By Ann Algie

Growing with Grace is a community co-operative that is dedicated to supplying sustainably grown produce to local people and businesses. We are based at Clapham, North Yorkshire, just off the busy A65 route to the Lake District. We have nearly 2 acres of glasshouses in which we grow salads, vegetables and fruit. We also have a community composting scheme, a farm shop and a vegetable bag delivery scheme. In one area of our glasshouses we have created a forest garden following permaculture principles.

The past year has been a particularly challenging one for us and has seen us undergo many changes. It has been a year of highs and lows; however, we are moving forward with a degree of healthy optimism for the future. The challenges are not over but we are winning!

Growing with Grace started life as a worker co-operative 11 years ago and was very successful, but it was badly affected by the drop in organic sales around the time of the credit crunch and a failed takeover by a larger company. A plea went out for volunteers to get involved in helping to support the work of Growing with Grace and to help find a new and sustainable way forward. In early 2011 a new committee was formed and Growing with Grace became a Community-Owned Co-operative and an Industrial and Provident Society. This gave us a new legal structure which enabled us to sell shares. We decided to launch our ‘share issue’ in April 2011 and to offer shares at a cost of £1 a share with £100 minimum purchase. People could also buy shares as a group if they could not afford £100. We felt that a successful share launch would enable us to be a truly community-owned business, with not only the benefit of additional funds, but also the extremely valuable asset of the people themselves being directly connected to us.

Community connections

The small committee made up of volunteers and workers then set about promoting the share issue. We improved and updated the website, printed a share prospectus and flyers, held meetings and open days, wrote articles for local and national papers, took part in the Escape to the Country television programme and generally worked really hard to let people know that there was an opportunity to become part of an Organic Growing Community Co-operative. There were many ups and downs during the process. We worked hard on many fronts including learning to work together as a new group of people, continuing to run the business and looking after existing customers, examining aspects of what worked and what did not, selling shares and of course trying to keep up with our existing commitments to family and friends and other jobs!

Those involved held a strong belief that Growing with Grace was something worth fighting for and that it was worth ‘going the extra mile’ if it meant we could continue to have great organic food grown locally. The overarching thing that connects those involved is a belief that local organic food is far more important than most people yet realise. We are all firm believers in taking action to address peak oil and climate change and realise that the age of cheap fossil fuels is at an end. We need to prepare for changing times. We carried out staff appraisals to help discover what motivated people to work at Growing with Grace either in a paid or voluntary capacity and every person interviewed mentioned education as being very important. This is another common thread between us all. We all care about the bigger issues and want to find ways to communicate why it is so important to grow food ourselves and why organic local food is so relevant to our times.

Facing realities

Filming for the DVD in the compost shed. Photo: Judith Allinson

This led us to look at how we connect with the wider population. At this point in time we have a small shop and a small vegetable delivery round that covers a fairly large geographical area between Lancaster and Skipton. We are at the side of a very busy ‘A’ road and this feels like an opportunity as most organic farms are situated down quiet lanes and tracks. We have given a great deal of thought to how we can build bridges between what is generally perceived as a ‘hippy’ view of life and those who have a more ‘mainstream’ (for want of a better word) view of life. The majority of people have not heard of peak oil, many do not believe that climate change is anthropogenic (caused by humans) most think that organic vegetables are an extravagant faddy expense and many people no longer know how to grow their own food. This is a dangerous situation for our population to be in. There is an assumption that supermarkets will always have plentiful supplies of cheap food, but this may not always be the case if the cost of fuel continues to rise or climate change in other countries adversely affects crops that we are used to importing.

With these ‘less than cheery’ thoughts in mind we have been looking at our small farm and thinking how we can use it to best advantage to help people while also managing to become, and then continue to be, sustainable ourselves. This is a challenge, but the good news is that our share issue, which closed at the end of November 2011, was successful in connecting us to 136 shareholders and raising £57,400! This has enabled us to stabilise and given us the necessary breathing space to restructure and put things in place that will enable a positive future for Growing with Grace.

To this end we are very grateful to the Vegan Organic Network for donating funds that are enabling us to push ahead with our education agenda. With their help we are also making a video which follows a year at Growing with Grace. [Update: you can watch it for free on YouTube: www.youtube.com/watch?v=YDYpxiE933E]

Space for education

Inside one of the glasshouses. Squashes are trained above ground level for air circulation and to avoid slugs. Photo: Judith Allinson

Support from VON has also enabled us to purchase a 21-foot Mongolian yurt! This slightly unusual purchase is going to be used primarily as an educational space; it will give us a comfortable and interesting venue for putting on small courses, giving talks and even for hiring out to others who might want to provide courses on aspects of sustainable living. The space will also house a library on organic growing, sustainable living and related subjects. We plan to create quality display boards that illustrate what we are doing at Growing with Grace and why we are doing it. The yurt will be open to visitors to the site when it is not being used for courses and it will provide a welcoming space for people to read and maybe have a drink and a bit of peace. It will be heated by a wood-burning stove. This will be very welcome in the winter months which tend to be a struggle in our climate.

Our plans for the future are to continue to improve our business and our site by consolidating our efforts to make it more welcoming and comfortable for visitors. We are going to improve our signage on the main road opting for a more professional look but keeping our famous carrot signs as well! We are improving our parking area and we have made strides to move some of the temporary buildings on site so that it looks tidier and does not put people off coming to have a closer look. We hope the yurt, which will be visible from the road, will be a feature of interest that people will want to visit. This will then give us more opportunities for discussion and for advertising courses and tours of the site. We are considering having an area of the glasshouses where people will be able to pick their own salads; customers have enjoyed choosing and cutting their own lettuces when given the chance to do so in the past. Our green waste compost is being sold offsite at local garden centres for the first time and this will provide a new income stream. Several new local restaurants are to start using our lovely vegetables. We have been very encouraged by the excellent collaboration with VON over the past two years and we are looking forward to promoting stockfree growing through courses to be run jointly with VON in the yurt over the next 12 months and beyond.

We have been stockfree for years of course and this is another thing that provides a good opportunity for discussion. Most people think you cannot produce good vegetables without using either chemical fertilizers or animal manure – Growing with Grace provides the proof that you can!

Thanks to the Vegan Organic Network, Growing with Grace is soon to become a centre for learning about sustainable, stockfree organic farming. The study centre will be based in a traditional Mongolian yurt.

Growing with Grace www.growingwithgrace.org.uk.

This article appeared in Growing Green International magazine Num 29 (Summer 2012), p14.