Sector trends

Boosting resilience: how a lockdown project is connecting buyers with growers

SourceGrow is helping farmers in Northern Ireland focus on what to grow so restaurants can buy produce seasonally and locally.

With increasing demand from chefs and restaurants for local produce, it seemed obvious to start growing a wider range of crops, but which ones? To make an intelligent choice would require an agronomist [someone who advises farmers on soil management and crop production] and an understanding of the market. There must be an easier way, reasoned Helen.

SourceGrow is their solution: a platform supported by workers co-operative Venture Folk to help farmers diversify and make better decisions about what to grow. In turn, they meet the increasing demand for local produce. 

Although she started piloting the business during lockdown, she’s been nurturing the idea of a more self-sufficient and resilient food system for Northern Ireland for a while. 

“Because we have a farm ourselves, we have been in that position of trying to decide what we should grow: which crops suit our soil, what somebody might buy. It all happened quite quickly.

We’re closing the gap between what’s not currently being grown here and what could be grown here. If a chef can’t get watercress in Northern Ireland, we get somebody to grow it. Our vision is to get farmers to grow to meet a demand

Helen Keys
Co-founder, SourceGrow

“We did some customer discovery across Northern Ireland. Farmers and restaurateurs were so generous with their time. They helped us shape and evolve the idea and the design. 

“We were lucky to get a Proof of Concept grant, and an Innovate UK grant, which helped us build the business.”

Meeting sustainability goals

As organisations and businesses consider next steps following COP26 in November, Helen says it’s the right time to help farmers run their business in a more sustainable way. “There’s huge pressure on agriculture at the minute to reduce the greenhouse emissions that are contributing to climate change. We’ll be seeing huge changes in the sector in the next few years; it will be a challenging time for all of us.  

“We’ve realised how important it is to help farmers make that change. In some small way, we can help them make good, informed decisions.”

How collaboration is yielding results

The business is built on partnerships. The restaurants are keen to meet the growers and get to know them; and the growers are learning their niche product could fulfil supply and demand. For example, while her farm grows potatoes and garlic, other producers on the SourceGrow platform might grow in-demand products such as celeriac, Tokyo turnips, chickweed or rainbow chard. 

“It’s not about competing with regular suppliers,” adds Helen. “There are already good people supplying, say, beetroot and turnips. We’re closing the gap between what’s not currently being grown here and what could be grown here. If a chef can’t currently get watercress in Northern Ireland, we get somebody to grow it. Our vision is to get farmers to grow to meet a demand.”

Plans for growth

As a business that’s currently supported by Ulster Bank Accelerator, a programme that supports and empowers UK entrepreneurs to scale their businesses to the next level, Helen has clear growth ambitions for 2022. These include getting 10 more restaurants on board and encouraging more growers to diversify into niche areas that are in demand from restaurants.

John Ferris, Regional Ecosystem Manager for Ulster Bank, recommended the Accelerator programme to Helen and has been supporting SourceGrow since inception. 

She says it’s reassuring to have a monthly check-in to talk through ideas, questions and direction. “It’s good to have somebody external to your team, to do a bit of a sanity check and make those good connections.”  

The longer-term vision for SourceGrow is to expand and replicate the solution in other regions using a franchise model. By providing a one-stop shop on the platform, restaurants and growers can focus on their business rather than getting embroiled in paperwork.

Sustainable, innovative, collaborative, resilient: this business is one to watch.

If you’re a high-growth business with ambitions to expand, the Ulster Bank Accelerator programme could help. Whether you’re looking to build your team, venture into new markets or seek further investment, this could help you gain the knowledge and skills to excel in a range of business areas.

Find out more information about the Ulster Bank Accelerator

Ulster Bank Accelerator (PDF, 125KB)

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