Oxford food co-operative looks to scale up through crowdfunding initiative

A food co-operative in Oxford has launched a crowdfunding campaign as part of an effort to raise the funds it needs to scale up its new online local food...

A food co-operative in Oxford has launched a crowdfunding campaign as part of an effort to raise the funds it needs to scale up its new online local food shop and ensure its survival. Cultivate was Oxfordshire’s first commercial market garden, growing produce for its mobile VegVan, but now it faces unexpected challenges.

Founded in 2012, Cultivate aims to make good, local, fairly-priced food accessible to more people, while supporting ecologically-friendly and sustainable farming, and doing business in ways that benefit and strengthen the community. Its start-up funding came from the local community via a community share offer, and now the co-operative has a membership of over 400 across the region.

Cultivate is run by a team of part-time employees, joined by seasonal farm hands and sellers as the season demands, while the board of directors oversee the direction and progress of the co-op.

Its 10 acre garden is based at the Earth Trust in Little Wittenham, and has started the process for organic certification. Here Cultivate grows seasonal fruit and vegetables, which is supplemented with produce from 30 local supplies, most of whom are based within a 25 mile radius.

Three times a week, Cultivate loads the VegVan, a mobile greengrocery, and sells this produce in Cowley, Jericho and Headington – and Cultivate also has stalls at local Sunday markets. The online shop opened in December 2014.

“We’ve pumped well over £100,000 back into the local economy, but we quickly realised that the VegVan alone couldn’t meet the demand for local food. So in late 2014 we launched Cultivate Online to run alongside the VegVan,” said Doireann Lalor, director and community manager at Cultivate.

“The Cultivate Online shop is much loved and growing steadily. We’ve got everything in place to make Cultivate Online a viable – and replicable – model, but as a small co-operative, we just don’t have the working capital we need to scale it up as quickly as we’d like to to make the impact we want to make. So we’re hoping to raise £20,000 through this crowd funder to help us to grow the business.”

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Cultivate Online lets customers order items online from Monday to Wednesday, then collect their order on Thursdays and Fridays. There are currently 13 pick-up points across Oxfordshire. The county is already home to several veg-box schemes – but, says Ms Lalor, there was a consensus that new ways of engaging people in the local food scene were needed.

“It’s very important for Oxfordshire that we, collectively, work to improve access to local, healthy, and sustainably produced food,” she said. “Cultivate advocates and campaigns for this, and is committed to developing innovative business models to make this possible.

“It was considered crucial that Cultivate was incorporated as a community benefit society, because that made it community-owned – accountable to the community and serving the community in everything that we do. Our legal structure still informs our governance and operating principles on a daily basis.

“There’s no other legal structure that would feel right for what Cultivate is doing.”

• The crowdfunding deadline is 10 May. For more information, visit: www.crowdfunder.co.uk/support-cultivate

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