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Rhubarb Farm: What it is like being a CIC

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Community Interest Companies in action

Rhubarb Farm became a CIC in October 2009. It is a small social enterprise on the north Nottinghamshire/Derbyshire border. We provide people with long term needs:

  • training
  • placements
  • volunteering opportunities for people with long-term needs
Volunteer with radish harvest
Volunteer with radish harvest

We do this through growing fruit and vegetables for:

  • local markets
  • farm shops and
  • weekly veg bag customers

We take:

  • ex-offenders
  • prisoners on day release
  • recovering drug and alcohol misusers
  • people with mental and physical ill health
  • learning and physical disabilities and
  • school students struggling with their behaviour at school
Volunteers skinning a donated polytunnel
Volunteers skinning a donated polytunnel


The dilemma for us as a CIC is how to generate income and move away from grant dependence. Since the start we have aimed for economic sustainability, but after five and a half years of operation, we have only ever once generated as much as 30% of our income from contracts and produce.

We have developed as diverse income streams as possible, generating income not only from produce and grants, but also from:

  • loans
  • training provision
  • contracts
  • direct payments
  • fund-raising events and
  • donations

We are even about to launch our own crowdfunding campaign.

Why is it so hard to move away from grant dependence?

In our own experience there are three basic reasons:

  • We are in a remote rural area and don't have the ready market on our doorstep for the sort of good organically-grown produce that trendy urban restaurants and shops love.
  • We are too small to bid for the big contracts that are increasingly the model for government funds in the employment, justice and health fields, in which we operate.  The big boys gobble up all the contracts because they have capacity and size to go for them.  We can't compete, and often can't even get crumbs from their tables, especially in the justice system, where the reorganisation of the Probation Service has meant that we not only lost a good contract through no fault of our own, but cannot bid in or even partner with successful Prime contractors.
  • The market in which we operate - horticulture - is not only  vulnerable to the vagaries of the weather but also to the fact that we have "therapeutic loss" - the people who work on the Farm come mostly knowing nothing about horticulture so we lose a lot of our produce through for example seeds sown too deep, or overwatered, or planted too shallow etc.  Two experienced people could work our land more commercially than we do with our 40-50 volunteers a week!!

Would we change it?

No we wouldn't change it at all because horticulture is a marvellous vehicle for engaging people who:

  • lack self-confidence
  • lead chaotic lives and
  • feel uncomfortable in offices and buildings generally
Volunteers putting up runner been canes
Volunteers putting up runner been canes

In 5 years we have helped over 500 people, and we could not have done this:

  • selling cars
  • renting buildings
  • running training courses alone

Is it so bad to be grant dependent?

If being reliant on markets to be sustainable is a goal, could it be that this is as risky and unpredictable as needing to continually apply for grants?  The market for your products may fluctuate or change, and you can be as much at risk as being in the lottery of grant-funding. Unless as a CIC you have a good solid product that sells well, it might be no more sustainable than being grant dependent.  I know one CIC that rented rooms, and had a good business until the recession.

So Rhubarb Farm soldiers are trying to:

  • build capacity
  • expand into new income-generating areas
  • apply for larger funding amounts to achieve a lower dependence on grants

Yet we are always mindful of the needs of our volunteers for purposeful, practical work where they can build their self-confidence and aspirations without judgement or anxiety.

Volunteers putting up pea netting
Volunteers putting up pea netting

I was once told

A business adviser friend told me it would be better to have set up an organisation selling something like cars, and finance the CIC that way.  But this would entail having a great deal of capital to start with. More importantly it would not engage the type of people we support, because none of them are at the stage where they could work in a car salesroom!!

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  1. Comment by Hem posted on

    Interesting read - keep up the good work!

  2. Comment by Rhonda Merrick posted on

    Wonderful commitment and purpose.

  3. Comment by Jill Meeds, Clowne and District Community Transport posted on

    Very well said!!!

  4. Comment by Mandy Taylor posted on

    Congratulations and well done to you and your staff whom have developed from the great service support that you deliver! Keep up the hard work and remember all the good things that you do for others and how much you can change their lives ?