The Hackney-based Growing Communities vegetable-box scheme has been running for about 20 years. Having reached saturation in Hackney, they considered how they were going to scale up and decided to go for a start-up support programme, a kind of zero growth type model of business where they help other individuals and organisations set up similar schemes, using their proven business model. Growing Communities Start-up Programme has been hugely successful. To date, nine community-led box schemes have been launched: Burnley Crop Share, Let's Eat Local, Local Greens, the Windmill Community Box scheme, Vegbox, Field to Fork, Crop Drop, Enfield Veg Co, and Organic Ilford.
We talk to Rachel Dring, founder of Crop Drop, about her passion for food, and how that led her to become a social entrepreneur in her community.
Sublime: How did the idea of setting up Crop Drop came about?
Rachel Dring: Well, my background is in the arts. I studied drama and theatre and then worked in the arts for about nine years, mostly managing community, youth art programmes. Then I took some time out, because felt I needed a change. That career break gave me the necessary head space for reading, researching and the time to experience other things outside of the arts. And very quickly I became interested in sustainability, which then led me on to the food system, because, so much about environmental sustainability leads back to food and the way our food is produced. I just did a lot of reading and then I took a course at the Schumacher College which was a big game-changer for me.
Then I became vegan …and obsessed with cooking. Eventually, I ended up leaving my job and becoming a chef. I was inspired by restaurants like The Gate, Vanilla Black and Mildreds that do amazing vegetarian food and really demonstrate how great vegan cooking can be. I worked as a chef for three years but then I grew a bit impatient. I wanted to make more of an impact on how people buy and consume food, but as a junior chef there wasn’t a huge amount of influence I could have. And I really wanted to set up my own business, so I just felt the urge to become a social entrepreneur.
I did a lot of networking and then, at a Fair Trade fortnight event, I met Julie Brown from Growing Communities who told me about their start-up programme. Julie suggested that I should start my own veg-box scheme. At first, I thought, ‘Well, I’m not sure about that,’ but once I looked into the programme, their values and the way they operate, it all seemed like a good fit for me.
S: What made you hesitate? Did you feel that you had to know a lot about farming to embark in this sort of enterprise?
RD: I did realise there were gaps in my knowledge. After all, it was just me, starting up on my own and, at first, it seemed overwhelming, but Growing Communities were incredibly supportive. I said to them: ‘I don't know much about growing food’, but they reassured me that this was not a stumbling block. They certainly support you through the process and help you find the information you need. And if you don’t know about farming, you just talk to farmers. One of the beautiful things about this enterprise is the opportunity for reconnecting with the people that produce our food, developing a better relationship with them so that you understand them and their processes a bit more. It becomes more of a collaborative approach to selling and buying food, rather than just a strict transactional contract.
S: How difficult or easy was it to get going?
RD: I had good support so it was fairly easy. The support that Growing Communities designed is amazing. They provided me with the practical framework I needed to get it going. They are really pragmatic people, which is great. The business plan was basically formulated out of the application I had to fill in to be on the programme. That made making the business plan really easy because they just gave me a structure to work from, and all the possible financial models where supplied by them - I just had to tinker around and try what was best. All that made it a really smooth process.
Once I was all set to go, local organisations, community events and community social networks such as Transition Towns, Haringey Online and Sustainable Haringey played a key role in the initial stages to get the word out, and it was a kind of snowball effect in terms of getting customers.
In terms of resources, starting with such a small budget as I did meant that we were counting on a lot of free resources, like volunteers that would help with packing and delivery. The drop points don’t get any monetary returns, for example, so we had to find partners that shared our values and ethos. But it didn’t take long to find them – people were very receptive and happy to be part of it. Finding an appropriate space for packing was another issue, so we approached a community centre in Tottenham who had just bought themselves a shipping container and they let us use it. So that became our packing base.
S: How is Crop Drop different from other veg-box schemes?
RD: There are three main differences. First of all, a lot of the new wave of local food enterprises are click and collect. Crop Drop requires that people sign up on a monthly direct debit, so they are kind of joining as members, making more of a commitment. Because of this, we find that our customers stick around for longer and we can guarantee the farmers a regular income.
Another difference is that our customers collect from a drop point, rather than getting a delivery. People come to us because their working situations make home delivery inconvenient. Thirdly, the fact that Crop Drop is a social enterprise, a not-for-profit local organisation acting locally is a big thing for most of our customers. We are here to serve this community. People like the fact that they get to know us more personally, and they get to know more about our farmers, so there’s more of a human connection. They can even join us for a drink at the pub if they wish to.
We are always encouraging our Crop Droppers to communicate – a lot of our customers are like-minded people that share similar values, and are involved in environmental campaigns, food growing groups, and things like that, so our social media community is very active and lots of people share what they are doing and support each other.
S: What do you most love about your job?
RD: What I really love … well, we have a group of volunteers that help out with the packing and delivery and what I really love is just coming in and seeing these piles of amazingly colourful and fresh vegetables that smell amazing and these very happy volunteers that are just very joyfully getting on with weighing and packing and ... It’s good because I started off on my own and now I’m doing more of the admin and business planning and financials stuff. So it’s nice to come in and see there’s this group of committed people who are investing in this thing I’ve created. That makes me really happy. And I bring them home-made biscuits and that makes me even happier... It’s really cold in there!
S: And what are the drags?
RD: Having to do so much yourself and not having the finance to get more staff. The drags are when things break, like locks on cupboards at the drop point and I have to go out and fix them myself on a cold Saturday morning, hungover! People not getting their veg-box due to of some mix-up and having to sort it out, cycling to someone’s house with a bag of veg – on the weekend. Being responsible all the time… It’s only vegetables, the world will not grind to halt, but I need to be there. It always pays off in the end.
S: Who do you benefit and how?
RD: Aside from providing customers with fresh, local produce, and the community aspects I mentioned, another important aspect is benefiting the farmers. For some of our farmers, we are the only market for their produce, aside from the farmers market. So it’s important to open up and widen opportunities to market for them.
S: What’s in the pipeline for Crop Drop?
RD: The first thing we are looking into at the moment is to move to a large space. We are outgrowing our shipping container space so moving to larger packing facility and then, offering more variety of produce. We are experimenting with some UK grown peas and beans, and Essex-grown quinoa from Hodmedod is really successful, so that will be a regular thing. We might also start to supply local cheese made in Tottenham, from Wildes Cheese.
We’d also like more growers. We don’t have enough urban growers to buy from. Growing in the city is difficult due to access to land, but we’d definitely benefit from more urban growers. We just need more space for people who are willing to grow!
S: What’s your advice for people wanting to start up a social enterprise?
RD: Firstly, get involved with your local food networks. Get to know the people and what’s already out there. Do your homework and understand what the local issues are, and why you are doing it. Don’t just duplicate what other people are doing, find a way of adding value to what’s already being offered or offer something different. It’s all about connecting with people and the ideas will come. Don’t expect to make a fortune – don’t do it for the money! In social enterprise, creating social value comes first. Have another job on the side... (laughs) ... Set aside a holiday fund!