The last three months have been a time of great uncertainty for many farmers and food producers, but for Jackie Bridgen and her family they also presented the opportunity to realise their dream of starting a CSA.
On a grim January morning, relieved that our daughter had taken a couple of days off work to look after the sheep, as well as the dogs, we set off in the darkness for Oxford.
For years, we’d wanted to go to the ORFC, and a combination of bad timing, empty bank accounts, and other commitments had got in the way. The tickets sell fast, and unless you’re ready to commit when the sales open in summer, you don’t get any. This year, I’d snaffled up two tickets the day they went on sale.
We drove from home, which is the small market down of Devizes, in Wiltshire, to the park and ride, where we got literally the last spot (we set out earlier the next day) and then bussed into Oxford for day one.
We are neither of us spring chickens, and I have seen a lot of speakers, and read a lot of books, but few things have ever inspired and uplifted quite like that conference. I came home, and I wrote in my diary ‘I’m going back next year, and I’m going to lead a session.’ And I thought – ‘Which means I need to get something up and running, within twelve months, which is worth talking about.’
I informed my long-suffering husband of this, and he agreed, but we were a bit stumped as to how we were going to do it.
Winter droned on, and we faced the problem head on – I worked full time (managing a care home) and Neil is a self-employed painter and decorator. We have rented 10 acres of land for years, to graze sheep, among other things. Fifteen years ago, when the girls were little, I briefly ran a vegetable box scheme off the land.
I passionately believe in the concept of Community Supported Agriculture. That was what I tried to start back then, but for my area, I was way ahead of my time. I wanted to do it again, but this time, with real, genuine community involvement. Only where were we going to start?
As a permaculture designer, I knew I had to look at the whole thing logically, and design. We came up with a plan whereby – I’d wangle a four-day week, Neil would condense his work, and we’d start a pilot scheme. We’d invite six people to become pilot members, and we’d run this mini CSA for a whole year, constantly observing and interacting, asking for their feedback, studying the planting plans and scaling them up, doing all our research, in our tiny bit of spare time, and then we’d scale up the next year.
The old garden was head high in weeds, the ground was underwater (it was a spectacularly wet winter) so we couldn’t get the guy with his tractor onto the field to bring us compost to build no dig beds with. The polytunnel was still in bits from our house move. We’d finally moved out of our rented cottage of 11 years and into a shared ownership mid terrace house on the edge of town – we’re not exactly farmers born and bred – and now the four of us (myself, husband and two grown up daughters) were living in extremely close confinement!
I started blogging about it and posting on Facebook, and we got a couple of people interested. My design was good – I’d developed a micro business design before – but we were going to be very, very, tired, and moving to the next step was almost unthinkable, but we began. Six people. One year. Go.
Or stop. Then came Covid.
At first, the fear was the thing. After lockdown, both the girls were working at home. Neil couldn’t work. I went rapidly back to five days, and he, to pass the time, started working on the garden. At least the rain had stopped, so we could get over to the recycling depot and haul us some compost. I think we really cottoned on the divine backing we had when Hills Recycling decided they liked our project, so we could have 7 tonnes of compost for nothing.
After a few weeks, Sasha, our younger daughter, was furloughed. To pass the time, she started working on the garden – and social media. And grant funding.
I’d discovered the Calor Rural Communities fund where you could win a £5,000 grant – but part of the competition was to set up a Crowdfunder. I didn’t have the time. However, Sasha, ever one to pick up a new skill, learned the art of video editing overnight, and put together a really credible page. It’s still open until mid-July if you’d like to help, even if only by liking and sharing, here it is.
By now our dreams were big. People were reacting to food in a different way. People were talking about food, and local food, and local suppliers. We had four of our six pilot members all signed up.
The garden had gone from a jungle of weeds to a semi organised set of no dig beds. The polytunnel, although a bit worse for wear from multiple moves over the years, was up.
Covid had given us two people working full time on a project we hadn’t known how to fund, and they were being paid to do it. Slightly phased by this, we planted like mad, and wondered if it was really wise to limit our membership to six, at a time when the pain was palpable. We wanted to get organic veg to our local homeless charity, and work with them to get newly housed people receiving a subsidised box of great, fresh food every week. We wanted to work with the school, to make sure children in hard to reach families were getting familiar with fresh food.
It was a heck of a long list for one part-timer when the work came back.
Then the government offered a bounce back loan to businesses. Never have we been so glad that our down-home protestant work ethic means we always filled in our tax return honestly to the last 50p! We qualified. And we decided to take a big chance. We would borrow the money, and it would pay me to work on the farm, for at least 6 months, when the others went back to work. I was going to leave my job.
Not long afterwards, the Landworkers’ Alliance also opened up to applications for a grant to support our kind of project. I stayed up until 1am on a work night writing my proposal and emailed it off with my heart in my mouth.
It was hard to believe it was really happening. We’d located an organic wholesaler and decided that we couldn’t in good faith keep this to 6 people. We couldn’t be huge, but we could do better than six. While the goats methodically cleared a new patch of nettles each day, Neil hauled compost and built fences, and Sasha hauled compost and filmed, and built a Crowdfunder. Meanwhile Harriet and I sweated away at work – it’s been the hottest May on record – and turned up as soon as we could afterwards to pitch in.
As we tried to decide on a day for our first share, more and more interest grew online. Covid had stopped people in their tracks and made them think about food. Jamie Oliver had bumped the Agriculture Bill up the national agenda.
We picked a day. We started to organise. Harriet took the day off work – sadly, I wasn’t able to.
Meanwhile, I’d handed in my notice. My boss asked me if I’d consider staying on for a bit – flexibly. This would provide the trickle of income I needed alongside the assorted grants and loans I’ve put together to support my work on the CSA so I agreed. We launched Chestnuts Farm’s CSA on Thursday 11th June 2020, in the middle of the Covid crisis. Nine people collected shares. This week that has risen to fourteen.
There is a great deal more to say about how we did it, and with a fair wind, I’ll be standing up in front of at least a few of you, if this year’s ORFC goes ahead, to go into a lot more detail. We’d like to share resources to help other people start up. But for now, this is a testimony of what you can do in a year (indeed half a year, to date) with a real passion to change, a love of the land, and a desire to make real food a choice, not a luxury.
CSA Start Up – Ready, Set, Go! Jackie Bridgen 2020 is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License