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EarthShare - Moray’s First Community Supported Agriculture Scheme

Christopher Raymont and Stewart Noble

Updated news on website http://www.earthshare.co.uk/

Overview

EarthShare is a not-for-profit Community Supported Agricultural Scheme in which the subscribers share the risks and benefits involved in the growing their food using organic methods.

It was established 1994, and has adopted the following mission statement:

"EarthShare strives to produce wholesome, affordable organic fruit and vegetables grown efficiently and with sincere respect and care for the environment by local people without exploitation of their labour. The organisation is committed to re-connecting people with the processes by which their food is grown in ways which further the development of human relations and understanding between individuals and between local communities."

One way to see EarthShare is as a shared community allotment to which subscribers commit a full year’s support. Subscribers also have the option of doing part of the labour-intensive work, which includes weeding and fruit picking. In this way, healthy food is produced locally at cost price with no intermediary and negligible advertising and distribution costs.

Chemicals are never used. Instead, bio-dynamic principles are put into practice. Horse manure, which is freely available, and seaweed are applied as fertilisers. Willing helpers are available where and when required. Working with the seasons and in harmony with nature have been the guiding principles.

The organisation now grows 47 different varieties of fruit and vegetables and distributes these to around 180 subscribers almost every week of the year. Several social events are organised throughout the year and subscribers are kept informed about progress through a quarterly newsletter, "The Onion String". Recipes and other timely notes are distributed weekly. These encourage the subscribers and inform them where and when to turn up to help.

The organisation has grown from strength to strength in the five years since its inauguration and is now close to achieving financial stability through economies of scale (see table below). Subscribers live in places as far apart as the Black Isle and Fochabers although the majority live in Forres and Findhorn. Half of the subscribers are individuals and half groups. Expansion has been achieved largely through word of mouth with minimal advertising. The value of the produce is exceptional when compared to imported produce of similar standard.

Growth of EarthShare: 1994-98

Year Number of Subscriptions Annual Family Share Price Gross Turnover Acreage of Land Farmed Employees - FT Equivalent
1994 80 180 15,000 10 1
1995 116 216 29,000 15 2
1996 140 216 33,779 16 2.5
1997 180 236 42,280 16 3
1998 180 257 45,743 16 3

EarthShare’s success has been achieved without any public or private funding with the exception of some small, short-term loans from individuals within the scheme.

Essential inputs have been the sheer hard work and determination of a core group of committed individuals who share a common vision and are prepared to work as and when required for a low, but fair, rate.

History

At the end of 1990 a group of six people came together to discuss developing an organic farm and formed themselves into a steering group to develop their ideas. All were committed to organic methods. Two were landowners who were willing to make land available and one had specialised experience of bio-dynamic methods. The group decided to incorporate the project as a Company Limited by Guarantee with Share Capital and take up both offers of land.

The members of the group were unanimous in their belief that the "Community Supported Agriculture" (CSA) structure was the best for their purposes. CSA means that, instead of selling produce to members of the public through individual transactions, the company seeks a group of subscribers who receive a share of the harvest in return for their subscription. The group prepared a prospectus outlining what it intended to grow, and the expected produce and price.

A financial plan was prepared covering all aspects of the business (although this was difficult to draw up for the first year). During the first year the group received committed support from the Findhorn Foundation, which had a long history of pioneering work based on organic principles and agreed to support the scheme in the form of purchase of most of the shares. Thus most of the first subscribers belonged to one organisation, although there were also a few individual subscribers.

During this first year, the six members of the steering group became the six shareholders of the company, but it was always understood that the company was not designed to make profit for the shareholders. Instead, the shareholders saw themselves as guardians of the project. To ensure this, an agreement between the company and its subscribers was drawn up, barring the company from paying out any profits to the shareholders, and declaring that any profit would be ploughed back into the company or returned to subscribers. In this way, it was hoped that the company would enjoy the advantages of having the legal status of a limited company and at the same time exist to serve its subscriber body.

Land and Produce

Over the first five years nine different sites have been farmed in and around Forres. Landowners have been reluctant to lease land for more than 364 days and the activity of bringing the land back into good heart increases its value which can then easily lead to conflict of interests. An annual rent of 150 per acre is paid to the landowners, who had been receiving this amount in ‘set aside’ payments.

Good, fertile farmland that is free from chemical pollution and close to subscribers’ homes has been hard to find. However, EarthShare is currently negotiating a five-year lease for a 23-acre site. This will lead to improved stability, efficiency and provide the opportunity to plan ahead more effectively. It however falls far short of the ideal which would be for EarthShare, on behalf of its members, either to own its own land or rent land from an organisation with parallel aims, such as a land trust set up to make land available to organic and community ventures.

