Community business model pays dividends

"People want to put their money somewhere they believe is going to provide a solution"

27th June 2022

On a sunny spring day, we went to meet two members of the Middle Ground Growers team on the outskirts of Bath. Basking in the glow of their successful recent crowdfunder, Livi and Sammy showed us around the beautiful site and talked about how the business is growing and developing.

The team came to farming from a variety of backgrounds and were united by a passion to do something active to build a better world. Sammy explained, “We wanted to know everything about biodiversity and how farming practices feed into ecology, climate and carbon sequestration... the whole picture was kind of starting to get filled in.” They were inspired by their experiences working for local growers in Bath and during this time learned a huge amount about how to run a sustainable business. But it was the Covid-19 pandemic that sparked the opportunity to make their own business happen.

We were furloughed from our jobs for a bit”, Livi explained, “It gave us time to go up to the community allotments, and we just had the time to grow food together. Then we realised that people were afraid to go to shops.” It sparked an idea - “We've got this food, so we're going to sell the food. And we started doing markets and veg boxes.” They started small with 20 boxes and then as restaurants and shops started opening, they began selling direct to them. Before they knew it, they were doing 60 boxes, then 120, then it kept increasing. In 2022, they have upscaled, with their mission to grow on 16 acres and provide for 200 families plus over 10 local outlets.

“We're really open to any enterprise that can fit alongside... if we can all benefit one another, we're very interested.”

They stumbled into a business model which involved the four original team members setting up as a cooperative sharing skills and motivating each other. Sammy reflects that working as part of a team is vital to their success, “Farming is tough. There are high suicide rates, depression, feeling lonely, people not feeling connected to their land, the countryside.” Being part of team takes away some of that pressure and builds resilience into the business. They are also keen to bring more enterprises onto the land and are exploring the possibility of mushroom growers and beekeepers so the farm can benefit from the pollination and fungal networks. “We're really open to any enterprise that can fit alongside... if we can all benefit one another, we're very interested.”

They are also committed to “sharing and bringing people onto the land” and run volunteer days fortnightly. “When you look at all the other fields, there’s no access to them, there’s no way for people to connect and touch the soil that their food comes from... and no humans in the land.” Sammy goes onto say, “There’s real fragility with the countryside, I think. Having people on the land, sharing the space and letting people connect to it is an important way to avoid turning it into a neat chocolate box vision.” The history of land in the UK weighs heavily on these young farmers. “We see people being fearful of the way that we’re doing agriculture. It comes back to money and power.”

This connection to their customers many of whom also volunteer is a key part of the resilience of the business. Sammy says, “You can put the effort into making things a bit more special, like heritage varieties, because your customers are interested.” They also work with innovative chefs and restaurants in Bath who are willing to take what is growing well and develop menus based on produce rather than the other way around. Sammy says, “When we're formulating in the winter, we can talk to the restaurants and shops and ask them what it is they want. That's sort of getting a guarantee of the type of bean or squash they want to put on their menu... and it means we can support each other.”

As Sammy and Livi show us round the site, their enthusiasm and excitement about the technology and understanding of soil science shines through. They are using cardboard and woodchip delivered from local sources to build paths between beds of vibrant green vegetables. They have big plans for the future including composting on site, with air pumps running through the compost powered by solar panels. They want to build a circular system into the business which allows their compost to be fed by scraps from customers - making the system a ‘full loop.’

Sammy and Livi are keen to move away from a mentality that involves reduction. Instead of removing pests by spraying them with chemicals and fighting nature to grow one type of crop, their vision is to create a place that is teeming with life. They want to work with the land rather than against it. In the past the site was grazed, and the previous owner installed a drain which is still taking water away from the site. “It really wants to be a bit of a wetland,” explains Livi, “We’d like to reinstate the wetland” and allow the land to function as nature intended. The top field is a suitable place to grow vegetables, but they believe the lower field could be much more productive if returned to wetland and planted with things that thrive in those conditions. “We really want to observe and listen to the site... we don't want to rush.

They are also planting trees and fruit bushes across the site including apples, pears and raspberries. They reflect on the fact they can only make the choice to plant trees because they own the land. They have made sacrifices living very simply and investing in land jointly and living on boats rather than in houses - but they are still aware of the privilege of being in a position to make that choice. Owning rather than renting the land means that they can invest in trees that won’t yield crops immediately and may not earn their keep for many years. They have had fantastic support from a grant from The Forest of Avon to put in the trees and to install fencing to protect them. Their aim is always to maximise every inch of space: “We’ve got the wildflower down (to build biodiversity), then there’s a berry harvest, and the apples all in that tiny space. This could all be in any field that also had animals passing through, with animals using mature trees for shade and forage.” In many ways they are recreating the wooded pasture that would have been on this kind of land 1,000 years ago. Sammy says, “There were trees everywhere [in the past]. But people are scared of bringing trees back onto their land. The reality is that you can make money from them.”

“People want to put their money somewhere that they believe is going to provide a solution.”

The success of their recent crowdfunder is still very fresh in their minds. “It was enormous. Absolutely incredible. And we generated a lot of support before we launched it,” says Sammy, “We already had good support around us through being embedded in the local community. On market day we biked around town, spreading the word through shops... but we were absolutely blown away by the support.They had already convinced people, by the time of the crowdfunder, that the business was viable, but it still came at a critical moment. We could just about afford to buy the land, but we didn't have a lot else, we just had to dream. Luckily, there was enough people up for supporting us.”

Livi adds that lockdown helped to change attitudes, “People got to spend more time at home, maybe grow a bit more... connecting with their food and health.” They see customers responding to the mission of the Middle Ground Growers “people [want to] put their money somewhere that they believe is going to provide a solution. They hope to build on this connection throughout the summer having harvest feasts and other gatherings to thank their customers. Sammy offers advice to others who are inspired by their story, “Just get out there and start, finding a group of like-minded people is a way of making things happen. Just get out there and do it if you have a passion for something. We need more farms.”

More stories of hope and action from people across the UK working for a fair and sustainable future feature in our Field Guide for the Future.