EarthShares 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.
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.
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
- Land, farming & machinery. (Shareholder, Director, full-time)
- Fruit farmer/contractor (Director, part-time)
- Distribution & Harvesting. (full-time)
- Administration & Communication (Director, part-time)
- Social Organiser (Director, part-time)
- Chairperson (Director, part-time)
- Accounts & Book keeping (part-time)
- 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
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 companys 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.
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 farmers 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
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
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.
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
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.