have a vibrant future. While they can be a tricky product for the customer, they are also extremely rewarding to receive and help us become resourceful chefs, in tune with the seasons and better-connected with the trials and delights of local food production.

One of the vans for delivering the Boxes
One of the vans for delivering Boxes


1. Some box schemes are referred to as a “Community supported agriculture” (CSA) scheme. This is a partnership between farmers and consumers in which the responsibilities, risks and rewards of farming are shared. Find out more here:

On Trying to Open a Community Farm Shop & Cafe

I recently wrote about my involvement in trying to establish a community-owned ecology park and a community-owned microbrewery. In these projects, I’m working collaboratively with others, aiming to get each project into a position where we can raise investment and employ an experienced manager to drive the project forward. I see my involvement as helping move the project to this point and thereafter, my aim is to continue as an engaged member, hopefully enjoying some locally brewed beer, looking out over a beautiful ecology park abundant in wildlife, and picking up ingredients for my dinner from a shop that cares deeply about the provenance of its food.

From personal experience and meeting many community-owned businesses through my involvement with the Plunkett Foundation, perhaps I’m being too optimistic on the amount of work this will take. The process of starting-up a community enterprise takes a huge amount of energy, possibly more so than a conventional business as there are more people involved in the journey.

Nurturing the idea

Both the microbrewery and the farm shop are ideas that have spun out from my work at Sutton Community Farm – London’s first community-owned farm which bustles with many wonderful people. We started seriously considering a Community Farm Shop & Cafe in 2015 after we conducted a survey asking our friends, supporters and customers whether they would like us to open a Farm Shop. We had a fantastic response from 200+ people, displaying a huge amount of enthusiasm and pledges of time and money to help make it happen.

With some promising survey results, we sat down and debated whether to pursue the idea. It was an attractive idea for our farm that felt complimentary to our work, giving us a new outlet to extend our social impact. On the other hand, we didn’t feel we had the energy or resources to work on it. The truth was that we were incredibly busy, working long hours to keep the farm going on shoe-string budgets. How could we start thinking about a new enterprise?

The role we felt we could best play was to facilitate a public meeting, bringing everyone together that expressed interests in a farm shop, making it clear that the community or someone else with the time, skills and enthusiasm, would have to take it on.

I facilitated two community meetings at St Nicolas Church in the centre of Sutton because this was where the survey responders expressed their greatest desire to see the farm shop. The Plunkett Foundation kindly helped cover the venue hire costs and gave a presentation about community-owned businesses. I shared some of my hopes for a farm shop from the perspective of the farm, presented the results of our survey (shown in the presentation below) and then invited people to discuss their hopes and ideas. We had a healthy turn-out of around 25 people to each meeting and from this, a small team of people came forward who were willing to meet regularly, forming a working committee to drive the project forward.An early meeting in St Nicolas Church, Sutton

Putting together the business plan

Our group of about 4-6 people met every 3 weeks. I was keen not to act as leader and encouraged others to take responsibilities of Chair and Secretary. This was partly because I didn’t want this to be considered a “farm project”. Knowing the limited resources of the farm, this project needs to stand on its own legs as a community business, even if it shares fraternity with the farm and its ethos.

In the first few months, it felt there was sometimes a danger of our meetings becoming more of a “talking shop” than an action group. It’s enjoyable to imagine together what our ideal shop or cafe would look like. What values it would have and how we would try to make it warm and welcoming for all. This was valuable and important discussion however I was worried about our momentum and keen to ensure there were well-facilitated meetings, agendas and action points. This happened with varying success but we did make progress and grew more confident as we visited other community shops, met a community business advisor and got to grips with who we were and what we wanted.

Summer evening shop meeting on the farm
Summer evening shop meeting on the farm

Around this time, the Plunkett Foundation launched a new programme called Our Urban Shop, which aimed to help communities come together to open an urban shop. Plunkett’s work usually supports rural communities so this was a very promising development for us. The opportunity was up to £30k grant funding matched by £30k loan finance, providing we also raised a similar level in community shares. Unfortunately, we were unsuccessful in our application for various reasons – one being that our business proposal included a cafe which the lenders were reluctant invest in. However the promise of funding spurred us on to write a fairly comprehensive business plan which I’ve shared below.

Not long after, we had a second knock-back on a smaller fund application which was aimed at helping us launch a scaled-back pop-up version of the farm shop. While I was disappointed, this may have been for the best. As a trading enterprise, the project feels more suitable for investment rather than grants. We also still didn’t have anyone in mind to manage the project if we were successful with funding. We wanted to find someone passionate about opening a shop and cafe, who understands and knows the business.

One of the challenges in the community business sector is attracting such entrepreneurs, because entrepreneurs usually want to set up their own business, where they can reap the rewards of their own success and hard work. Community businesses on the other hand, are selfless enterprises, rewarding for many even if they are led by a few.

Public engagement on Sutton High Street
Gathering interest on Sutton High Street: further market research

The business plan and next steps

Over the seasons our group has dwindled somewhat; one member is having a maternity break, another moved to Indonesia, another to volunteer with Raleigh International. A couple other members felt they didn’t have much to offer anymore, perhaps because we had become so focused on writing a business plan. I also had a busy summer working on a project that left me too tired in the evening to think about this project. I was also feeling a little deflated, unsure whether this was right project to be investing my energies into despite my desire to see it happen.

We haven’t given up though. We are keeping in touch and keeping an eye out for opportunities. A huge number of hours have been spent on this project and it would be a shame to see it go to nothing. Even if it does, we’ve had a lot of fun along the way and learnt a lot about shop and cafe planning.

So besides the therapy of writing about it, I’m making the business plan public, in the spirit of the creative commons and with the hope that someone may come out of the woodwork with the right expertise who wants to help make this happen. Perhaps someone with similar ideas, money or a shop location in mind.

Our business plan does a good job of expressing our vision for the shop and cafe, the products and services we intend to provide, detailed market research, with governance plans and financial projections. The plan and financial spreadsheet are adaptable, ready to be adjusted to suit the given location, expected footfalls and staffing levels.

If we are to open this business, we need to unlock at least one of the triple challenges we have: 1) finding a suitable location, 2) getting someone on board who wants to run it, and 3) raising the finance. So if you know of anywhere, anyone or have a stack of cash you want to put towards a good cause, do drop us a line. And finally, without further ado…

Click here to download our draft business plan (PDF)

Further resources and examples:

Local Brews: Resources and Opportunities for Community Beer

One of the joys of working in a community food project is the wonderful people you meet along the way. Ben Fleet is a volunteer at our community farm, a friendly chap who always brings good cheer and enthusiasm to the day. When I met Ben a few years back he was starting out as a brewer, working for Brixton Brewery (he now works at Redchurch Brewery). He would come regularly to our Wednesday volunteer days, willing to get stuck right in with the vegetable growing operation.

At that time I was managing the farm and working hard to find a financial model that made us independent from grants – a tricky challenge for any small-scale farm. I was exploring how we could diversify our income and with a booming craft beer movement happening in London, I was curious to explore this opportunity. Working with Ben and his gallons of enthusiasm, we’ve done lots of thinking and research about community beer. We even launched a community hop-growing project called Grow Beer Sutton which just celebrated its first brew – more on that in a moment.

In this post, I’m sharing some of the thinking we’ve done. There are many opportunities for community-led beer projects and while we would love to embrace these opportunities, we can only do bits at a time. Therefore following the co-operative spirit of Sutton Community Farm and the principles of creative commons, we are sharing our work with the aim of inviting collaborators to join us, while also hoping to inspire and support others in the community food/beer sector.

The Projects

In order of ambition, we considered the following community beer projects at Sutton Community Farm:

  1. Grow Beer Sutton: a community hop growing and brewing project.
  2. “Learn to brew beer” courses: encouraging people to take up the joys of brewing.
  3. Contract or “cuckoo” brewing: brewing our own-brand beer at someone else’s brewery.
  4. Starting our own microbrewery! 
  5. Microbrewery + Hop Farm: combining a microbrewery with a few acres of hops, using a field leased close to the farm. We believe there’s a gap in the market for local, heritage hops and growing them together may be a great project to complement our community farm. 

