Lockdown was a tough time for most of us. For Sean Kerr and Steve McQueen, lockdown proved pivotal. It crystallised what they had long thought: that poverty was increasing, reliance on food banks rising, and the availability of good quality fresh food for those in crisis pretty much nil.
The duo didn’t begin their business in lockdown, however. The seeds were sown four years earlier, when they decided they both wanted to grow vegetables to help support a local food bank. They searched around for a space to do this and, after discussions with the local council, they were granted a temporary site license to use a disused site within the walled gardens on the grounds of the Kinniel Estate.
From humble beginnings, the pair have created a bountiful and beautiful space in the walled garden. Lockdown spurred them to grow bigger and think wider. They have gone from one ramshackle polytunnel to seven sturdy ones, each packed to the rafters with raised beds containing everything from tomatoes and potatoes to aubergines and celery.
The fresh produce is donated to local food banks. This is highly unusual: food banks are reliant on donations that tend to be tinned goods and/or highly processed foods with a very long shelf life and high carbon footprint. A House Of Lords report in 2020 notes that low income families in the UK have “little or no choice” about diet, are forced to eat cheap unhealthy food or may go without anything at all. So, growing and donating fresh, quality produce locally for the local community is, remarkably, a revolutionary move from Sean and Steve.
But that’s not all they do. They are in the process of creating a highly sustainable business from waste produce on the Kinneil Estate. Using surplus and discarded wood from the forest management, they are creating biochar. Biochar looks like charcoal but it is produced in a low or no oxygen environment and it has remarkable properties.
If you mix it into feed, it will increase the performance of egg-laying hens. If you mix it with cement, it can drastically reduce its carbon footprint. Mix it in your soil and it will reduce the amount of water you need to grow your crops and will increase yield. If you use it in wastewater treatment, you can recover phosphorous and other important nutrients that are detrimental to the environment but wonderful if harnessed in the right way for agricultural purposes.
It has been hailed as something of a miracle product but scaling it and getting it to market are the next hurdles the duo face.
STS is set up as a social enterprise; they are 100% asset locked, and this legal set up means they have an assured way of maximising profit for the benefit of the local communities they serve with their fresh produce. It also means that they have no shareholders and can’t raise finance in the ‘standard’ way.
Thankfully, Scotland is a great place to be for social enterprises. The duo have received £190k investment from First Port to help them scale the biochar business. They really are the definition of a purposeful business with a determination to develop innovative products and never lose sight of why they started working together in the first place. They won’t thank me for saying it, but they really are truly inspirational.
STS was founded on the principle of providing great quality, freshly grown veg to those who would otherwise never be able to afford it. There are many other ways Steve and Sean could make their bountiful polytunnels profitable – they could, for example, sell their veg at food markets and donate the profits to food banks – but this goes against why they started doing what they’re doing in the first place.
They are uncompromising on this: everybody deserves to be treated in a dignified way, and to have the health benefits of fresh veg. They’ve turned down collaborative offers because people aren’t truly aligned to this founding principle.
The polytunnels have been the victims of vandalism that has threatened the very existence of their efforts. In order to protect their vision and investments, Steve and Sean have gone to extraordinary lengths, including sleeping overnight in the grounds to ward off trespassers. Short of turning the site into Fort Knox – and thereby excluding the very community they seek to work with – they felt this was the only way to safeguard its future.
Sean and Steve have a distinct energy. They are always doing, always outside working, always enthusing. You cannot help but be brought along with them. They have clear convictions and a zeal for doing the right thing. It means they have been able to build a remarkably verdant space in a very run down corner of Bo’ness and have attracted support from universities, researchers, and social enterprise investors, as well as now working with five food banks in their local area.
The kiln they use to create the biochar was gifted to them after they initiated discussions with an organisation who didn’t have the time or resources to manage it. It is the basis of their business model, but they wouldn’t have acquired the kiln without dedicated searches and reaching out to people to see what was out there.
Sean and Steve have not come from horticultural beginnings nor do they have a bioscience backgrounds. But they have thrown themselves in wholeheartedly to learning by doing, and learning from experts in the biochar space that can help them navigate a route to market. They are not scared of a challenge… in fact, I think they relish it.