Peter Couchman is the Chief Executive of the Plunkett Foundation.

The Plunkett Foundation is the organisation which promotes and supports co-operative and social enterprises in rural communities both in the UK and internationally. It provides support, networks and knowledge which offers practical solutions for rural communities that helps to create thriving places where people live and work now and in the future.

Monday, 19 October 2009

Going Back Home

Plunkett went back to its roots with a visit to Ireland last week. Minister Tony Killeen made the invitation when he spoke at our AGM. It was a wonderful opportunity to use our standard tool of analysis of "What would Horace have done"?

First call was Cork where Teagasc, the Agriculture and Food Development Agency, was holding a conference on Ireland in Uncertain Times. The event provided an excellent insight into the challenges of Ireland's rural communities. The economic briefings made it clear that the impact of global recession was happening harder and faster in Ireland than in the UK by every measure.

Teagasc director Gerry Boyle gave an inspirational and challenging speech. He spelt out the opportunities, but set the challenge as being the lack of organisational capital. Communities needed to be enabled. Farmers had to move from producers to retailers. "The worst deficit is that people are unable to contemplate change." This was followed up by Gerry Scully, Teagasc Programme Manager, who called on agencies to "co-create solutions with people."

My other Cork highlight was the inspiration of meeting Brian Phelan, who created Glenfinn Freerange Duckeggs, a wonderful example of what can be achieved in uncertain times.

Then it was on to Dublin for my first ever visit to the Plunkett House, the first ever home of the Plunkett Foundation and still home to the Irish Co-operative Organisation Society. Its Director General (and Plunkett fellow) John Tyrell gave me a marvellous tour of where it had all began.

Then it was on to meet Minister Killeen to share first impressions. Using Sir Horace's mantra of Better Farming, Better Business and Better Living, I said that I was hugely impressed by how much Teagasc was still providing research based knowledge to farmers in exactly the way that Horace had called for in Ireland over 100 years ago. The real opportunity seemed to me to be a strong desire to connect the economic challenges with Ireland's strong community base. However, I wasn't hearing any reference to community-owned models such as co-operatives and other social enterprises.

The scale of the challenges are such that, to quote Gerry Scully, "more of the same will not be good enough." What was striking was that the chance to do things differently was already waiting to be used from the approach used by Sir Horace and the incredible team of people who worked with him to tackle issues of equal weight in Ireland all those years ago.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Making Local Food Work Conference

The second Making Local Food Work conference was held in Bristol last week and what an event it turned out to be. The first had sold out its 150 places in just a few days, so we took the bold step of booking a 250 place venue for the second. This sold out too with a waiting list.

The main thing that I loved about the day was the wonderful variety of people there. They must have come from every aspect of the local food movement and the learning between them made the event worthwhile.

The speakers didn't disappoint with Tim Crabtree as inspiring as ever on Bridport, but now complete with animated slides. Barny Haughton of Bordeaux Quay came straight from Keith Floyd's wake to wander through why local food mattered to him. My quote of the day came from Professor Kevin Morgan. In an impassioned speech asking why food wasn't part of modern city planning, he heaped praise on projects such as ours. But, he added, how to we prevent them from being "islands of excellence in a sea of mediocrity."

It is a point well made. The desire to connect seemed to be the undercurrent of the day and it is something that we'll need to put our minds to.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

Green care and community ownership

Fascinating trip this week to speak at a Green Care conference of academics looking at Green Care and agriculture. Green Care is a very broad church but can be defined as "to use nature

to produce health, social or educational benefits" In the UK, this is best shown by care farms, that provide a wide range of experiences on farms to benefit people faced with such issues as addiction, learning difficulties and many more areas. You can find far more out at the National Care Farming Initiative, a really inspiring organisation.

Plunkett was asked to out this work in a wider social enterprise perspective. To do so, I suggested that there were three main categories of enterprises involved. The first was those, such as care farms, based on existing agricultural businesses. The second was enterprises established to deliver green care, such as Walton Lea. The third was existing social enterprises who could add green care, but weren't set up to do so. I suggested, for instance, that Fordhall Farm was, in essence, providing green care for all. My main argument was that this third category, if rooted in community ownership, could offer not only a route from social exclusion, but also a route back into social inclusion.

Another plea was to recognise that many of the development needs of green care enterprises were close to community enterprises and it was important not to reinvent the wheel.

What inspired me most was the group's determination to provide evidence of the impact of giving an individual a green care experience. This could be a powerful tool to help convince policy formers and I wish them every success.