Plotty – Soil, Tech and Millenial Gardening

The climate is changing, we need to adapt and millennials know it. More people in the UK under 40 are growing vegetables in their gardens (43%) when compared to the over 60s (32%). This will go some way to alleviating the stress of the country’s food security, but plays only a small part in doing so.

The UK population is expected to be 70 million before 2030, when the world population is expected to be 8.5 billion – a conservative estimate by the UN in 2015. Still, that is a lot of people to feed.

Add to that the fact that another UN-backed study found fertile soil is being lost at a rate of 24 billion tonnes a year through intensive farming, as the demand for food increases, and we see the problem a bit more clearly.

Raphaella Fearns is a woman of diverse talents. Before coming to Launchpad, she used to make jewellery, and worked part time for a tree surgeon. While looking for somewhere to get her chainsaw license, she stumbled upon Launchpad, and while it’s wonderful having her on the team – one does wonder what on earth had she typed into Google?

Raphaella decided to create a startup that would make a change for the better, something that could impact the world positively.

She says: “We got really interested in food security and I’m quite interested in systems thinking. I think why solve a problem when you can prevent that happening in the first place?”

This was the start of her seed swapping business, Plotty, with her cofounder, Daniel Shields. Daniel’s background is in software development, which seems almost incongruous with the tangible and authentic world of seeds and soil.

But Raphaella says this is a space that is growing within the tech industry and should have started growing a long time ago. Technology should be used to our advantage to spread positive messages. She says : “We started researching that space of food security and found this harrowing statistic, we’ve lost 94% of seed varieties in the last 100 years. People know about pandas and people know about bees, being plastic-free etcetera, but to see this about seeds, which is the real foundation of everything that we grow. It’s shocking.”

However, this wasn’t always her plan, initially Raphaella and Daniel felt drawn by the bright LEDs and allure of hydroponics. This is the method used to grow plants using a water solvent containing all the minerals needed for growing, instead of soil.

They were quickly disillusioned with the technique, however, saying: “Hydroponics was being seen as this false fix for people, it looks great, really high tech and futuristic but it can’t produce the world’s crops, it’s quite limited in its capacity and it’s expensive, even though prices are coming down.”

According to Raphaella, people have got a false sense of security from hydroponics, and Plotty believes as a society we need to encourage biodiversity, to reduce our risk of crop failure and focus on the amount of land we have and the fertility of the soil on it. All of which can be stimulated by growing things.

Raphaella says: “Hydroponics shuts everything else out, and makes a perfect sterile system inside, but we need a far more integrated approach. We want wild species and we want natural pest control. With hydroponics if you get any bacteria or fungus in the system, everything is gone, so it is not very resilient at all.”

And this is what gave way to Plotty.

Plotty calls itself a seed bank and the way the business works is people pay network with other gardeners requesting seeds they might need or offering seeds they might have, paying a small fee to do each exchange. It’s charming in that it encourages people to talk to each other and it uses snail mail. Each gardener who applies gets an envelope, in which they could put in up to three packets of seeds to send to the person who’s requested them.

Raphaella feels that a business like Plotty comes up with challenges from both the business community as well as the gardening community, so there are a lot of minds to change and debates to be had. But things are slowly changing.

“When I noticed that there was a community of people who are resisting hydroponics, I also noticed that there’s a shift in agro-ecology, where people who initially didn’t take you seriously because they see you as the hippy ones, who won’t make money. They separate ethics and environment with real business, but that is definitely changing. We need to see the land as something that we don’t just constantly take from, but that we also give to – like no-dig initiatives.”

But with other serious gardeners, it isn’t so easy to integrate, as some in the horticultural community see initiatives like Plotty as a fad, with unsustainable produce. This is because at Harvest festivals and on its Instagram posts, Plotty promotes growing things like mini pomegranates and cucamelon – which look like tiny watermelons but taste like sour cucumbers.

Raphaella admits it might seem that way but says: “Plotty is always going to come up against people who like to think of themselves as serious horticulturists but what we want to be is the gateway to growing and people need to start somewhere.”

Plotty’s mantra of “chuck it in and see what happens” also doesn’t endear it to some gardeners and there is a question of whether it actually is a serious horticultural enterprise.

“We do see ourselves as serious,” says Raphaella, “but we are also accessible. People who have been in the field for a long time might not see us that way, especially when we say “just chuck it in, and see what happens” but it gets people talking and growing and that’s what’s important.”

Another useful tool of the business is data.

“Our users can create a huge base of research that might show something important, like the fact that watermelon grows really well in the south of the country.

The fact that the climate here in the UK is warming, does this mean we could grow more exciting produce in the future?

It’s something we should be cautious about and while this is a good thing, in some ways, says Raphaella,: “We’ve got to realise that our traditional crops, like cauliflower are actually now failing because it’s too hot and they’re yellowing or rotting in the fields. So, there’s lots of exciting things happening, but there should be alarm bells that things are changing.”

She fears that Cornwall is a ‘canary in the coalmine’ for the rest of the UK, because the county is set to warm up before other parts, which is already starting to happen. These quick changes make it difficult to prepare for, especially with the volatility of the climate.

Raphaella also says: “Things are changing really fast, and I do sometimes wonder if Cornwall is an echo- chamber, where we are all quite outdoorsy and sustainable and we can see loads of things happening around sustainability, but maybe in other parts of the country people don’t care about (the same) things.”

What’s really clear is that Plotty is a company that cares, not about being accepted, but about being the change. It wants to be part of the growing conscious consumer movement, using Cornwall as the Launchpad to do that.

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