I met with Ben a few times to think through these projects and over the year, we’ve completed some detailed feasibility work on the ideas we think could work well at Sutton Community Farm. The following sections introduce this work, sharing resources that we think will be useful for other projects.

1. Grow Beer: a simple, replicable project

In late 2013, I met Helen Steer who founded Brixton Beer, a community hop-growing project. The concept is simple: people grow hops in their gardens or local community spaces and every year the harvest is brought together on the same day and weighed in. A brewer then makes beer with the fresh green cones (normally brewers use dried hops) and the community come together a few weeks later to drink it. The project promises to be self-funding using money raised from selling the hop plants and can be repeated year-on-year as hops are perennial.

Helen open-sourced the project concept, creating some great resources (available here) to help others start their own community-hop growing project. There are now many projects across London and the UK, including The Palace Pint in Crystal Palace, East Bristol Hops and Cardiff Hops.

I met Helen over some beers with Ben and she encouraged us to give it a go. We didn’t need much persuading. Helen claimed the project takes about four days per year to administer, would help raise useful funds for our farm and be heaps of fun. So we went ahead and launched Grow Beer SuttonIn terms of time, I reckon we spent more than four days on the project and in terms of funds, it didn’t pay for itself once you take into account the time invested by farm staff. However it was definitely lots of fun.

In our first year, 31 growers bought hop plants which were dotted around our local community as shown in the map below. The hop packs we sold consisted of the rhizome, compost, manure, gravel, twine and some basic instructions on growing the hops. These were picked up in March, either from the farm or our local farmers market in Wallington.

Grow Beer Sutton Hop Packs

Before long we had reports coming in from growers on our Facebook group where we shared tips on growing hops. Some folks were having great success while others struggled to get their rhizomes established – problems with growing techniques, location, the weather, or all three!  Below is a photo from the most successful hop grower Rachael, whose hops went crazy! Followed by a photo of our pooled harvest in September which weighed a respectable 2.5kg. Contributions came from many, however the majority were from our star hop grower, Rachael. This wasn’t bad for Year 1 and plenty to make a brew.

Hop plant
Our star hop grower, Rachael

Grow Beer Sutton Hop Harvest 2016
Our Hop Harvest for 2016

The great thing about this project is how it has introduced many new people to the farm, including those who might not normally come across us. It also gave us the opportunity to promote a crop that was historically grown in our area. As we started talking about beer, we also found many home brewers in our local community. One of them was a fellow called Rod Edbrooke who has been home brewing for 30 years. Rod offered to take the hops home and make the brew. Ben Fleet also took a batch, so we had two brews in total.

Just a few weeks ago our first brew was complete and we gathered together at the farm to celebrate. Rod gave a talk about the brewing process and one of our generous volunteers made a delicious squash curry to accompany the beer. There were about 100 pints brewed in total; plenty to go around and anything leftover was bottled for taking home. I must say, this was some really great tasting beer and one of the most satisfying pints I’ve ever had!

Our first Grow Beer Sutton party

Some of the beer taken home and ready to drink!

We’re now planning how we’ll continue the project in 2017, reviewing what’s worked well and how we will administer it. The farm staff are enthusiastic but extremely busy so we are trying to find volunteers to help take this on. As part of this, we’re thinking about the key tasks and how they could be allocated out. So if you’re local to Sutton and wish to help, please do get in touch ([email protected]). We would love to hear from you.

Here’s resources from this project, that will be useful to other community hop-growing projects:

2. Brewing courses

Following a successful Grow Beer Sutton party, we are now talking to Rod about putting on a beer-brewing course at Sutton Community Farm in 2017. From talking with our Grow Beer participants it sounds like there will be good interest. Personally, it’s something I’m keen to attend as it’s much more enjoyable to learn a skill with others than to sit alone with a guidebook, or worse, in front of the glare of a computer screen on YouTube. This is something that should be fairly straight-forward to organise, however we need to do further work to ensure the space is suitable (health and safety) and appropriately insured.

Useful resources for putting on a brewing course:

  • Having put on courses over the years, here’s a useful Excel tool you can download to understand the financial feasibility of running a course. Other projects may find this handy.

3. Contract or “cuckoo” brewing

Contract or “cuckoo” brewing is about making our beer in someone else’s brewery. ‘Cuckoo’ brewing involves a customer borrowing and using the equipment of another brewery to brew. Contract brewing is when the brewery is contracted to make the brew on behalf of the customer. This is either based on a specific recipe provided by the customer, or a customer may commissions a brew without having brewing knowledge or skill. Our proposal would be either “cuckoo” brew or contract brew, working closely with the brewery on a recipe we have formulated. 

This is attractive for a few reasons. First, it involves far less start-up costs than setting up a brewery for the obvious reasons of not having to pay rent, buy equipment, etc. It’s also a great way to learn more about the industry, while testing a product; the recipes and market reaction. In London, there are breweries set up to support this, such as Ubrew. With control over the inputs, we can source local hops (or grow our own) and organic ingredients. The project could be crowdfunded with the community investing to support the project costs in advance.

Resources: we’ve written a detailed project feasibility details for this project, which is downloadable here as a PDF.

4. Creating a Community Microbrewery

If you’ve had the stamina to read this far, this is where things get exciting. Working with Ben, we have invested a lot of time into researching the feasibility of starting a community-owned microbrewery in Sutton.This isn’t a new idea. There are a handful of other community-owned breweries in the UK, such as the PumpHouse Community Brewery in Essex and Topsham Ales in Devon – but nothing local to us.

We’re now opening up the project feasibility work we’ve done so far, providing valuable resources for others to use. We’re sharing our work for a few reasons. Firstly, the spirit of the creative commons, where sharing knowledge can help build a more equitable, accessible, and innovative world. Secondly, because we’re not in competition with anyone and rather, we would love for others to come on board and help make this project happen. Finally and most importantly, we love local beer and think there should be more of it.

In our feasibility analysis, we have considered the following scales:

  • Nano: brewing batches of 2.5BBL (409L)
  • Micro! brewing batches of 6BBL (980L)

To build a nano-brewery we will need additional space at the farm, which in time we expect to have available. When this happens, a nano-brewery could slot into a grander plan we have to establish a FoodLab, which would be a flexible space for other secondary production too.

Sharing our Community Beer Feasibility Work…

We’re planning to continue developing these plans and working with the farm. Over the coming years, the facilities at the Farm are likely to improve which will enable projects such as a microbrewery.

Our analysis so far is comprehensive, almost to the level of a business plan, covering a detailed description of the product, the market in south London, operational plans, financial modelling and shares lots of resources we’ve found along the way.

By sharing the work we’ve done so far, we hope that others may be interested in coming on board to help or at very least, other community projects in the UK will stumble across this and benefit from our hard graft. If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Click here to download our community microbrewery feasibility analysis (PDF).

Getting to grips with a “super wicked” problem: the future of food and farming

“Nothing less is required than a redesign of the whole food system to bring sustainability to the fore”.
Foresight: The Future of Food and Farming, 2011

The abundance of food lining our supermarket shelves and providing millions of people with an affordable and reliable food source is a small modern-day miracle. However beyond the glistening aisles of the supermarket, our food system causes an often untold destruction of the ecosystems we depend on. This is compromising our ability to achieve a secure food supply in the future1 – both in the near future and long-term. As we witness this destruction with heavy hearts, we are being called by leaders, scientists and other experts to rethink and reshape an entire industry, to help repair damaged ecosystems and avoid major societal collapse. What a mountain we have to climb! It’s tempting, as with climate change, to either look the other way and pretend everything’s okay, or adopt a philosophy which basically concludes that ultimately, we’re all doomed, collapse is inevitable and so let’s sit back and enjoy the ride while we can. To put it bluntly, both of these positions are nonsense and we must face up to the facts, get a grip and try to be part of a movement of change that’s collaborative, bold, honest and positive.

