Entrepreneurs in the sustainable food industry / Growing for Profit

As a student I did my undergrad degree at Cambridge University (a little known fact!) and haven’t been back since I left. This week I took the opportunity to visit some friends and family and enjoyed reminiscing more than I thought I would! As is often the way with hindsight, it’s probably only now I’m starting to really appreciate how fortunate I was to study there.

Anyway, when my friend mentioned she got a veg box from a business based round the corner from her – Cambridge Organic Food Company – I knew I had to go and investigate so I popped in and introduced myself. It was a bit surreal seeing another business doing such similar stuff to us, albeit on a slightly larger scale with more vans and more employees. I definitely felt very proud of what we’ve achieved in our 5 years.

I had a lovely chat (longer than planned of course, should have said yes to the offer of a tea after all!) with the founder and owner, Duncan Catchpole, who kindly took time out of his busy day. It turns out he has written a book all about the creation of local food ecosystems. We’ve not had a chance for a proper read yet but it looks interesting and definitely in line with what we’re about. Am hoping to start a little library of sorts in the shop where we share books we think are important, and suspect this may be going onto that shelf after we’ve taken notes!

Entrepreneurship / growing for profit

One section that caught my eye was one that really articulates well something that Chris and I have discussed and grappled with so wanted to share. It’s about the idea that we can be entrepreneurs in the sustainable food industry, and that the industry needs entrepreneurs to be successful.

For us being a ‘for profit’ means we have complete control to make decisions quickly and adapt effectively but it doesn’t mean we don’t care about the community – in fact, it’s quite the opposite (as anyone who knows us I think would agree). As one of our customers said the other day, ‘everything you’re doing in the business is FOR the community’. But the fact remains that as a for-profit (albeit in an industry where it’s hard to actually make a profit! eek) it sometimes feels as though the idea of making a profit is somehow at odds with growing and supplying seasonal produce.

The excerpt below really summarises what we are about and what we think about entrepreneurs in the sustainable food industry (and describes Chris to a tee) – thanks Duncan for putting it so well!

‘Within the sustainable food movement there seems to be an attitude that all for-profit business is bad and that sustainable food businesses should be either community-interest companies or workers’ cooperatives. I think this attitude is rather unfair, not to mention unhelpful, when it is directed at the entrepreneur.

I think this attitude particularly unfair when you consider that small business owners are often not only the hardest working people in our community, but among the most poorly rewarded financially compared to the effort they put in. This is especially so when it comes to sustainable food, an industry that is notoriously difficult to make money in. I think the people who maintain this attitude also forget that the people they revere the most are themselves entrepreneurs; most organic farmers that I know of run for-profit businesses.

The sustainable food industry really wouldn’t exist at all if it weren’t for entrepreneurs. An organic farmer doesn’t usually farm organically because they think it will make more money doing it that way, they do it because they passionately believe it is the right way to do things. In fact, because it is so much harder to make a profit or while upholding strong ethical values, this activity almost exclusively becomes the preserve of the entrepreneur, because it takes that rather special type of character who is prepared to forego the comfort of a dependable salary, take on extraordinary level of risk, and subject themselves to enormous workloads and stress in order to offer something to society that has authentic values. [yes!]

It’s crude to think that entrepreneurs are only motivated by money. Of course, all entrepreneurs want to see their businesses succeed but the motivation behind that is much more complex than simply a desire to make money. There is a gulf of difference between a local food entrepreneur and a multi-national corporation. Local food entrepreneurism exists on a much more ‘human’ scale. If a small-business owner becomes successful after years of hard work then good luck to them; they deserve it because they have provided a service that is valued by society. So much of the innovation, creativity and passion in the food industry comes from entrepreneurs.’

We’ll be sharing more from the book as we go through it – there’s a lot in there.