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2002 update on Philipstown Trust by Caroline Whyte

After four years of operation, the Philipstown Trust ceased to function because of administrative and financial problems. Ollan Herr was left with the outstanding debts to pay because he had stood guarantor to them. "In retrospect, some people think the Trust was probably ahead of its time since many people couldn't really grasp the concept of subscribing to an organic farm, and thereby supporting it whether they got vegetables or not, rather than just paying for vegetables," Herr says. The idea that by paying a subscription, members of the Trust became joint owners of the farm was quite a novel one. Some people, including certain Trust board members, mistakenly thought of subscribers as being customers rather than members of a joint enterprise.

Another key problem with the Trust was its administrative structure. In order to apply for grants the Trust had to have non-profit status, and in order to gain this status it had to form a Board of Directors. Because of the unconventional nature of the Trust, people who were familiar with business management tended to be skeptical of its chances for success, and so were reluctant to join the Board. So the people who ended up on the Board didn't have much business experience. Moreover, some of them differed in their vision of what they wanted the Trust to achieve. Since the Board members all had equal say in the decisions of the Trust, this made for some serious administrative hitches.

Some Board members thought the farm should be able to compete with conventional farms, and that it should be able to sell vegetables to chain supermarkets. They didn't understand that with labour-intensive organic practices, the vegetables needed to be priced higher than conventionally grown ones. Matters were further complicated with the arrival of governmental mediators for grant agencies, who thought the trust should should limit itself to fund-raising, even though it was already running a fully functioning organic farm. The Trust did get state funding to employ a farm manager who turned out to be very efficient, but there again, problems arose because some Board members differed as to what the manager should be doing, and so, according to Herr, "she had no clear directions and no clear targets to meet".

Herr experienced considerable frustration with the Board, since the Trust had been his idea in the first place and as a business-owner, he felt that he had a good idea of what was needed to keep the farm going. He says that instead of being able to concentrate on the farm, "I was spending a lot of energy on political game-playing". Other members of the Board queried his budget projections, and eventually they voted to follow the budget of the previous year rather than his, with the result that the Trust ran out of money.

Herr advises anyone who wants to undertake a project such as the Trust to get as much capital together as possible before starting, rather than relying on subscription and grant money. He does think that people may be more willing to support such an enterprise now, as there's somewhat more public knowledge about sustainable agriculture.

Unfortunately, the idea of buying an old watermill site with a generator and eventually establishing an organic bakery also didn't work out because of lack of capital. Herr says there still aren't any other organic farms that he knows of in Counties Louth and Meath. He does know of an organic farm in Co. Kildare that delivers boxes of vegetables to customers, but this farm is family-owned rather than subscriber-owned, and he says the family "works around the clock" to keep the farm going. He feels that better government support would be helpful.

Mark Deary, the organic farmer who had put in 60-hour weeks to get the Trust farm going, left the job after three years when he realised the Trust wasn't working out. He is working in an orphanage in Romania now. Ollan Herr himself is now running a business called Reedbeds Ireland which designs reed bed sewage systems for individual households. These systems provide an environmentally sensitive way of getting rid of household waste. He supplies expertise and equipment for the systems, which are then built by local builders. The website for Reedbeds Ireland is at . He also has an organic forest garden on an acre of his own land, with fruit trees and bushes.

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