Representing the food system

Getting a strong grasp of the challenges is critical because implementing effective policy is a delicate affair. We don’t have the luxury of designing a new food system to replace the old one. We are stuck in the thick of a deeply complex system, made from a mostly self-organised set of interacting parts. Academics are constantly exploring different approaches to representing the food system, to support those trying to get to grips with it. Here’s one example of a representation:

Representation of a food system (Arnall and Pope, 2015)
Representation of a food system (Arnall and Pope, 2015)

One common problem is that almost everyone is a “specialist”. Yet the complexity of the challenge calls for us to take a broad view, stepping outside our narrow specialty to take stock of the bigger picture. We are fortunate to have a wealth of collaborative projects, publications and resources that help us make sense of the challenges in our food system and suggest approaches to improve its sustainability. The most relevant example in recent years is the comprehensive Foresight Future of Food and Farming Report (Foresight 2011) that involved around 400 leading experts and stakeholders, drawing on a breadth of scientific and other evidence. Here’s some very brief notes taken from this report that give a brief flavour of its overall messages:

Notes from the Foresight project: the Future of Food and Farming.
Notes from the Foresight project report on the Future of Food and Farming. Click here for a PDF version of this graphic.

This is a ‘super wicked’ problem

When thinking about the actions required to transform the food system, it’s useful to appreciate the type of problem we’re dealing with. Last year, I attended an IFSTAL lecture on food systems thinking by Dr. Alex Arnall at Reading University which introduced different categorisations of problems, drawing on a social science theory developed by Rittel and Webber (Rittel 1973). In brief, there are ‘tame‘ problems which are complicated but solvable (e.g. increasing drought resistance of a certain crop) and ‘wicked‘ problems which are complex and intractable, often transcending boundaries such as organisations, disciplines or geopolitical  (e.g. the problem of food waste). A relatively new category was suggested in 2012 called ‘super wicked‘ problems, defined as having the additional characteristics (Leven 2012):

  • “Time is running out;
  • The central authority needed to address it is weak or non-existent;
  • Those seeking to solve the problem are also causing it;
  • Policies discount the future irrationally.”

In Dr Arnall’s presentation, he describes overfishing, obesity and climate change as having the characteristics of ‘super wicked’ problems. Based on their definition, it feels reasonable to suggest the challenges facing future food production is also a ‘super wicked’ problem. When these features listed above combine, Leven et al. describe the result a policy-making “tragedy” where “traditional analytical techniques are ill-equipped to identify solutions, even when it is well recognised that actions must take place soon to avoid catastrophic future impacts” (Levin 2012).

Why a different approach to policy making is required

A conventional approach to policy often involves identifying single goals, such as efficiency, and applying a variation of cost-benefit policy analysis3. However this approach is unable to deal with the open, non-linear characteristics of the food system, where humans and organisations often interact in unpredictable ways. Levin et al. therefore suggest applying a “forward reasoning” approach that “identifies possible policy interventions and reasons forward to how the problem and interventions might unfold over time“. In short, the use of scenarios and futures tool. Their paper does not advocate discounting historical forces that shape politics and outcomes; rather they should be embraced and used to open up creative solutions to address “super wicked” problems. Progressive incremental trajectories are suggested as the best resolution for “super wicked” problems, rather than one-shot logical solutions, which often get trapped and fail in their ambition.

Levin et al. identified three helpful questions for policymakers that are designed to address the tragedy of super wicked problems:

  1. What can be done to create stickiness? This is the idea that makes reversibility of the policy immediately difficult. In this, it’s important that interventions do not legitimise low standards or worse, lock in lower standards (e.g. aiming to low in our targets).
  2. How might protocol be designed to foster deliberations to entrench policy interventions?
  3. How might protocol be designed to foster deliberations to expand policy interventions?

In exploring the above questions, Leven et al. go into much further detail, suggesting that analysts designing policy also pay greater attention to:

  • The role of coalitions;
  • Values and deeply held views about right and wrong by segments of society;
  • Fostering norms that define and regulate appropriate behaviour – this can trigger positive feedbacks.

Involving this type of approach in policy making feels appropriate for addressing “super wicked” problems, which demand a different type of analysis.

While much more could be said in this post, my intention is just a brief personal exploration. The challenge is enormous, frustratingly complex and as such, it’s clear that food cannot be treated like any other commodity, By finding ways to broadly understand food security and appreciate it as a “super wicked” problem, we have a much better chance to head on a positive trajectory, for the sake of future generations.


1. For in depth further (acedemic) reading on this, refer to the IPCC Fifth Assessment Report on Climate Change (IPCC, 2014).

2. An example of conventional analysis being applied to a “super wicked” problem is mentioned in the European Nitrogen Assessment (ENA)  which describes how existing environmental policies related to reactive nitrogen have been established in a fragmented way, separated by media (air, land, water, etc), by issue (climate, biodiversity, waste etc) and by form (Sutton 2011). While this specialisation has advanced understanding and helped achieve some progress, the ENA calls for a more comprehensive understanding of the nitrogen cycle to establish policy that ensures nitrogen management is addressed holistically.


Arnall, A.; Pope, H. (2015). What is systems thinking and how can we use it to confront the ‘wicked problem(s)’ of food? IFSTAL Lecture 2 Systems Thinking. Available at:

Foresight (2011). The Future of Food and Farming. Final Project Report: Executive Summary. The Government Office for Science, London.

IPCC (2014). Climate Change 2014: Synthesis Report. Contribution of Working Groups I, II and III to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Core Writing Team, R.K. Pachauri and L.A. Meyer (eds.)]. IPCC, Geneva, Switzerland, p. 13.

Levin, Kelly; Cashore, Benjamin; Bernstein, Steven; Auld, Graeme. (2012). Overcoming the tragedy of super wicked problems: constraining our future selves to ameliorate global climate change. Policy Sciences. 45 (2): 123–152. doi:10.1007/s11077-012-9151-0. Available at:

Rittel, Horst W. J.; Melvin M. Webber (1973). Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning. Policy Sciences. 4: 155–169. doi:10.1007/bf01405730. Available at:

Sutton, Mark A., et al., 2011. The European Nitrogen Assessment: Summary for Policy Makers. 1st ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011.

Food as a relationship: a reflection on running a community farm

For over three years I’ve had the pleasure of managing a beautiful community farm on the edges of south London. It’s been one of the most interesting jobs I’ve had, combining my love of community work with social enterprise. With a heavy heart, I’ve recently decided to leave my job for new pursuits, but before doing so, I wanted to write some reflections about my time at the farm.

It’s hard to know where to begin. Sutton Community Farm means a huge amount to me and has taught me so much. Through the farm I’ve developed a deep interest in the role food plays in our culture, the impact it has our wellbeing, and how our food choices influence the wider ecosystem on which we deeply depend. These interests have led me to view food as more of a relationship that we’re in. We know how relationships are not always an easy ride; they require nurturing, understanding, listening and compromises – and they can go through periods of being healthy or unhealthy. Over time, relationships usually mature and grow in new directions. In the kitchen, we develop a more complex repertoire, build our confidence and develop a deeper sense of the positive roles food can have on our lives. Some relationships however can hit dead ends and turn stale. We become lazy, get into bad habits and stop looking after ourselves properly.

Many of our staff, volunteers and customers have a positive, healthy relationship with food. It’s inspiring to meet so many people that love to cook from scratch and work with the seasons to make nutritious, healthy meals from the food we’ve grown. We also meet many people who don’t have such confidence or adventurous attitudes. We meet children who are more familiar with tomato ketchup than tomatoes, parents who shield their children from leafy greens and teenagers who proclaim that they just don’t like any vegetables.


It takes time to loosen bad habits, develop tastes and nurture a healthier attitude towards food. I’d say people should come and join in with growing, cooking and eating good meals on our farm for at least 8 weekly sessions. Over this time, one is immersed in a positive culture of physical exertion and eating seasonal meals together. Time at the farm can make cracks in stubborn attitudes and motivate people towards a healthier lifestyle. This experience may only be a starter and while we don’t transform lives immediately, we provide a space that helps people take steps in the right direction.

