Case study: Farm Urban
Climate Change has never been more pressing, the green economy has never been bigger, and sustainable food production has never been higher up the agenda. Farm Urban are a Liverpool enterprise determined to play a part in delivering food for the future for everyone.
We caught up with Co-Founder Paul Myers to hear about their growth, their future plans, and how Gather has helped them over the past year.
What is Farm Urban?
People ask us are you a farming company? An R&D company? An education company? The answer is we're a social enterprise that encompasses all of those really. We unofficially spun out of the University of Liverpool in 2014 with a mission to grow food that's good for people, in ways that are good for the planet and to try and reconnect people to good food, drive better habits and ultimately create behaviour change.
We install and manage high-tech urban farms that produce low-cost food in a sustainable way. These farms can regenerate communities, provide jobs, promote health and lower carbon emissions. And we also work alongside schools, allotment owners, residents’ associations, hospitals and universities to develop programs and education around sustainable urban living.
Were you affected by the pandemic?
Pre-pandemic we’d launched ‘Greens for Good’, a project where we were delivering the leafy greens we grow in hydroponic vertical towers to schools and businesses across the city. When the pandemic hit, that market just disappeared. It was a pretty stressful time, the team was growing, we’d just secured our first restaurant customer, and we suddenly had a farm with 3500 plants and no-one to supply them to.
We always wanted to supply B2C but had concerns around price points and logistics but the pandemic forced our hand and we had to test it, and I’m glad we did as it’s been a real success. We accessed support to donate more greens as well and that’s really strengthened our community links.
You completed the Shift programme around that time, did it help?
We had to pivot our whole operation and Shift really helped with that. I remember being in a session around strategy where we heard you should be able to put your sales strategy down on a post-it note. Then and there I wrote the strategy that led to us re-thinking Greens for Good.
That’s what’s great about all the Gather programmes, you get learnings and knowledge that you can action and implement straight away in your business.
It’s brilliant content, delivered by high-level consultants, alongside peers who you get the space to form valuable relationships with.
Do you think there is a good network for businesses in Liverpool?
I think the business network in Liverpool is brilliant. My first exposure was to the Social Enterprise Network and I'm still really active in that community – we collaborate with people we first met there like our delivery partners Peloton and Make. Kindred has been a great network for us too and more recently the programmes and community around Gather have been brilliant.
To hear business leaders, even those at different stages in their journey, experiencing the same issues and challenges is really helpful. Peer friendships, relationships and mentorships have been really important to us.
The Combined Authority have supported us through the Future Innovation Fund as well which was a real game changer, it allowed us to refine operations on the farm and that has given us a solid foundation to scale up. We’ve also had funding and support through Kindred.
You’ve recently started the Beyond programme, how is it going?
We've had a few sessions but already in that time we've really clearly diagnosed what the issues are in our business and outlined a comprehensive plan to tackle those and put the things in place we need to scale up and grow.
What really attracted us to Beyond was the bespoke support. It’s incredible to have a high-level consultant working with us over 4-6 months to drill down into the detail, to explore specific sales, finance and growth scenarios.
And personally I’ve never felt I could justify executive coaching for the position we’ve been in, but that’s been so valuable, and I feel really empowered by the sessions we’ve had already.
The thing I love about the Gather programmes is you’re learning from people who have scaled a business themselves, they've got that lived experience.
What does the future look like for Farm Urban?
The focus of our Beyond programme is two key parts – our structure and governance and accessing the right kind of finance. We're a not-for-profit, but we have significant growth potential so it's getting the balance right and growing in a way that's right for us.
With the zeitgeist and the green agenda there are people approaching us that want to invest or help us scale but it's a language and landscape we’re not that familiar with so it’s great to have Gather as trusted advisors who can help us navigate the next steps.
If we achieve what we've outlined and raise that next round of investment, we'll be in a great position to scale and amplify the work we’re doing. The vertical farm will be doubled in size, all our produce will be nourishing local people in a really sustainable way, and we’ll be able to extend our reach to primary schools, secondary schools and community groups.
Ultimately, we want to develop a social franchise model that can be replicated anywhere in the world. Once we've got the hardware, software, operational processes, and embedded community outreach as a holistic model, then I'd love to see the Liverpool City Region be the first in the world to adopt it.
Have you any advice for businesses who want to operate more sustainably?
For us it’s in our DNA, we live and breathe it, it's embedded in everything we do in a way it won’t be for other businesses. But we are currently going through B Corp certification and that's been a really valuable benchmark to really test our assumptions - are we sustainable? Are we ethical? Are we socially minded? For anyone who is serious about being a sustainable business look at becoming a B Corp and it will ensure you're on a journey of constant improvement.
You were involved with COP26, do you think it will lead to added momentum for green industries and innovation?
COP26 has been interesting, it shows that the climate crisis has reached a point where no one can ignore it. I was invited up to Glasgow to attend some events and I spoke at the regional roadshow that focused on the North West’s ambitions to become the first net zero region by 2040.
There’s a general acknowledgement that the time for talking has gone and we need to start acting. Farm Urban is really well placed to do that if we can scale up what we’re doing. The food system is the largest contributor to climate change as a whole. We've got a growing population so we need to feed more people but it's one of the most destructive things we do, so we need to find new and sustainable ways to feed our population and we want to develop the tech that allows us to do that.
If you'd like to read more about Farm Urban or order some Greens for Good, click here