Prudhoe, Northumberland, England
We visited Christine Morrison as part of our #LandUnlockedTour to find out what she and other founders of a Community Supported Agriculture – or CSA - scheme in Northumberland, have learnt.
Go Local Food is a food co-op, based in Northumberland’s Tyne Valley, growing a wide range of vegetables all year round. They are passionate about connecting the local community to the food they eat and the land on which it is grown. The enterprise is co-owned by members of the co-operative, meaning the consumers are also the producers. Together they decide what to grow and how to grow it. Members who receive a share of the crops are also involved in running the enterprise. “We started out because we were interested in what would make us sustainable as a village. For a small group of us, food became something practical we could do – if we had a field, we could grow our own vegetables. A simple idea really. Get some land. Grow some veg. Share it.”
Christine Morrison, one of the founders of a community owned food co-operative
Christine reflects that the initial concept seemed sensible and easy, but it took time to find land they could rent, “Turning ideas into the 'how to' was quite gradual.” They managed to get a good start with a lottery grant that enabled them to employ a main grower. “Given that most people are time poor, we couldn't be 100% volunteer run and led... and we're not experts in growing, we needed a horticulturalist to help us make it happen.”
However, making the CSA financially viable required more than horticultural expertise. “Our first spreadsheet said we needed 7 acres of land and 120 members to breakeven. We thought we'd do that within a couple of a years. But it took us a while to find 1 acre and it's taken us 10 years - 10 years(!) - to find 109 members.”
Financial sustainability is one of Go Local Food’s biggest challenges and it’s difficult to work out the road map to achieve this. “It’s a huge challenge and we don’t know the answer. We are reliant on earned income i.e. member crop share subscriptions and on maintaining a balance of land and members. Other sources of income are not easily available to us. We have no assets, so loan money can be tricky. We are not a charitable organisation and we’re not a social enterprise, so we can’t access grant funding. I think it would be great for lots of organisations in this country to have a different funding mix. I'm sure there are other grants or loans around, but we haven't yet found one that would work with our business model. When we looked at small business grants, we’re not small, we are tiny, and many are structured around creating employment opportunities. Until we are financially sustainable, we are always going to feel marginal.”
Go Local Food has 4.5 acres, across 2 sites, under production, having recently acquired an additional 2.5 acres of land. However, as a result of this recent expansion they must find more members, “And we don't have money to invest in more marketing. Our marketing budget is tiny.” In members meetings there is often discussion of selling surplus produce, but Christine explains that you don’t make much profit from selling vegetables. The number of members is all important, as a co-op they go through phases where there are lots of new members, “It begins to feel like you’re taking off… and then it slows down again.” She feels there is a clear need for alternative financing opportunities in the UK.
Yet, there are so many positives to their CSA model which has created a greater sense of connectivity and ownership. “The consumer becomes the producer. I've watched people becoming more aware, understanding the costs of veg production, how you don't have to wrap everything in plastic. You're forced into thinking about food completely differently - and it does take a while. Instead of thinking... What am I going to make this week? I'll go and buy everything on this list... the process is reversed. You get a pile of veg and you think, what am I going to make this week with what I’ve been given? It’s very much going back to how we used to grow and feed ourselves.” This also highlights the sustainability of the CSA model because members do not receive produce that is out of season and shipped from miles away.
When asked why this model of Community Supported Agriculture was not more common across the UK, Christine replied, “I think the power of the supermarkets and the industrialised food system is so strong. The convenience aspect of it has completely conditioned us to the point where it's hard for people to think beyond 'I'll just pop into the shop for X’. We're so conditioned that food doesn't have a value. You can just scoop it up on your way home. So, who's going to get something like this started and go against that convenience? There's got to be an additional motivation.” At the moment the CSA model is attractive to particular groups of people, for example, “63% of members in our last survey identified themselves as growers. Talking to some of the newer members, they joined because they wanted to learn. They're buying veg to learn how to grow.”
Christine also thinks CSAs are not more common because we are so time poor. “The first reaction when people meet us is 'I don't have time for that', because there's an assumption that it's all volunteering, hard work and getting muddy!” Christine sees individuals playing a disproportionate role currently. She points out that, before Go Local Food was set up, one individual in the community was critical to encouraging everyone to think about being more sustainable. “Unless you've got that person, that spark somewhere, it's really hard to see how it would happen everywhere - but it should happen everywhere. We should be aiming for at least one of us (CSA) outside every UK town.”
Christine believes the value of food must be elevated in our society for change to happen, “Food can play a more significant part in our society than it currently does. Not just for health or fitness reasons… but general wellbeing and community.” This is something we hadn’t thought about in detail at the start. She continues, “[food] has a value that has been undermined by big businesses, who have commoditised it and left out the wellbeing and community aspects that food can create. What we're really up against is recreating a value that is just not there at the moment. Unless you combine food with an interest you already have, such as protecting the environment, or eating delicious food, on its own, I don't think food has much of a value in our society.”
There are however, reasons for optimism. “As a result of Covid-19 there has been a new interest in ‘local’, the climate change debate creates this focus... and as a result of Brexit, ELMS is upon us. Hopefully these things will bring us something good and there will be a real interest, not just an 'I have to', attitude.” Christine adds, “It’s always interesting learning from different members in the CSA network, inspiring things are happening around the country. We just need more of them!”