We recently started a project called Sutton People’s Kitchen and it’s my hope that we can reach out and create more positive food experiences for people in the wider community, who perhaps won’t come to the farm. During 2016, we are running a series of community cook clubs and banquets, cooking demonstrations and food documentary film screenings. Behind the concept is the idea that giving advice, no matter how well-meaning, rarely inspires positive change. Rather, an integrated, variety of services and experiences will help motivate people to have healthier relationships with food.


Local health and wellbeing data reminds us what we’re up against. In the UK, obesity affects about a quarter of adults and a fifth of primary school children. When it comes to eating the recommended 5 A DAY, just 16% of children and around a quarter of adults achieve this. A diet low in saturated fat, salt and sugar and high in fruit and vegetables reduces the risk of a range of chronic diseases such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes and stroke. The evidence is on the table which is why it’s so heart-braking to see completely avoidable diet-related illnesses take hold in young children; their chances of living a full and active life being stripped away before they’ve even finished school.

This is a major public health challenge and it’s an incredibly complex area, having behavioral, genetic, environmental and social components. Our farm cannot offer a solution to such a public health issue as obesity. In fact, I don’t believe anyone can – there are no silver bullets. However, we can offer value as part of a comprehensive ‘whole systems’ approach to improving health.

Looking at the type of food available in our local communities, our bad state of health is not surprising. It’s not just the obvious fast food outlets like Chicken Cottage and Subway that are guilty, the big chain supermarkets are equally dangerous places to visit. When visiting such shops, I find it’s best to skirt around the edges, only taking the fresh food and any other essentials, then quickly getting out before any special offers grab my attention. The majority of supermarket stock, I’d suggest about 85%, is not doing us much good. It’s cheap, processed food-like stuff. This is one of the good things about our Veg Box scheme. It provides a regular source of good, wholesome and affordable food. After running a VegBox scheme for the last few years, I recognise how challenging this product can be for people who are picky about their vegetables or have chaotic lifestyles. In response, we’ve made our scheme as flexible as possible and we help people out with storage tips and cooking ideas.

Cooking demo at the farm

Community farms not only deliver good food; they invite people to join in with another part of the food journey – production. After years of involvement in the voluntary sector, I know how hard it can be for projects to attract committed volunteers. Yet on our farm, we are rarely short of people willing to join in. I believe one reason is because food growing is an incredibly inclusive activity, appropriate for people of all ages and abilities. One of our volunteers, a retired head teacher recently said that as soon as she steps onto the farm, all her worries and problems go away and she feels a great sense of peace.

Weeding the salad

Sowing seeds and working with the soil is an intimate experience and one that requires patience and dedication through the seasons. When we sit down to eat our produce at the farm, we treasure the food on our plates, appreciating every delicate flavour. There’s nothing like eating produce that you’ve grown and I’ve been incredibly fortunate to have had that pleasure almost daily over these last few years. And I hope this will continue for the rest of my life.

I believe more than ever before that community food projects like ours can have a powerful role in healing broken relationships. As I step away from the daily involvement at Sutton Community Farm, I hope it will continue to thrive and act as a role model to other communities, helping create more resilient, healthier food systems that we so desperately need.

A year on the farm 2015

What a year it’s been! So much happens on our farm and these are just a few snippets fro mthe year. This was originally posted on the Sutton Community Farm blog:

In the final few days of the 2015 we’ve been having a recap of the wonderful year that’s gone and looking forward to the exciting year ahead. We want to take this time to say a huge thank you to everyone that has helped make Sutton Community Farm such a vibrant, productive and special place. We feel so grateful to have this farm and such an incredible community around us. Here’s some highlights from the year:

January to March

In January we launched FarmStart – our food growing business incubator. We also went to the Oxford Real Farming Conference to join a panel discussion about local authorities and access to land.

On the farm, we were busy spreading compost, ordering seeds, sowing shallots and building a new polytunnel ready for the coming season.


In February we had a spot of snow and once that had gone, we had the pleasure of hosting legendary no-dig food growing guru, Charles Dowding on the farm. Charles spent the day with our growing team exploring strategies to improve our food production.


In March, we went deep into business planning on a bid to take on another 6 acres which we didn’t get, but that’s okay! We also had visits from local schools, Finton House and Bandon Hill.

April – May

April is when things really kick-in on the production front. We sowed thousands of seeds and prepared the beds for the season. We also launched Sutton People’s Kitchen, our outreach education project that brings people together to celebrate food, encourage healthy eating and promote local food growing. The project involves cook clubs, banquets, film screenings and a pop-up stall on the high-street running cooking demonstrations.


Following a popular community survey about opening a shop and cafe, we had public meetings to explore the idea further. From this, a shop steering committee was established who have been driving forward plans to open a cafe and shop on Sutton High Street. They have been meeting regularly, working hard and now the business plan is now complete and they are raising investment!

In May, we welcomed our new food growing apprentice, Harley. She’s has been a joy to work with and has made fantastic progress building her horticultural expertise.



In June we said farewell to Carlota who was bound for Brazil and welcomed our new Food Distribution Coordinator, Pavlina. One of her first tasks was a cooking demonstration at the Streatham Food Festival, which she embraced with heaps of enthusiasm.


We had an extra pair of hands from Matthieu, a work experience student from Normandy who came to help for 6 weeks. We also had two wonderful work experience students from the Link Secondary School and visits from the primary schools where we had been running after-school cook clubs.

Matthiew and team


July – August

In July we had a new compost toilet installed, which we are grateful to the Sutton Community Fund for supporting. The excitement about this loo should not be underestimated!


We also had a groups from Carshalton Ladies, as well as Google and Lloyds come to the farm for their away days and we had a appreciation volunteer party!

dsc00473sutton vol party


September was a big month! Not only were we starting to fill our VegBags with 100% produce from our farm, we also launched our Community Share Offer – making us London’s first community-owned farm. You can buy a share today!

We also had a wonderful Harvest Festival with a fantastic turn out. It’s always a joy to share the farm with so many people and celebrate harvest. On the day there were lots of games, cooking demos, pizza and music.

james harvesting tomatoesdsc00358dsc00318dsc00384

Later in the month, we ran a food business training day for staff and volunteers. We had lots of group visits including volunteers from the Sutton & Carshalton Women’s Register, the Greater London Authority, Reed Business, The Challenge and Wallington Brownies.

October – November

In October we finally launched ditched plastic bags for our new returnable bags, that were kindly sponsored by Luckies of London who also came to the farm for their away day. People are returning their bags at a good rate, which is great news.

Jute bags

We were also bowled over by two beautiful videos that were made about our farm. Student volunteers from The Challenge came to the farm as well as our volunteer Annie O:


In December we started sending a weekly big boxes of vegetables and fruit to Sutton Food Bank, to help people in crisis. We’ll do this throughout 2016 and this has been kindly supported by employee donations from Reed Business Information.

December also saw the launch of Grow Beer Sutton, our community hop growing and brewing project. Grow Beer is all about delicious, local beer: grown, brewed and enjoyed by the community.

We were excited to hear that Sutton Food Forum – a network we helped establish, formally joined the Sustainable Food Cities network. Sutton Food Forum is a network for organisations that have an interest in creating a better local food system in Sutton. It provides a forum where we can work with other local partners. One of the successes this year was helping the London Borough of Sutton sign up to the Sustainable Fish Cities Pledge, which commits them to use more sustainable fish in 1.5 million lunches served each year. 


Finally we did our last big harvest and had our Christmas parties! We packed the final VegBags of the year and now we’re ready for a well earned rest. Phew!

dsc00409 dsc00552team photo

We didn’t get the land, but that’s okay

Over the last year at Sutton Community Farm, we’ve had our eyes on 6 acres of unused land and buildings that sit adjacent. We were recently excited to have the opportunity to tender to lease this from the owners, Surrey County Council, who we rent our current land from.

