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Green capital: can Bristol's eco-warriors finance the Big Society?

Dave Harvey | 08:00 UK time, Sunday, 30 January 2011

Veg box at The Community Farm

"This is an invitation to invest in a very unusual project. The returns are social, rather than financial."

Phil Haughton is making the pitch of his life. In the boardroom at Bristol's biggest investment house, Hargreaves Lansdown, he's trying to sell shares in a community-run organic farm.

"This is a chance for business to contribute to a project that will benefit the whole of society."

The city wizards listen attentively, and politely. I can only guess what they're thinking.

They look after £19.9 bn of people's money, and their job is simple. To make it grow. Saving the planet or feeding Chew Magna is not in the brochure.

But the share offer has done astonishingly well. It closes at midnight on Monday 31 Jan, and with two days to go, they already have £62,250 in the bank and another £22,750 pledged.

This is a "community benefit society", and if Mr Cameron's 'Big Society' is to mean anything, we should expect a lot more of them soon.

Working on The Community Farm, Chew Valley, Somerset

The idea is simple, but radical. Raise £100,000 from small investors. With it, buy an existing, profitable organic veg box scheme and the kit to farm the land. Then the Community Farm, as they call it, will grow veg for up to a thousand households. Any profits go back into the farm, and support an education centre.

"We've already had hundreds of people investing £50 or £100," Mr Haughton explains.

But why the need for an army of small investors, rather than a bank loan or city finance?

"We're trying to re-connect people with the land and how their food is produced," explains Mr Haughton's partner, Luke Hasell. He owns the land, which will be rented to the new business. "We hope the Community Farm will become a model for a new way of agriculture."

It's been described as the agricultural revolution in reverse.

Take a big farm, and share it out amongst the people who live around it. Have everyone come and help with the sowing and the harvest.

And for it to succeed, Bristol's eco-warriors must put their money where their mouths are.

For years now we've heard complaints about food miles, about global farming hurting the poor and cooking the planet. Campaigns against supermarkets are always popular in the west country. But until now, no-one has asked the green campaigners to invest their own cash in an alternative.

Nick Schofield

"I think it's a great opportunity, I really want to help this thing fly." Nick Schofield has put his money on the table. A retired teacher, I meet him out on the farm, pulling kale stalks out ready for the new season planting. Is this, I ask him, really an investment? Or is it actually a charitable donation?

"It's an investment, for sure. We need to get this off the ground, and it's a lovely thing, to grow veggies locally and get everyone involved."

The army of volunteers will help solve a practical problem. Growing a wide range of veg to fill a box scheme is hard, on a small farm. You either need lots of expensive kit, or lots of labour. Bringing people back on the land is not only revolutionary, it's also cost-effective. But there is more to it than that.

"Working with people breaks down all those barriers," explains Phil Haughton. "We're engaging a huge diversity of people here. People are hungry for a change now, they can see the world is broken, food security is a massive concern. Just this week the UN warned that we may not be able to feed ourselves in 30 years. This is one little project that says, here's another way of doing things."

So, were the money men at Hargreaves Lansdown convinced? They hear a dozen pitches a day in the boardroom, but they've never heard a sell like this one.

"I'm not sure this is really an investment," says Ben Yearsley, Head of Investor Relations. "You might like the local production, the whole food supply thing, but that's a different argument. I don't see where the returns are."

Mark Dampier, the firm's head of research, takes a slightly different view. "I think it's a good idea, but I'm unhappy with this phrase 'not for profit'. It suggests profit is a dirty word, and it's not. I don't see why you shouldn't run a good company, sell me healthy fresh veg, and make a profit. If I invest, I want to see a return."

If the conventional funds won't back schemes like this, they must rely on alternatives. Already one ethical fund has committed £19,000 to the farm.

Across Bristol, the networks are buzzing as the deadline looms.

Will Bristol's eco-warriors back the farm? Come back here for updates from Tuesday morning.... or read more on their site here.

What do you think of alternative finance like this? Would you invest your own money in a social enterprise, where the aims are to make a better world, not a bigger dividend?
Update Tues 1 Feb 08:00
The farm has now signed up over 200 investors and reached £96,000. It's thought this is the largest single amount of capital raised in a share offer for a community agriculture project. The board has also extended the deadline for new investors, which they are allowed to do under the rules. It is now open until Feb 10.


  • Comment number 1.

    This sounds such a great ideal, come on Bristol get investing, local food much better than tescos, and much moor flavour, we soon won't be able to afford food flown in from who knows where.



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