The quantity and range of produce grown has increased over the years, and the quality has also improved. EarthShare now produces the following vegetables, fruits and herbs: potatoes, carrots, beetroot, broad beans, brussel sprouts, broccoli, green cabbages, red cabbages, cauliflowers, courgettes, cucumbers, garlic, leeks, lettuce, onions, spring onions, pak choi, parsley, parsnips, peas, peppers, radishes, rhubarb, rocket, spinach, kale, Swiss chard, tomatoes, pumpkins, swedes, celery, strawberries, raspberries, blackcurrants, fennel, and basil.

In addition to growing produce on the land it farms, EarthShare has obtained produce from two other organic ‘contractors’. The first of these, which has now been part of the system for three years, is Cullerne Garden, the market garden of the Findhorn Foundation. It was realised that, by co-operating, EarthShare and Cullerne Garden could both operate much more efficiently than by working separately. Cullerne has the advantage of a significant area of poly-tunnels essential for growing vegetables for early and late season salads and covered summer crops like tomatoes. Its educational work means it also has a supply of labour which can cope with the more labour-intensive crops. Relying on Cullerne for these has allowed EarthShare to concentrate on the staple crops like brassicas, potatoes and carrots suited to its more extensive field and tractor-based systems. The second contractor is a fruit farmer who supplies EarthShare with organic fruit at the market rate less 10 per cent.

Crops are harvested each week and boxes packed each Friday. These are then taken to two pick-up points in Findhorn and Forres. Subscribers collect their own boxes and are encouraged to share in a rota scheme to collect for their nearest neighbours. Re-cycling and environmental awareness are also promoted.

Structure and Principles

In addition to the shareholders, eight team members meet monthly to organise and plan the development of the company. Each of the team members focuses on a different aspect of the organisation:

  1. Land, farming & machinery. (Shareholder, Director, full-time)
  2. Fruit farmer/contractor (Director, part-time)
  3. Distribution & Harvesting. (full-time)
  4. Administration & Communication (Director, part-time)
  5. Social Organiser (Director, part-time)
  6. Chairperson (Director, part-time)
  7. Accounts & Book keeping (part-time)
  8. Company Secretary (part-time)

The company has adopted an equal pay strategy which means that all paid individuals receive the same hourly rate of just 4 per hour, irrespective of what work they do. Subscribers also receive this rate in the form of discount in return for the help they are asked to give with some of the work (between six and nine hours per year). Many subscribers volunteer extra help over and above this requirement.

Subscribers may pay their subscriptions ‘up front’ at the beginning of the year or on a monthly basis, but it is essential to the integrity of the scheme for people to make a full year's commitment, although they may sell on their share to a new subscriber. The company has recently compiled a waiting list of those wishing to take over a share.

In recent years, the organisation has accepted 20 per cent payment in LETS or local currency. This allows those on low income to participate more easily as well as providing an additional source of flexible, short-term labour.

In addition to an annual meeting with the share holders, the group also holds an annual general meeting with the subscribers to report on progress, elect new office-bearers and share ideas. Each year a detailed survey is carried out to find out the views and ideas of the subscribers. The company’s progress is measured against the responses received. As part of the survey, subscribers are asked to rate the organisation on quantity, range, quality, balance and value for money. Their responses indicate that they gave each of these factors an average score between 74 per cent and 80 per cent (100 per cent would equal total satisfaction). Nine out of ten subscribers renew their subscriptions annually and demonstrate strong loyalty through their active support of the project.

The various changes in land and membership of the board have meant that most of the group of shareholders are much less involved in the practical running of the company than at the outset. In recent years much thought has gone into restructuring the company in order to better reflect its aims. The ideal would seem to be to have the subscribers own the company as a consumer co-operative.

The other possibility is to develop structures that would allow the project to raise charitable funds to buy land, thus saving around eight per cent of its present costs and allowing long-term, sustainable land management. This would also allow the project to put more emphasis on its community and educational functions, notably present in the original mission statement but not emphasised to date.

Finance

Investment in the company has been entirely in the form of small short-term loans from the directors. The investment needed has been kept low both as a result of the very advantageous cash flow built into the CSA system and by the farmer’s machinery skills. The company currently relies on its bookkeeper and administrator working from home using their own office equipment. If EarthShare were to have a permanent base, it would be sensible to invest immediately in vegetable storage facilities and other facilities which are not relevant at the moment but which would have the potential of improving the service given to the subscribers. Additional funds would have to be generated to provide this capital in the medium term.