With the additional land and buildings, our hope was to increase our horticultural production and take steps to start value-added production activities that increase the value of our products. As well as greater production capacity, the additional land and buildings would give us some much needed storage and help us be better equipped to support the local community through our educational activities. It also provided the opportunity for us to expand our Farm Start Food Business Growing Incubator and even have farm animals such as chickens and pigs. In short, it was a rare opportunity for our farm to secure space that opens up all sorts of possibilities that would make our farm more exciting and help move towards financial viability.


I’ve put a huge amount of work into the proposal which took the form of a Supplementary Business Plan. We decided to make this publicly available (click here to view, or here to download as a PDF), because we’re proud of it and think it may be useful for other community farms. One of our advisors, Rebecca Marshall from the Community Land Advisory Service said it was one of the most comprehensive land proposals she’d seen – and we know she’s seen a lot!

You know that wrenching feeling you get when you hand in an brilliant piece of homework and it comes back with red pen all over it and the words FAIL? That’s how I felt when I heard the news we were unsuccessful. Despite all our hard work, competition was stiff and someone else was chosen.

We’re obviously disappointed. However the purpose of this blog post is not to lament or moan, that’s not going to help anybody. There is perhaps some comfort in the news. The first comfort is that our farm stays relatively simple and our workload is not about to shoot through the roof as we get to grips with a new area. We can stay focused on what we have, which may be enough given our youth as an enterprise. After all, we’re still making adjustments to improve our cropping calendar and the site can be better organised and tidier.

The second comfort rests in the numbers. In preparing the Supplementary Business Plan we did a lot of number crunching. When it came to the expected income from growing, we found out that doubling our growing area offered only a small financial incentive. The profit margins on production are that low. However this was a conservative analysis and excluded opportunities such as increasing polytunnel area, where we can get a much higher income. The major income potential rested in opportunities from the buildings and the increased social and environmental activities that we can do with the community.

With the above reasoning, there is fair argument that perhaps things turned out for the best. In truth, there is no right or wrong answer. We are opportunistic as an enterprise. In this case, we saw an opportunity and took a well-considered punt. If successful, it could have transformed our farm and helped us take a step towards being more viable. But it could have also been a big ball-ache that left us exhausted. All we can do now is go back to the drawing board and keep plugging away, shaping our farm into the best enterprise we can.

The road will be tough but we are determined. We are not aware of any community farm in the UK that has a comfortable set of accounts. Food production is like that. We exist within a food system that is vulnerable and broken from many angles. We believe resilient local food systems are critical for a sustainable future and we will keep trying to make our farm an exemplary model. As we go, we need your help. So friends, family and supporters, please keep buying our produce, visit our farm and when we release them, buy a share.


We have since received feedback from Surry County Council on our application. It was explained that although our tender was very comprehensive, they chose an applicant who put in for all the lots, which included a house that we couldn’t afford or risk taking on. The idea being that it’s easier for them to manage one tenant rather than two. In addition, they said that the other applicant offered a “very impressive level of rent” as well as a plan that offered economic and social benefits to the area. During this process, we were pleased to learn that Surrey County Council considered social and environmental factors in their tender decision making process. This was stated in the original tender pack and according to our land advisor, Rebecca Marshall, this is extremely rare. 

While the legal documentation is still not completed, Surrey County Council can’t comment on the proposed usage of the land but mentioned it wouldn’t be in competition with us. This signals livery but we’ll have to wait and see. Our hope is to see more horticulture next door and we know several of the applicants were proposing this. We wouldn’t see this as competition. We would see this as a good thing for a variety of reasons, most of all, it would mean more local food production – which is what’s central to our mission.

Vote with your fork – a new years resolution

This post was originally written as a blog for the Sutton Community Farm website and has been slightly adapted for here:

I hope you are feeling rested and beginning the year filled with hope and good intentions. When it comes to new year resolutions I believe it’s best not setting too many. In the Guardian, Oliver Burkeman suggested a few resolutions worth making. One of these was to select something to stop doing; to use the power of “no”. We live such busy lives with an infinite number of potential things to do but by spreading ourselves thinly, we can experience less depth, meaning and satisfaction. Rather it’s best to focus our energies on doing a few things well.

For most of us, cooking is a daily ritual that can easily become a chore with our busy lives. We understand that life with a VegBox is not always easy. Riverford’s vegbox customer survey in 2014 showed that 22% found it really easy; 25% struggled to identify all the contents and 39% didn’t know how to cook some of them. We can only assume that our VegBox customers are in a similar boat. We hope that we help make things as easy as possible for our customers and we encourage them to pick up the phone if ever they need some cooking ideas or tips.

While it can sometimes be tricky, the lifestyle a VegBox provides is highly nutritious and fun. It’s honest, local food, grown in your community from farmers you know and can trust. Eating food is also a political act. Michael Pollan once said that the wonderful thing about food is that you get three votes a day. It’s an amazing power we have. Every day we can help support a more sustainable agriculture, a cleaner environment and less reliance on fossil fuels.

Pollan Three votes per day quote

Three votes per day may feel daunting. We all have our junk foods that we can’t resist, and that’s fine. Which is why Oliver Burkeman’s final suggestion for New Year’s resolution is good: to ease up and cut ourselves some slack. Life can be tough, we aren’t perfect and are often prone to making bad choices, especially when we’re stressed or busy. So as you ease your way into the new year with a VegBox, we hope you find joy with the produce, learn new skills, and eat some sensational meals.

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.

Are community enterprises easier in the city?

I was recently invited to sit on a panel at an event organised by the Plunkett Foundation, a charity that promotes and supports co-operatives and social enterprises in rural communities.

The session explored the similarities and differences of setting up a community enterprise in urban and rural settings and it sparked some interesting dialogue. Presented below are a scattering of notes from the session. My angle is mostly focused on the perspective of community food enterprises.

Bridging the gap: example of a peri-urban farm

I’ll start with a case study. I was invited into the discussion because of my work at Sutton Community Farm,  an enterprise on the edges of South London. We hover between the urban and the rural, a space we call peri-urban. Our land is designated as Metropolitan Green Belt, which means it has strong planning policy protections against future developments and restrictions on the use of land. The fundamental aim of Green Belt is to prevent urban sprawl by keeping land permanently open.

The peri-urban zone: Metropolitan Green Belt land can be clearly seen in this photo of the southern edges of London where the urban sprawl stops. The estate in the photo is called Little Woodcote Estate and is owned by Surrey County Council.

Although small by rural standards, our seven acre holding feels luxurious in size, given our proximity to London. I often look across our field at the glimmering skyline at sunset as it bubbles with life, brimming with opportunities and full of promise. On grey days when I’m less optimistic, I see it weighed down under stress and congestion. The beautiful part about working on a farm, is that it offers you space to reflect, but I digress..

A farm positioned on the urban fringes has both unique opportunities and challenges.  In theory, the proximity to the city should provide us with an endless number of customers who seek super local, fresh produce. However at our small scale, there are various economies of scale that we cannot realise.  A VegBox scheme is the easiest way for us to distribute the variety of vegetables that we grow with minimal waste, however the margins are low and finding customers is still challenging under the shadow of supermarkets that offer cheap food at a convenience. 

We also sell our produce wholesale to restaurants. Our main challenge here is around matching demand and supply. While we have restaurants that are keen to source local, their ordering is often at short notice and very specific in the produce and quantity desired. Some of these challenges are being overcome as we nurture our relationships with the chefs. Scale is still a challenge though. It’s worth keeping in mind that London is a big and we aren’t that close to the centre. It’s a 25 mile round trip and the delivery costs and congestion charges rack up when we are supplying into the centre.

Farm map 8th May - Version 2
Sutton Community Farm’s seven acre holding

While urban and peri-urban farms may not have scale on their side, they do have the proximity of a large population that are a potential marketplace for services such as education, ecotherapy and business away days. The key in community farming is to identify your USPs and the understand the potential for each income stream, building your enterprise around this. It’s easier said than done. The primary motivator for most food enterprises is, understandably, to produce food. However this is the one income stream that pays such a measly amount; this can demotivate and undermine a project’s rationale. It’s a common tension for community farms and many are struggling to diversify to fill the revenue gaps so that everyone gets paid.

