Grow Bristol versus COVID-19

Operations Director at Grow Bristol, Oscar Davidson, writes our latest blog post. With most of their restaurant customers being forced to close, they have had to temporarily shut down their production facility. The team are gutted not to be growing, but it does give an opportunity to try something they’ve been wanting to do for a while – grow your own microgreen kits.

Looking back to December 2018, it was Christmas and we had just turned off the LED grow lights at our trusty old shipping container farm. Having grown over three tonnes of ultra-local produce and having clocked up enough delivery miles on our electric trike to get to Rome and back, it was time for something different. Our lease on the land was up, and we had outgrown the container farm. The question was, what next?

After a brief hiatus from growing, a chance encounter with a grow punnet made from 100% recycled cardboard set us on a path to rethinking our entire production system. Nearly a year after we had closed the doors of our container farm, we were back in a new space with a new farm and ready to launch our new living microgreen range.

We get asked often – so, are you guys still doing hydroponics? The answer is sort of… not really…it’s not important. We grow indoors, combining state-of-the-art technology with traditional horticultural practices. All our produce is grown without the use of synthetic fertilisers, pesticides or herbicides. What is important is that we’re honest about how we grow. We hope that by creating a dialogue with our customers we can get them to think about the wider impacts of where their other food comes from.

Taking the best elements of controlled indoor growing, we decided to move away from traditional hydroponics and to work instead with a peat-free compost mix that had all the nutrients our tiny crops need to grow. Combining compost and cardboard gave us a set-up that enabled us to grow, transport and deliver our microgreens living in the same punnets. Zero plastic, zero waste.

The new range was an instant success with the customers we selected for a small trial, so in January we started to ramp up production and it wasn’t long before we were delivering to our loyal restaurants, retail and catering customers who have supported us all these years. Things were looking up, we were taking on new customers and getting ready to start exploring new avenues to get our produce to people across the city. Then COVID-19 happened.

We’d been following the news closely in the build-up to the lockdown, talking with our customers it seemed no one really knew what the effect would be, but we were all worried. We made the decision to keep on growing, determined that as long as our customers were open we would be there to supply them.

When the lockdown finally came, the effect was immediate. We had a farm full of microgreens and no with customers to sell them to! Following an emergency shout out on social media and thanks to our amazing followers we were able to find homes for the crops originally destined for restaurants, the rest went to our retail customers who helped by taking the rest. In those first few days of the lockdown it was amazing to see the independent food scene in Bristol adapt overnight to the crazy circumstances. It has since been heart-warming to witness the support we’ve all received from the public who continue to buy local.

It soon became clear to us that without the restaurants, we couldn’t justify our growing operation. Without the scale to switch production to suit the retail market we had no choice but to turn off our grow lights and hunker down.

It wasn’t long before that we started getting messages from people looking for seeds, compost and pots to grow their own produce at home. We have, in our stores, all of these things so we thought hey, let’s give it a go! From a speedily put together webstore, we’re now selling the first of our GYO kits – the Brassica Bundle which includes all you need to grow your very own broccoli, cabbage, mustard and radish microgreens. We chose these varieties for the main reason that they are easy to grow. Growing is only fun when it works, so we wanted to give people the best chance of success with some varieties we knew would work! They’re also packed with antioxidants and vitamins for good health.

By stocking a basic range of propagation equipment we want to encourage people to grow other veg at home. It’s early days but so far the signs have been encouraging. People are getting involved and starting to ask questions that will help us to develop our offering. Our hope is that by adapting and flowing with the times we can get through this.

If you are interested in ordering kit, please go to the Grow Bristol website. Delivery is free to the centre of Bristol and immediate surrounding area.

Oscar Davidson is Operations Director at Grow Bristol.

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