Features: If I Knew Then: Dermot O’Regan
Dermot co-founded Grow Bristol with friend Peter Whiting in 2013. The company develops innovative and sustainable urban food growing systems, producing leafy greens (micro-greens, herbs, and baby-leaf salad) and fish (tilapia) using aquaponics and vertical farming techniques in a controlled environment. They are currently transforming a disused industrial site in Bristol into a productive urban farm and space for training and public engagement. At its epicentre is a ‘Grow Box’, a recycled shipping container repurposed as an optimised food production system growing fresh and sustainable produce for the local market.
How did you start Grow Bristol?
Pete and I hatched the plan to create something new for ourselves over a beer in September 2012 at Brisfest in Ashton Court. We both wanted to do something more fulfilling around growing plants and making a better world. The next summer we started selling edible plants we grew in Pete’s polytunnel at a market stall around Bristol and in the quiet periods (there were a few!) we decided on something more innovative and exciting…and here we are.
If you knew then what you know now, what mistakes might you have avoided?
I don’t think we have made any significant mistakes in the past few years, we may have been a bit naïve in the way we have approached some opportunities but really that’s the way you learn…and whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Good lessons are always being learned.
What advice would you have given yourself when starting out?
Try not to do too many things – have a core business idea that you can explain easily to others. Things will take twice as long and cost twice as much as you expect! And maybe think twice about immediately leaving your nice safe job – they pay you every month and give you holidays …you might miss that.
If you knew then what you know now, would you still be sitting there?
What do you know now that you didn’t know then?
Just how positive people from all walks of life would be about what we are doing; when we explain why we are growing crops indoors in city spaces to try to provide more healthy, local and sustainable produce, people really get it. Deep down we all know that although our supermarkets are always packed full of food there is something wrong with our dominant food system that is causing real problems for our health and our environment and that we need alternatives.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received so far?
My mentor advised me recently to ‘sweat your assets’ – it took me a while to work that one out and realised it is not a reference to some kind of hot yoga but about using all of your resources – like skills, connections, premises, etc – to bring in income and benefit your project and business.
What is your business highlight?
Our venture is still at an early stage and like many businesses getting the right land or premises is vital, so securing our new site has been a big highlight for us and after getting the lease, planning permission and insurance in place we are now busy realising the next exciting stage of our work.
Artist’s rendering of the new site
What is your business low point?
One of our biggest challenges is getting the start-up funding to develop our site and growing systems to the point where we can trade enough produce to start to become self-sufficient. We are optimistic this will come in some form but after some initial success with small grants we have been knocked back recently on a few grant applications. Again this is all part of the learning and has lead us to consider other forms of funding like crowdfunding or social investment.
What keeps you awake?
Very little. I love my eight hours!
What’s changed from when you started out?
Only good things – Bristol is going from strength to strength, Green Capital is in full swing and we have a demonstration aquaponics system (that’s where fish and vegetables help each other to thrive in a closed-loop system) funded by Bristol 2015 which is drawing great interest and inspiration at the locations it has appeared.
What’s still on your to-do list?
Keep going, keep being positive, go camping more!
What’s next for Grow Bristol?
We are developing our new site on Feeder Road, building our new Grow Box growing system, attracting partners from the food, energy and community sectors, and developing our route to market, routes to public engagement and a more sustainable, healthy and happy city.