GrowUp Urban Farms: Tom Webster

Tom Webster used be a biologist at an environmental consultancy, advising construction firms on how to make projects sensitive to climate change. He found himself wishing that he did not have to “make excuses for companies not taking their environmental commitments seriously” and started looking at how to grow food sustainably. He met his business partner Kate Hofman through a mutual friend and together they have taken GrowUp Urban Farms from boxes to a whole farm, capable of growing salad sustainably for city dwellers.

What do you do?
I’m a farmer. I always struggle to answer that in social situations. But let’s go with farmer.

What are you trying to achieve?
We’re trying to contribute towards a more sustainable food system.

When was the moment you decided to do this?
When I decided to do it, Kate had already left her job. We’d just buillt the GrowUp Box, our demonstration system. We were growing produce and loads of people were interested in what we were doing. We’d just got on to the Barclays Accelerator, that was in June 2013 and we were just too busy.

I was at a funny place where I wasn’t really enjoying my job and I made the decision before that I needed to do something different. I was either going to go away for a while and do some thinking and this was something I loved, working with food, working with people.

It got to the point where either I commit to doing this not, and this traction that we had was so encouraging that I made the jump and left my job.

So it was slightly scary but at the same time, it was very exciting, and it has continued to be ever since. At that time the Climate-KIC Accelerator money was there with it, we got £90,000 in total which meant we had a salary. That made everything a lot more secure, when you’re making at that leap, to know that there’s something there to support you.

How do you fit it in?
It is probably more than a full time job. You prioritise things, don’t you? I’m very lucky to do what I do, I work with an incredible group of people in an incredible place and you adjust your priorities a bit, but I try and keep a good work-life balance as well. I’m a big believer in the importance of that and I try and encourage that in our staff as well.

What’s been your proudest moment so far?
I was quite proud at our Christmas party. We had all of our board of directors with us at the party this year as well as the young guys on the farm. One of the directors is a fresh produce wholesaler and hearing the farm guys talking to him about how proud they are of their produce and how they want to grow it as best as possible, when these guys didn’t give a crap about salad a year ago. I get a lot of pride out of the way they have developed and what they do.

Also switching the farm on was a pretty proud moment in October 2015. Switching the lights on, flooding the first benches.

And then being awarded Forbes 30 under 30. That was nice to be noticed.

What’s been the hardest?
We lost a member of staff. That was horrible. Besides that, the hardest thing is culture. Making sure that the culture in the company is in line with what you want and what it needs to be. Balancing workplace happiness and productivity is an acquired task. It’s a challenge that I welcome. We work with a lot of people from different backgrounds and balancing that is certainly one of the hardest things to do.

What keeps you going when things get hard?
My wife. My team. We have a real tight team. Everyone looks after each other, then there’s the dream above all that. You’ve got this far, you’ve got to keep going, right? The dream, really for us is about showing that commercial urban vertical farming can work commercially, that it isn’t just some crazy idea, that we can create a more resilient way of growing food that adds value.

How did you vote in the referendum?
Speaking for myself rather than the company: I voted in. I’m a big a fan of inclusivity and Europe. I think there’s a lot to be gained from Europe.

From an agricultural perspective we are so reliant on Europe, it’s scary to think what the agricultural economy in Europe would be like without migrant labour and I don’t think many people know about that. We are living in an increasingly globalised society and leaving Europe is a massive step back from that. There are a lot of challenges are around it. A lot of it is around perception. The sad thing about Brexit was that both sides played on that and there was really a fair campaign. It think it was a shambles, really.

We are living in an increasingly globalised society and leaving Europe is a massive step back from that.

How will the outcome affect what you do?
In the short terms, not a massive amount. There’s a lot of EU funding for research and development and it’s important that funding gets reallocated for R&D because H2020 [Horizon 2020, the EU framework programme for research and innovation]. A lot of the Innovate stuff is all funded through EU money, so it’s important that gets reallocated property.

In terms of the farm itself, I’m trying to think what we buy from Europe at the moment – the stickers on the punnets are from Europe.

What does community mean to you?
Community is the people around you. That can be where you live and where you work.

It’s very easy for businesses to ignore the people around them. I was talking at a conference called Business in the Community in Dublin a while ago and there was a question about how businesses should engage with the community arround them and I thought that was a strange question because businesses should be part of the community, they shouldn’t be separate from it. I guess that’s what we’re trying to do here with the local employment, with GrowUp Box, we’re trying to involve the local community, because then people feel invested in it.

Businesses should be part of the community, they shouldn’t be separate from it

What’s the next step?
First we want to make this farm profitable, then the big farm, and the idea is that that will become a replicable model and we roll that out across cities in the UK and in Europe and whereever it will take us.

What would you say to someone looking to do something similar?
There is an entrepreneurship culture at the moment, possibly entrepreneurship for its own sake, and I’m actually not sure it’s a good thing. So the first this is to find someone who is already doing what you want to do and doing it well. I think if someone was already doing what we wanted to do, I don’t think we would have tried to start a company, we would have tried to work with them instead. That would be the first piece of advice I would give.

The second piece of advice is it’s going to take twice as long and cost twice as much as you think when you set out.

Photo credit: Miles Willis Photography

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