Getting the Jobs Done

EarthShare exists at that borderline between the commercial and the voluntary that is a hallmark of the community business. It has to survive commercially and yet it has many aims that are non-commercial and these are what have tended to attract people. In the first year, the entire administrative side of the business was covered by a small group of committed volunteers. Their commitment however exacerbated the problems caused by differences of ideology between them and the rest of the Board. The fair pay strategy helped to resolve this matter.

EarthShare has been blessed by the contributions of a highly gifted and trained farmer, Matthis Rosenbusch. His skills as a grower have been crucial to the success of the project. Nothing is holding organic farming back in the UK as much as the lack of competent practitioners, and no project should attempt to start without such a person. Matthis is also a past master at finding, repairing and adapting old machinery, and has saved the project thousands of pounds.

The organisation has struggled to get to the level where economies of scale make life a little easier. The subscriber base needs to be large enough to support at least two full-time field workers to make the job more enjoyable and of course to cover for holidays. We also need the equivalent of a full-time worker to deal with administration. To pay people to do these jobs for a realistic rate of pay would seem to require the equivalent of 200 family subscriptions. In order to sell the necessary volume of produce at competitive prices we would need to manage 25-30 acres effectively and efficiently.

EarthShare is very aware of its important role in community building. A great deal of effort goes into networking subscribers, who come from all walks of life but share a common desire to eat healthy, locally-grown organic produce. Social events are held throughout the year and subscribers become good friends through working together towards a shared goal. This close contact is necessary to organise help on the land where and when it is required. Regular communication through in-house newsletters and seasonal notes and recipes is an essential means of maintaining contacts between members.

Health, Social and Economic Benefits

The benefits to health of eating locally-grown fresh produce in season are now well accepted. Interestingly many subscribers are now being recommended to the scheme by their doctors and other health practitioners. Most gardeners of all ages would agree that growing and cultivating fruit and vegetables is not only hard work, but also a healthy activity: there is a positive therapeutic value to working with the land in harmony with nature and with the changing seasons. Yet the opportunities for such a lifestyle have diminished over the years as traditional methods of farming and land management have declined. As leisure time increases, so does the need for many to participate in healthy outdoor activities.

Many subscribers to EarthShare wish to feel part of their community and share in group activity. Some travel as far as 30 miles to collect their box each week and do their share of the work. Labour-intensive tasks are a family affair and children are encouraged to participate in the weeding and fruit picking. People of all ages and from many different backgrounds co-operate in these tasks. The fields are a great place to meet others on common ground and there is a great sense of equanimity. Subscribers collect the weekly notes and recipes and the quarterly newsletter along with their vegetables.

The overall cost of conventionally produced food includes the spiralling transport costs of distributing it. Distribution also has an impact on our environment and the air that we breathe. Air pollution from food transport may not be too evident in rural Scotland, but is a creeping menace, which indirectly affects us all in the form of acid rain. Imported food may be fumigated with ozone-depleting chemicals or may have been treated with of excessive amounts of pesticides. Radiation and genetic engineering now add to the concerns of many. The increasing frequency of food-related health scares is resulting in growing awareness of the need for safer, affordable alternatives to mass produced and imported produce.

Future Potential

Each successive year there has been less difficulty finding new subscribers. When extra land became available, after preparation, in 1997, a modest advertising campaign resulted in a 35 per cent increase in subscribers within 6 weeks. This reflects the increasing profile of organically grown foods in the market place, as well as EarthShare's improved networking in the local area.

Traditional farming methods are in danger of extinction as successive generations choose more profitable employment elsewhere. With the increasing possibility of reductions in subsidies for farmers and landowners, organic producers can perhaps compete on a fairer basis. Falling land prices create the opportunity to acquire suitable land, which could be used for the benefit of the communities which live nearby. The return of shared allotment schemes featured high on the list of suggestions made in the recent Local Agenda 21 survey carried out by Moray Council.

The EarthShare group has always believed that the CSA model has great potential for community building, and that this helps to achieve the level of subscriber support necessary to ensure a truly sustainable operation. In order to build community and sustain its activities, the company is now planning to change its status to a member-owned company limited by guarantee. This will allow us to seek funding to broaden the ownership of the organisation in a way which will benefit the local community and promote and support the development of similar CSA schemes elsewhere. There has been growing interest from community groups and individuals throughout rural Scotland and many have visited the project.

The EarthShare model sits very comfortably with other community related projects such as woodland re-generation; green site development; re-cycling; health promotion; sustainable housing; as well as leisure- and tourism-related activities. An integrated approach to sustainable community development which will benefit all stakeholders could well be the way ahead.

 

 

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