Chloë Dunnett, Founder and Chief Grower at Sitopia Farm (and alumna of the Centre for Food Policy’s Master’s programme), explains how crowdfunding, a grant, a vision and a committed advisory board are helping to get her food-growing social enterprise off the ground.
Q: Tell us about your enterprise
A: Sitopia Farm is a new urban farming social enterprise in London. Our main farm is on a beautiful 2-acre site in Greenwich, southeast of the city, where we aim to grow significant volumes of salad, vegetables, herbs, fruit and flowers, as well as run a range of pop-up dinners, events and community activities.
Q: Why do you do it?
A: We want to demonstrate and be part of the wider change we want to see: a thriving network of urban and peri-urban farms being a vital part of London’s food supply, growing quality produce using agroecological, regenerative techniques. We can and should grow more food in the city and it’s also an amazing opportunity to connect many more urban dwellers to the realities of food production and the many wider changes needed to our food system.
Q: How did you get started?
A: We began on two small pilot sites last year, and then came across this new site in January: we’ve been working hard since to raise funding for start-up costs and to start building up the farm.
Q: What is your ownership model?
A: Our social enterprise is a private company, limited by guarantee, with any profits reinvested to advance our health, social and environmental aims.
Q: Who are your customers?
A: We have only just begun, with our first harvest expected in a few weeks’ time, so our routes to market are still developing. We aim to sell direct to customers at the farm and via online subscriptions, as well as to farmers’ markets/restaurants and (particularly with a view to increasing the accessibility of good food) local schools, if we can make the procurement process work for both sides.
Q: How big is your organisation?
A: Watch this space! We have one full-time post, two part-time posts, a committed advisory board of five, and to date over 100 volunteers.
Q: Where does the money comes from?
A: Our initial capital for start-up costs has largely come from a crowdfunder, which raised over £77,000 (the link is still live at www.spacehive.com/sitopiafarm), with over 400 mostly local backers, and a grant of £37,500 from the London Mayor’s office. We aim to sell our food and flowers to cover ongoing costs, though we also plan a diverse range of income-generating activities to boost resilience, and to enable cross-subsidisation of community activities. This includes pop-up dinners, feasts in the field and other events, paid-for corporate volunteering and much more.
Q: What are your costs?
A: Our start-up capital costs are £80,000+, including items like a large polytunnel; irrigation; tools and equipment; and other infrastructure including access paths, cold and other storage, etc. Running costs will include salaries as the biggest expenditure.
Q: How has the reality compared with what you expected?
A: So far so good. It’s very early days, but we’ve been bowled over by the support we’ve received from our local community in the form of crowdfunder pledges, volunteering and all sorts of in-kind support.
Q: What have been the biggest triumphs and difficulties?
A: We had a Board meeting on site recently, and were pinching ourselves at how quickly we’ve been able to create a farm on such a beautiful bit of land. We only came across it in January and now here we are with most of our start-up costs covered and our first harvests coming soon…though there’s a huge amount still to do! The greatest difficulty is juggling the 1,001 tasks that need doing, and balancing time on the farm actually farming and creating growing space with managing all the other things involved in setting up a business: design/marketing; fundraising; communications; volunteer administration; media work, etc.
Q: What would you do differently if you were starting again?
A: Ask me again in six months’ time. It’ll probably be: ‘take some time off, even if just for a few days.’
Q: Is there something – a piece of equipment, a policy – that would make what you do easier?
A: Where to begin? A key one would be an effective government agricultural subsidy scheme and associated regulations that actually recognised the true costs of food and food production and supported small-scale farmers growing in an environmentally-friendly way.
Q: What ambition do you have for your enterprise?
A: Lots! In time we plan to work in partnership with the Woodlands Farm Trust, who own the lease for the wider 89 acres of farmland on which we’re located, to develop it further into a food, farming and education hub for London. We’d love to support – and in time perhaps create – other urban and peri-urban farms.
Q: What advice do you have for other people wanting to do something similar?
A: Do it. Yes, do your research, learn from others, try things out. But then go do it. Life is short and we need so much change fast. Don’t expect someone else is going to do it for you.