How social enterprise Urban Mushrooms are helping young people get training and employment.

Jeff Hurst is the chief executive of YMCA Newcastle, where he has started a social enterprise called Urban Mushrooms to help young people get training and employment.

What is the point of the project?

Urban Mushrooms has two primary objectives. One is social, it’s a social enterprise to create sustainable employment and training opportunities for local young people.

The business objective is to enable us to generate income from the products and services for it to be sustainable and not to rely on grant funding and charitable donations.

There are a whole load of spin-offs that are incidental. To date we have stopped 6 tonnes of coffee grinds going to landfill, at the pilot stage. Once we have proved that coffee grounds don’t damage the crops, we will sell it back to the allotment holders.

The North East has some of the highest numbers of youth unemployment. Newcastle has 50,000 undergraduates and alongside them our local young people don’t perform well at school – only 50 per cent get 5 grade A-C at GCSE.

They are outperformed by the students at the universities and our young people find it hard to get a job.

We’re giving people the skills to be able to work, for example turning up on time, but also what it means to be part of a business and work as part of a team, things that you don’t learn until you go into the workplace.

When was the moment you decided to do this?

I met a man who was a mushroom farmer in South Africa. He said to me, wouldn’t it be great to set up something that employs young people in a niche industry that has limited competition.

At the same time our charity had lost 50 per cent of its income overnight through cuts to Government funded contracts. One of the solutions is to earn your own money, and if you can do that with meeting your charitable objectives, that’s a good thing.

We’re growing speciality mushroom, specifically oyster mushrooms. We are working with a food processing company who are creating alternative meat products for the vegan market using the stalks from our mushrooms, because they are high in protein, low in saturated fat and nutritious.

Virgin Money Foundation gave a seed capital grant to fund 75 per cent of first-year running costs, then we received a couple of capital grants for equipment. In the first year we were 90 per cent funded by grants and 10 per cent from own money.

What’s been your proudest moment so far?

Luke* has been accessing our services since he was 13. He’s 23 now. He’s had a difficult upbringing, a difficult childhood. Lots of challenges. His family weren’t very good to him.

Seeing Luke overcome those challenges and grow into a responsible individual, learning the value of being self-reliant, I would say 5 years ago, 90 per cent of people would say, Luke will end up homeless and drug dependent.

He has had moments of homelessness but we have employed him and he is flourishing.

So my proudest moment are when Luke says, come and look at this coffee. When Luke says, come and look at all the mushrooms we have got growing. When Luke’s dragging the coffee collecting cart up the road in the rain, that’s our proudest moment.

From a business perspective, I’m proud that we are creating something new and taking the risk to do something different and having so much support for everyone.

Northumbria University Business School are designing the modules of their undergraduate business school to help our business. We’re asking their marketing students to look into crowdfunding solutions to scale this model.

We have professors who deal in plant and fungal disease and a person who is a PhD who are experts in fungal, who is supporting us. It’s been a slow burn, because we’re a charity and governance is slow, but we want to get it right.

What’s been hardest?

When we have to throw 95 of a growing bag away because of fungal infections. When you see three months work going in the skip, that’s tough. They had become infected with an airborne fungus that was stronger than the ability of the mushrooms to see it off.

One of the assumptions we made is because the coffee goes through the process of being steamed, pasteurised, it is clean. But that only lasts for a period of time.

Now we use cold pasteurisation. We’re trying to create a low-tech, low-skilled, low-cost business because of the people we want to employ. It has to be easy, it has to be cheap. We don’t want health and safety requirements.

What drives you when it gets hard?

The alternative is pretty stark. If we don’t own our own income, we won’t be able to run our charity.

I’m the 10th chief executive, it’s not going to close while my name is on the door. We know we can make it work.

What’s the next step?

Our next step is to look at how to scale up. We want to form a growers’ collective.

We can’t meet the demand for our fresh product, and neither can we grow at the scale we need to, because that would mean investing in a large farm, so we’re looking at scaling up through a quasi-franchise method.

How did you vote in the European Referendum and why?

I voted Leave. I voted Leave because after 40 years of being in the club, the remain campaign couldn’t articulate the reasons for staying.

I’m not saying that the leave campaign did, I don’t think they argued credible reasons to leave. As a social enterprise and a charity we have to measure our impact and the remain campaign couldn’t do that after 40 years.

So I think thought perhaps it is broken and it’s time for a new business model.

How will the outcome affect what you do?

As a charity in the North East, we have benefitted significantly from European Fund Investment, particularly capital investment. You see lots of flags outside of buildings. Losing that will be irreplaceable and that’s just desperate.

But I think Brexit will create other opportunities for us as a charity.

What would you say to someone looking to do something similar?

I would say collaborate as widely as you can. We have had so much support. If you don’t ask you don’t get. Go slowly and make mistakes.

What does community mean to you?

It can mean communities of interest, whether food related or youth work related.

Community of place I think is really interesting as community of place is often underestimated, the need to have a place and be part of a culture that is identified by place – such as the Geordie, the Scouse, the Cockney.

What’s interesting is the amount of money and involvement and passion organised on community place identities. It’s around community identity on a large scale. People are very connected to place.

*some names have been changed

The above article/interview first published on farnearer.org in 2018.