CSAs or subscription-based businesses don’t always need to be on a significant scale... here is a small pig club with six families as members in Totnes. The author’s shoes appear to be of particular interest.CSAs or subscription-based businesses don’t always need to be on a significant scale… here is a small pig club with six families as members in Totnes. The author’s shoes appear to be of particular interest.Getting LOCAL FOOD INITIATIVES (3.10) and some of the PRACTICAL MANIFESTATIONS (3.9) that your initiative wants to do off the ground can be tricky without financial support, and without a clear commitment of support on behalf of the community. Innovative models for FINANCING YOUR WORK (3.3) and weaving in an element of SOCIAL ENTERPRISE/ENTREPRENEURSHIP (5.2) can make a big difference to projects getting off the ground and being viable.(We are collecting and discussing these Transition ingredients on Transition Network’s website to keep all comments in one place. Please leave feedback and comments, suggestions for alternative pictures, anecdotes, stories and projects for this ingredient here).

The Challenge

Connections have largely broken down between farmers and the communities that, historically, they would have sustained. This enables communities to feel that there is no apparent connection between themselves and the land around them. Farmers are left feeling isolated, irrelevant, and end up increasingly producing for distant anonymous consumers, in a model that increases oil dependency, carbon emissions and lowers the quality of food.

Core Text

The concept of Community Supported Agriculture emerged in the US in the 1980s, and more recently has begun to be picked up in the UK, where there are now over 100 such schemes. In essence, they are farms where members of the local community become involved in the running of the farm through buying shares or becoming members, making decisions and even helping out with the growing and harvesting of the food they eat. For farmers it is a great model because it ensures a secure market for what they produce, and also allows them to feel a sense of being supported by those around them. For the consumer it provides access to food, the opportunity to learn new growing skills, and the opportunity to have a say in where your food comes from. It is also an excellent and key tool in building local food resilience.

According to Tamzin Pinkerton in ‘Local Food: how to make it happen in your community’, there are 4 key principles to community supported agriculture.

1. Shared Risk: the risk attached to food production is shared between farmers and consumers, meaning that rather than the farmer’s income being subject to the vagaries of the climate and of the market, it is based on trust with those around him/her

2. Transparency: this sense of trust leads to increased transparency in how the farm is organised, with members offered the opportunity to be very involved in the running of the farm. Also the levels of trust mean that as people can see how the farm is produced, some CSAs don’t feel the need for expensive organic certification, as anyone can see how they are growing the food

3. Community Benefits: such schemes tend to have greater and wider economic benefits to the community. Through farmers being able to keep their overheads low they are often able to make food available cheaper than supermarkets, which helps also to address issues around access to affordable, good quality foods for those on lower incomes

4. Building resilience: CSA schemes have the potential to support and promote community food resilience, putting in place sustainable local food production designed from the outset for the benefit of the local economy.

The squash harvest at Stroud CSA.The squash harvest at Stroud CSA. One of the best examples in the UK is Stroud Community Agriculture, which was set up in 2001 by four local residents who wanted to support a local farmer who was struggling and in danger of losing his farm. A public meeting was held which generated a lot of interest. Some seed funding was raised through pledges at that meeting, and then new members paid in advance for their produce, which also raised necessary finance. In 2002, an Industrial and Provident Society was set up for the project. The first farm did eventually go under, but fortunately a second site was found, closer to town, and SCA now has 200 members (the maximum desirable number agreed by the members) and manages 50 acres of land producing beef, lamb, pork and vegetables. Another CSA project has subsequently launched in the area too. Members pay £2 a month to be members, and £33 a month for their shares, although this can be reduced if people attend workdays and help with the food production. Produce can be collected from the farm or from two drop-offs in town.