So in summary, my experience is on the fringes of the city where I’d argue that a community food project can harness a greater and more diverse income stream. The best of both worlds! But I’m not saying it’s been an easy ride.

How do the needs of urban and rural communities differ?

Behind every enterprise is a collection of people driving it. To help us understand the unique challenges of setting up a community enterprise in urban and rural areas, it’s important to understand as best we can, the challenges faced by the people in each of these communities.

The needs and desires of urban and rural people are broadly the same, but the ability to fulfil these needs differs significantly. Those shared needs include a sense of community, safety and security; there’s also access to basic products and services, such as education and health. When these needs are not adequately fulfilled, those that are able to move away will leave and enterprises will struggle to make ends meet.

A common trend is people moving out of rural communities to find better jobs in towns and cities, and then people moving into rural areas because the housing is cheaper. The dynamics of these movements vary significantly around the country, depending on issues such as transport access, tourism and employment opportunities. 

Fragility of the rural

Rural communities have sparse populations, with jobs and homes scattered across a wide area. This gives rise to many complex inter-related problems spanning employment, transport, housing and childcare.

A few years ago, I almost took a leap and moved into the rural countryside for a new life, but it was some of these fears that held me back. I was researching the opportunity to invest and move onto a 7 acre holding of land in rural Devon. It was part of a scheme where the land had gained temporary planning permission for the intention of supporting a new small-scale farm enterprise. This made the opportunity particularly attractive; I could build the most beautiful homestead and run a commercially viable farm that would one day also serve the community through education and horticultural therapy. That was the vision.


As I plunged deeper into the details of business planning, it became  clear how difficult it would be. Because of the location, I could see that the marketing and distribution of produce as an independent retailer was going to require a huge amount of energy and costs. As an outsider, not familiar with local markets and production, competition was unknown. In rural communities, the networks are also smaller and your success relies more on word-of-mouth, relationship building and trust. My educational and therapeutic horticulture ideas were scuppered as I learnt about strict Council restrictions on business activities that increased traffic on the narrow, country roads – a concern apparently shared by the neighbours. At the end of the day, these were risks I was not prepared to take on at the time.

Two of the major challenges for people living in rural areas is proximity of work and finding suitable jobs. The city benefits from the density of people and businesses, while the rural is  challenged by the sparsity. These challenges make rural communities more fragile, meaning enterprises can be more vulnerable to collapse. This locks many people into cities, their scale giving a feeling of boundless promise and potential. The countryside offers a slower, simpler pace.

So community food enterprises in urban areas must be easier?

While rural community enterprises may feel more fragile, urban community enterprises have their own set of challenges:

  • Higher land prices: the competition for space in cities pushes up land prices. As an example, Sutton Community Farm pays around 6 times more in rent than the UK average for horticultural land (£703/acre compared to UK average of £115/acre – data from Savills).
  • Greater land insecurity: as urban populations grow, pressure mounts on any available land. Planning policies can be vulnerable to change and so land-owners don’t want to tie up their land in long-term lease arrangements. This stifles investment into enterprises.
  • Higher rents and living costs: mean that the enterprise will have higher staffing costs. For example, the Living Wage is calculated as £8.25 in the UK, and £9.40 in London. The average home in London is now worth more than twice the average home outside the capital – a difference approaching £200,000 (granted that London’s housing market is unique to the UK).
  • But the cost of food remains similar in urban and rural areas: in supermarkets, the cost of food is mostly immune from the location. Therefore if the primary source of income for the project is from food, then your margins are tighter, or even negative!

Another insight from experience: Londoners who come from deep in the city centre to our farm on the edges will say how much they yearn for the open space and connection with nature. These moments of access to nature are important. Yet it’s all to easy to go without connecting with the land for long periods.

Supporting community enterprise

This has been a fairly loose collection of thoughts and I’ll try to wrap up with some final thoughts that look ahead to solutions. These thoughts are rather rushed, but I’m keen to consider some practical steps forward.

I want to understand if there are some solutions that can simultaneously help the separate sets of challenges faced by urban and rural communities. And consider if we foster a stronger sense of connection between the two communities?

Some brief thoughts. Firstly, investment into food and horticultural education in schools is desperately needed to encourage a new generation of farmers. This will support urban food projects, create better links to rural communities and create more draws to the countryside. Second, agricultural policies are not working to support a wider range of thriving family farms, rather they incentivise industrialised farms (the Landworker’s Alliance have a range of policy suggestions on this).  Third, supermarkets, have too much power over the food chain and government policy to regulate their practices is too weak – this is a whole can of worms for another discussion. Open source technology or co-operative platforms can assist people in both communities to access local food affordably. And finally, in urban environments, planning policies should support increased food growing spaces and encourage garden cities, following in the vain of Ebenezer Howard’s ideas.

Does our farm sell the sizzle?

I spent this morning in the offices of sustainability communications agency Futerra, for some media and communications training; one of the perks of being part of the London Leader’s programme . 

When I was working as a sustainability consultant at BioRegional, Futerra’s reports on communicating sustainability were like little presents from heaven. They taught me many important lessons about communicating sustainability with integrity. It was all very refreshing reading in a sector that is full of confusing messages, greenwash, and bleak messages of a climate-hell that we are all heading to. Here’s one example of this sort of irresponsible messaging from Tesco:

Tesco advert that says: turn lights into flights

Ed Gillespie (co-Founder of Futerra) led us through a jam-packed presentation of stories, insights, strange diversions and most importantly, examples of the bad (such as the above Tesco advert) and the good. Here’s some better examples: 

Selling the sizzle
is one of Futerra’s insights they share in their publication . The sizzle idea stems from a successful salesman in the 1940s named Elmer Wheeler. He taught us that the secret to selling is that you don’t sell the sausage – you sell the sizzle. The sizzle captures the delicious, mouth-watering juicy aromas that make us want to buy what is basically a dead pig. What Futerra are getting at, is that if we are to become super climate salesman that spur people into action, then we need to find appetising messages that sizzle, not ones that scare and put people off. 

Here’s two insights that grabbed my attention today that I’m trying to put into practice in my role at Sutton Community Farm:

Insight 1: Organisations that take sustainability seriously don’t ask the question: “What should our sustainability strategy be in the context of our business ?” Rather they ask the question: “What should our business strategy be in the context of sustainability?”

I try to make sustainability run through everything we do as an enterprise. Pooran Desai, co-founder of BioRegional talks about this as getting sustainability into the DNA of an organisation. We use both permaculture principles and the One Planet Living framework to help achieve this, ensuring sustainability is considered at all levels and in all corners.

Insight 2: The idea that people don’t just buy from us because of what we do, they buy because of why we do it.

I spend a lot of time talking and writing about the Farm.  I find that it’s really easy to concisely communicate what we do rather than why we do it. I find this is particularly true if I’m feeling lazy or tired.

It’s the “why we do it” that makes us exciting and unique. Ed presented a simple activity for placing the “why” into the core of your messaging, called the golden circle:


Using the golden circle, you place the “why” at the core of what you do and then from this should fall the “how” and “what”. I had a quick go at this exercise for Sutton Community Farm. Here’s how it went:

People have a desire to establish deeper connections with their food, local community and nature.

Through a community-led space that provides inclusive activities and education, incorporating permaculture and One Planet Living principles.

A farm growing food sustainably.

A local VegBox scheme. 
Coordinated events and activities for the community.

I found it a useful exercise and it will be interesting to see how some of these ideas can help shape our messages as a community farm. 

5 minute talk on local food

The London Leaders programme is run by the London Sustainable Development Commission. It’s all about demonstrating the power of leadership and innovation in tackling the sustainability challenges inherent in global cities such as London. I was recently very honoured to be chosen as a London Leader and this programme is supporting me with training and mentoring for the work I do as part of Sutton Community Farm.

Here’s the 5 minute talk I prepared for the London Leader interview. It outlines my current interests and work I’m doing as part of my job at Sutton Community Farm:

Volunteers at Sutton Community Farm

At Sutton Community Farm we have a motto. It’s “Making food fair and cultivating community”.

I would like to see a fair and sustainable food system:

One that promotes local produce and strengthens our local economies. A food system where we celebrate the diversity of food and feel confident in cooking healthy, delicious meals – with real food – that’s unprocessed and makes us feel alive and nourished.

I want to see a food culture where everyone is able to sit down to enjoy exceptional taste and freshness in their food. A culture that brings people together and builds relationships – whether it’s their families, friends, loved ones or neighbours. I want to see a food system that doesn’t destruct our countryside, but protects and improves it – increasing biodiversity.

But instead, we have a food system that’s cheap and vulnerable – one that’s destroying our ecosystems and our health.

Some people have a very troubled relationship with food:


Some people don’t have the tools to cook or the money to afford good food:

Kitchens compared

And many people simply don’t have the time or knowledge to cook and end up in places like this:


Although there’s been some renaissance in cooking and a greater awareness of what our children are eating in schools – we still have some way to go. We waste huge amounts of food. Statistics show we are spending less and less time cooking meals in our kitchens, and over the last 5 years, purchases of vegetables have decreased. But most worryingly, obesity has risen sharply.

Children at Sutton Community Farm

In the area around the Farm I manage, 29% of primary school children are overweight, and over a quarter of adults are obese. Linked to our diets and lifestyles, we’re seeing increasing levels of cardio-vascular disease and cancer. The NHS suggests that making small changes to your diet is one of the simplest and most effective ways to reduce our risk of these diseases.

There’s more problems with the food system – I could go on. I haven’t mentioned soil erosion, changes of land use, food security, it’s ecological footprint, the increasing volatility of food prices. The food system has many complex challenges.

The plan

At Sutton Community Farm, we really care about these issues, we talk about them a lot and we ask ourselves, what can we do as a farm – to be a demonstration of the food system we want to see?

Farm Tour

And on a personal level, why I’m here today, is because I feel there’s an exciting opportunity to start some bigger conversations. To use the momentum of our project, London’s largest community farm, to engage our wider community, including our customers, our local partners and stakeholders.

Hence my desire to create a local food partnership – bringing together passionate people who care about food, to see what initiatives we can drive forward.

As part of this, my proposal is to start open, community banquets. Getting the community together to talk about food and see if we can establish a vision. We do this already on our Farm, but I want to take these conversations out there and involve a wider net of people, from local government to businesses and individuals.

By starting these conversations, we can explore some exciting issues:

1. Local food provision and more peri-urban farms

Farm on Map of Sutton

The idea of community farms on the edges of our city. Here, our 7 acre farm sits on the edges of London – a lone plot on a vast area of mostly under used agricultural land. I think some of the most exciting things in life happen on the edges. Here we’re creating a highly productive farm, that’s diverse in it’s business activities. Working with schools, probation services, corporate volunteers looking for a day out.

Most importantly we have created a local supply chain – serving our community with bags of vegetables, ordered online and delivered to their door. My question is, how can we create more of these?


We can also start talking about:

2. organic food;
3. Food security;
4. Access to food;
5. School and hospital food;
6. Cooking skills;
7. We can also celebrate what’s already happening.


End note

I’ve worked in a variety of green projects. It’s in local food where I’ve witnessed how it can be a catalyst for so many other positive environmental actions. Food brings people together across society and cultures. Food nourishes us and makes us feel healthy and alive. Through food we can start conversations.

I’m tired of seeing this across London…


… and want to see more of this:


More than this, I want to see this:


Jane is a work experience student from the local school that started at the Farm on Monday. She was delighted when she found this squash. This lunchtime she’ll be having some in her soup – for our community lunch.

Passion #1: Local food

I’m starting my new blog by writing about 5 passions in my life. Each one capturing some thoughts on the subject, which will inevitably be shaped as time goes by. This one is all about Local Food:

Sitting down with family, friends and neighbours to share a meal cooked with fresh, local ingredients is a wonderful pleasure. To enjoy food cultivated from our surroundings under the care of people we are connected with, gives vitality to our relationships and community. It helps us to root ourselves into our surroundings, restoring our obligation and responsibilities for each other and the land that sustains us.

Lunch at the Farm
Lunch at the Farm

Modern lifestyles, especially those in the city, don’t give much time to enjoy food like this. We often grab food on the move, eat at our desks or in front of the TV. Many of us also suffer from a troubled relationship with food. It may be the cost of food that puts a strain on life, or an unhealthy diet that’s making us sick, unable to live life to the full. It’s also difficult to navigate our relationship with food with so many conflicting messages about what to eat. The mountains of nutritional advice and health claims in the media and on the packaging of food adds complications to our relationship. Likewise, the abundance of processed food in the aisles of our shops, supplied by a heavily industrialised agricultural system makes us suspicious and uncomfortable of the food we are eating.


Can we liberate ourselves and find food that we can trust, and give ourselves the time to cook delicious meals with seasonal produce that improves our countryside and the rich biodiversity that we cherish? I believe we can and that a thriving local food system is absolutely necessary for this – for a healthy future for our planet and our communities.

We shape the food system, and the system shapes us

In 1941, after the House of Commons suffered bomb damage from a raid, Winston Churchill was making a speech on the rebuilding work and said the words: “we shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us”.  That symbiosis between our behaviours and environment are reflected in our food system too.

When we choose produce grown organically, biodiversity improves. When we support fair trade, we help people lead better lives. If we buy local, we support local skills, jobs and the circulation of money which helps other enterprises. 

The reality of choice is not always so simple and we have to balance different motivations and desires. I have often found myself paralysed in the aisles of a shop, trying to make a choice that has no obvious answer: organic vs fairtrade vs local vs excess packaging vs expensive. I stand there shaking my head, muttering to myself and will often leave empty handed.

In every purchase of food, not only do we receive, but we give back to the world, for better or for worse. We shape the system. 

From the other end, the food system we build shapes us. A food system driven only by shareholders interested in profit, produces an industry that is driven to manipulate consumers, desiring our money rather than our health and wellbeing.

A food system that is concentrated in its ownership creates a food supply that is easily manipulated – as well one which is vulnerable and anti-competitive. A food system that is distributed, local and organic, enables people to eat more unprocessed, fresh food. A farm that works with nature, rather than against it, will grow a diverse range of products – just as we benefit from a diverse and balanced diet.

Produce from Sutton Community Farm

We need a better food system and a healthier food culture. Fortunately, there is so much we can do to make that happen: at home, at work, in our gardens, in the shop and in the company of friends and family.

Our future

As we undergo rapid rates of urbanisation, population growth and changing consumption patterns, our food system plays a critical role in sustaining human life, while being challenged to respect and operate safely within planetary thresholds that safeguard our future.

Substantial changes are required throughout different elements of the food system if food security and sustainability are to be provided globally. These elements include the balancing demand with supply, having stable and affordable food prices, healthy lifestyles, access to natural resources and a stable environment. It’s no small feat but I believe we have the ingenuity to make some leaps in the right direction. I believe that establishing strong, resilient local food systems plays an essential role in the change we need. I also believe global policies are important to encourage and underpin this. We have a global challenge solved through millions of small actions.

Local food systems and community farms

I have the privilege of working at Sutton Community Farm, a 7 acre farm on the edges of London. The Farm gives people an intimate experience of food, where participation in the joys and challenges of growing food is encouraged. We try to be an exemplarily example of a deeply sustainable farm, led by the community and supporting the local economy.


Our farm sits in a borough that suffers from many food-related challenges that are shared across the UK: a lack of access to fresh, sustainable food, increasing rates of obesity and diet-related illness. Even simple life skills such as growing, preparing and preserving fresh food, that have been part of humanity for so long are disappearing as we become more disconnected. 

Although our farm alone can’t solve these issues, we are well placed to start conversations about these issues and hopefully spur others on in the right direction. Through our farm, we can work with partners to help build a stronger local food system. It‘s not all about always food: community farming can improve community cohesion, improve biodiversity and reduce pollution. As Bill Mollison, the founder of permaculture movement said, so many of the world’s problems can be solved in a garden.