I asked Jade Bashford of the Soil Association, an expert on CSAs and also the person who gave a talk at that first meeting of the Stroud CSA group, for her key pieces of advice for getting a CSA underway. These were:

  • Start by finding out what everyone needs and wants, including farmers, community groups, landowners and those trying to start the project
  • Be clear about what you want to achieve
  • Think outside the box about how to work together to achieve everyone’s needs
  • Make sure the money adds up, do a proper budget and business plan
  • Go and visit other projects, learn from their successes and failures and read as many case studies as you can…

The Globe Hotel, home to the Topsham Ales micro-brewery.The Globe Hotel, home to the Topsham Ales micro-brewery.The CSA model, of communities buying shares in new local food ventures, can also be used for projects other than farms. One example is in the establishment of local breweries. Setting up a microbrewery can be an expensive businesses, so the story of Topsham Ales in Devon is very useful here. Transition Topsham held a few meetings, often in their local pub, which had been voted one of the ‘Top 5 Real Pubs’ in England. Their engagement efforts included reviving the Wassail tradition which hadn’t taken place in the town since 1936, and holding an Apple day and planting a new community orchard (sponsored by Bovril, as odd a matching of funder and recipient as I have yet come across in any Transition initiatives!). Then, at a meeting, the idea emerged of creating a community brewery as a project that brought together all the strands the group was interested in: localisation, community ownership and social enterprise. The fact that one member already brewed beer on a small scale helped. They saw a brewery as a great tool for deep engagement across the community, as a passion shared by most members of the community, something attractive to both sexes, something tangible and a great way to demonstrate Transition in action.

The idea was discussed at one of the local pubs and met with a very positive response, so a meeting was held where a wide range of skills were discovered among those who attended, including someone who knew someone who was trying to sell microbrewing equipment at half price. This offer, and the deadline attached to it, focused the mind of the group, and it became, all of a sudden, a real project. The group began meeting more regularly, and identified a potential site for the brewery at the back of Globe Hotel.

Topsham Ales Co-operative members celebrate receiving their share certificatesTopsham Ales Co-operative members celebrate receiving their share certificatesThe group contained people with many useful skills, a solicitor, someone with experience of planning, and someone with lots of experience of setting up co-ops. The Topsham Ales Co-operative was then set up, its first committee was voted into place, a 3 year business plan was created which was circulated around everyone, and then the issue of membership was addressed. The idea was that the project needed to raise £35,000 in order to get the business going, and would invite members who would each invest a minimum of £500, in return for which they would get one vote and an annual dividend (to be agreed by the members). There was also an opportunity for people to become ‘Friends of Topsham Ales’ for a small fee, in return for which they receive regular updates on the project’s progress.

Within 2 months, and with very little marketing other that word-of-mouth, all the £37,000 of shares were sold to 56 members, and there was a waiting list of people wanting shares. Much of the work done to get the brewery established was done by volunteers, but some professional work was paid for with shares.

The building work was done on the brewery space, the equipment was purchased, the barrels were purchased and the first attempts at brewing were undertaken. At the time of writing, the brewery is still refining its brewing, ready for a launch in February 2011. It plans to sell through 3 Topsham pubs, and a couple in Exeter, as well as, in time, producing bottled beers. It will produce 3 main beers and some one-offs, and is getting ‘Topsham Ales’ pint glasses produced. They are keen that the beer be a celebration of Topsham, what they term “drinking the view”, and have done a lot of research into local history when designing the names of the beers. I asked Mark Hodgson, one of the founders of Topsham Ales, for his tips for other groups wanting to create a similar project.

  • Involve the community as much and as early as you can: generate enthusiasm and show that it is possible, keep it moving forward and keep people informed
  • Create a good business plan: send it round the group for comments, get expert help and try to get the business model right, always over-estimate and plan for the unexpected (for example, they planned for the first 3 months of operation to not produce any drinkable beer!)
  • Be different and exciting!: don’t be shy of saying it will be local, it will be community-owned, it will be co-operative….

Topsham Ales sees itself as the opportunity to model localisation in practice. It gives its spent yeast to a local baker, its spent hops are fed to local pigs, it will do its local deliveries by bicycle and trailer and it is sourcing an increasing amount of its hops from a grower in East Devon.

The Handmade Bakery in Slaithwaite in Yorkshire is a fascinating example of a Community Supported Bakery. Begun by Dan and Johanna McTiernan (see right), they describe it as “an artisan bakery in West Yorkshire producing traditionally crafted, slowly fermented bread with no hidden additives”. Inspired by the Real Bread Campaign started by Andrew Whitley, the aim of the Bakery is to:

“offer a viable local alternative to industrially manufactured bread by bringing back traditional skills and community-scale produce. And most importantly, giving people a say in where their food comes from and how it’s made”.