Inviting nature into our cities

In our climate, the climax vegetation is woodland or forest. This is the natural tendency of land if you allow it to truly express itself. Over time, a field will eventually transform into something vibrant and diverse, with plants working in harmony with a variety of wildlife to create a new balanced ecosystem.


Walking through the tough landscapes of cities becomes less and less exciting when I think of what fantastic natural potential has been shut out, delegated to only entertain us on wildlife programmes and the rare weekend away in the countryside.

I’m visiting Switzerland for a wedding. It’s a stunning country. However the comfortable, pristine streets of Zurich became boring as I contemplate nature’s potential. Don’t get me wrong, I love the quaint boutique shops and winding cobbled roads of the old town. I love the abundance of cozy cafes and restaurants, the flickering candles glowing warmly at night, aromas of fine cuisine, as families and lovers dine together, drinking fine wines. 


Walking up to a view point that overlooks the city, we notice a couple of local foragers plucking fruit from a tree. Plants do make their way into Zurich but like many cities, always confined in the smallest of pockets.

Shutting nature out of cities makes us disconnected, physically and spiritually. We can even start to fear nature. The only insect I saw on Saturday evening was a wasp, which frightened and annoyed one of the friends I was traveling with – prompting a discussion about fly swatting devices. I know it may be unrealistic to create some sort of fully hybrid forest-city garden, but we can do so much more to integrate greenery into cities.


Just the other week, a lady came to the Farm with her two daughters. As we strolled around the farm discussing the food we grew, I noticed her daughter’s reluctance to walk into our polytunnels that were full of plants and to trample across the soil to touch and feel the vegetables.


Her mum giggled, encouraging her to try our cherry tomatoes and cucumbers and not be afraid. Growing up on a housing estate in Clapham, her daughter rarely walks on surfaces that aren’t artificial. Seeing food growing on plants was a whole new experience – an experience many children in the city never have. This is one of the many reasons I love Sutton Community Farm and believe it’s such an important project.

A trip to Incredible Edible Todmorden

Last week, I took a rare trip away from Sutton Community Farm with growing apprentice Charlotte to visit “Incredible Edible” Todmordon (IET), a town famous for starting an urban food growing movement that has spread into towns all over the world.

As we arrived into the train station, we were in competition to spot the first edible bed. It didn’t take long – in the corner of the station car park was a raised bed growing a mixture of edible herbs and leafy greens. Beds like this are all over the town, managed by a dynamic local community of growing enthusiasts. Estelle, one of the incredible edible organisers says that they don’t call it guerrilla gardening, “that sounds too militant, we prefer to call them little accidents”.

These little accidents have now engaged the council to want to grow edible food in every available space. As I stood outside the town market, I glimpsed an older couple with a pair of scissors chopping some chives from a bed. People really harvest the food! It’s very inspiring.

Importantly, IET is still a volunteer-led movement. This supports the interests of it being community-led and I imagine it also keeps the project fairly diverse with less restrictions on its actions and direction. Mary, one of the founders explained that IET’s aims are to support the community, business, and learning.

Along with the growing sites all over the town, there are now cooking projects, food growing in all schools, many festivities and a new, unexpected business of vegetable tourism. There are also two spin-off social enterprises creating new jobs in the town. One is the Incredible Edible Farm and the other is the Incredible Aqua Garden.

The Incredible Edible Farm

Incredible Farm

The Incredible Farm is a one acre site donated by a local garden centre. The farm trains young people in the skills of growing and marketing food, increases local food supply, creates employment and demonstrate sustainable growing methods for our environment. Beth, the site manager showed us around. For such a small site, they are being very creative and productive. The land is fairly marshy and they have several ponds – creating a fantastic range of biodiversity. As well as growing salads and veg, they are generating income with a fruit tree nursery, a venue for courses, and providing activities for children. Like Sutton Community Farm, some diversification is necessary to be economically viable. With such a small site, economic viability through crop production would be very challenging to support the two apprentices. Luckily, they have the freedom to diversify their activities – much more than we do at the Farm as we suffer from restrictions due to our lease agreement with Surrey County Council.

I was really impressed with the Incredible Farm’s application of permaculture design. Certainly, it seemed every element had at least three functions. For example, the polytunnels were not just providing shelter, they were also collecting rainwater. This rainwater was collected in storage containers. These storage containers didn’t just store irrigation water, they provided a structure to provide height for the raised beds and acted as a heat source to promote growth.

The Incredible Aqua Garden

Another spin-off from IET is the Incredible Aqua Garden. This is a construction that will house a giant aquaponics and hyroponics project – I imagine it will be one of the largest in the UK. Here’s roughly how it each system works:

Aquaponics uses a recirculating process to grow plants and farm fish. It’s like a mini-nitrogen cycle: the fish excrete an ammonia-like substance into the water which is then passed through a bacteria filter converting the ammonia into nitrate form. This nitrogen rich water is then passed over the roots of plants that sit in a non-organic substrate. The water is then circulated back into the tank housing the fish.

Aquaponics diagram

In this process, no soil is required and the only inputs are light and fish feed. The process needs to be designed to ensure the right temperature and pH is maintained for the fish and plants. It seems that tilapia or carp are typically used aquaponics systems – in fact, in Kenya, I saw a demonstration that used tilapia. In the small demonstration the Incredible Aqua Garden have set up, it was goldfish – and they are still selecting the species for the full-scale building – which is still under construction.

It’s an exciting project however I do sometimes wonder why there is so much interest in aquaponics. I believe it’s because the idea of a controlled system, where you can watch the waste stream of one process benefit another, is beautiful. Everything can be balanced, and we can feel in control. Being inside, the plants are less vulnerable to the risks of unpredictable weather. The opportunity to yield fish is also exciting. However there’s another interesting aspect – aquaponics can also support vertical farming, which may be an interesting application for achieving high yields in small areas.

Aquaponics does have its limitations though. It’s expensive to set up. And whereas soil contains billions of living organisms that can provide all sorts of nutrients to plants, aquaponics has a much more limited range as the cycle must always be balanced with the conditions required by the monoculture of fish. Therefore only certain leafy green plants grow well. Fruiting plants appear disfigured from a lack of key nutrients. Although evidence shows aquaponics is an ancient practice, our understand of it’s potential for meeting today’s needs is very young. If you’re interested in yields, you’re be better off investing in a polytunnel and some compost. Despite this, it’s really exciting to see this project happening – and the interesting outcomes will be how it fairs against traditional growing in soil, and hydroponics – both of which will be housed inside this new building.

Hyrdroponics is aquaponics without the fish. Instead, you need create a nutrient-rich water that is suitable for the roots of plants which again, are not growing with soil. This technique may provide Incredible Aqua Garden with a greater diversity of plant, providing they get the nutrient balances right. Again, the exciting application for hydroponics is the vertical opportunity. The risks are that any failure to the hydroponic system will lead to rapid plant death – whereas soil dynamic diversity changes more slowly over time.

Summing up

What I admired about the Mary, Estelle and all the others I met in Tod was their just do it, common-sense attitude. Knowing their actions were positive, they haven’t worried too much about bureaucracy and planning permissions – they just get on with taking practical action to make their town a better place.

The community is also fantastic. Food really has brought people together. We were hosted by an IET volunteer and passionate vegan chef called Hilary, who moved to Tod because of the food! It’s worth mentioning that our wonderful guide Melvin (treasurer of IET) also took us to visit a dairy and pig farm up in the hills. This farm has set up a food co-operative that helps local food producers sell. Likewise, the town’s market makes a big fuss over promoting local produce.

Importantly, Incredible Edible Todmorden started with simple actions – nothing was particularly designed. Mary, one of Incredible’s founders explained how it started with a simple rule: “If you eat, you’re in”. Very simple and wonderfully inclusive. In dealing with climate change, the death of the high street, the decline of churches and independent pubs that were once the heart of the community, the rise in obesity and the loss of biodiversity – Todmorden has found that food is a glue that can connect people together, and help them tackle many of these issues. It’s inspiring for us at the Farm to take lessons from IET about how we can outreach into our surrounding community.

Find out more

Incredible Edible Todmorden website