It is a fascinating example of applying the concept of Community Supported Agriculture to a different enterprise. Dan and Johanna started small, doing their first baking in their oven at home. They began building a base of subscribers, who paid for two loaves of bread a week, which were collected from a local pub. They observed that most bakers get up at 3am to bake, something, with a small child, they were understandably keen not to do. They also observed that most people make toast with bread in the morning, which can be done with staler bread, and the time you actually want fresh bread is at lunchtime.

They wanted to expand the business, but no premises and no big oven. Then, ingeniously, they approached a local pizzeria, whose oven was only used during the evening, and came to an arrangement to use their oven in the mornings. For two days a week they baked bread for their subscribers, and every Saturday morning the pizzeria became an impromptu bakery where people could drop in.

Then a grocers shop in Slaithwaite was in danger of closure, and Transition Slaithwaite and others took the shop over as a Customer Co-op, and so after 6 months, the Handmade Bakery left the pizzeria and took over its own premises in the back of the shop. It is an ideal partnership, supporting both businesses. They are now baking 1200 loaves a week, most of which are sold within 7 miles of the bakery, and employ 9 part-time staff. 30% of what they sell is sold through the shop, the rest through other outlets and direct to subscribers. The benefit to subscribers is that they get a discount on their bread, they are able to collect it whenever is convenient for them, they know they won’t turn up to buy bread and find it has sold out, and they are emailed options for what they would like baked the following week.

Dan told me that for him, the CSA/subscription based approach is best at the earlier stage of the business. When they started, 100% of their business came from subscribers, now it is more like 10%. The advantages, he told me, are that you build instant customer loyalty and create many champions in the community, and it takes a lot of the risk out of starting a new business. Amazingly, many of the initial subscribers signed up without even tasting the bread!

When I spoke to Dan, he told me that the business has grown so well, that he is now planning on using the subscription model a second time, as a way of financing the business’s move to larger premises. The Handmade Bakery also runs courses in breadmaking and how to start your own bakery, which have become wildly popular. So, in order to have a new larger space for baking, training, and for community events, they need to raise £20,000. The idea is to invite investment as 3 year rolling loans offering 7% interest, but with the interest paid in bread. This, for the business, is a very attractive rate to borrow money at.

I spoke to Mick Marston, the Soil Association’s Community Supported Agriculture expert for the north of England. He told me that while the subscription model is still experimental, it is a great way for new businesses to look at finance, and that, having been involved in supporting many such operations, he can’t see a downside to the model. When new businesses are starting, he said, they either put their hands in their pockets, as in they risk their own capital, or they go cap in hand to a local bank. This model means you tie your customers in. He told me that the approach has also been used by beekeepers, cheesemakers, and is being looked at in relation to woodlands as well. In the context of Transition, it can be a great way of using the networks and the goodwill generated by your Transition initiative to kickstart new food enterprises, and to create vital new food infrastructures.

The Solution

The Community Supported Agriculture model is providing very successful around the world in various manifestations. It can involve communities owning a share in a local farm, setting up their own farm, paying an annual subscription to a farmer they support, and many other variations on the theme. The model is also being applied to other enterprises, such as pig clubs or community supported bakeries. Where possible, use the community buy-in generated by your Transition initiative to support community supported initiatives.

Connections to Other Patterns

Getting a community supported/subscription-based enterprise up and running requires building strong, committed support, which requires good marketing and being mindful of HOW OTHERS SEE US/HOW WE COMMUNICATE (1.6). You may want to start the process going with using some COMMUNITY BRAINSTORM TOOLS (4.6) and see if there are any ways of WORKING WITH LOCAL BUSINESSES (3.12) that might help. Such an initiative may well require it BECOMING A FORMAL ORGANISATION (2.7), and FORMING A CORE TEAM (2.1) to support it. RUNNING SUCCESSFUL MEETINGS (2.4) will also be a key skill for the project.

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