This January heralds a new era, with the Organic Research Centre taking up a new home adjacent to the Royal Agricultural University in Cirencester.
ORC will reach 40 years of age next year, and is currently emerging successfully from a challenging year which has seen significant change. The departure last January of our long-standing and much respected Chief Executive, Nic Lampkin, presented an opportunity to conduct a radical rethink of ORC’s business model, including the range of activities we engage in and our relationship with the other main players in the UK organic world. In March we employed an Interim CEO, Stuart Rogers, to work with the Trustees and staff to identify what needed to be done to put ORC onto a sound and sustainable financial and operational footing.
Also in March, the decision was taken to sell our current base, Elm Farm, which is only peripherally used for on-farm research purposes. In addition to generating substantial funds to restore reserves, the proceeds are now providing long-term stability, a source of investment income for core funding, and scope to invest in the organisation for the future.
Naturally, the decision to sell Elm Farm meant that we had to consider the question of ORC’s future location. A selection of options was examined, and in July the Trustees arrived at a strong preference for taking serviced offices in a property owned by the RAU at Cirencester – a comfortable, flexible workspace, with privileged access to the facilities of the University’s adjacent state-of-the-art innovation hub. Following consultations with staff, this decision has recently been confirmed and preparations for the move are already under way. We will officially open for business at our new address, Trent Lodge, on 20th January.
We see this as a great opportunity to enhance ORC’s strategic links and positioning. ORC’s status as an independent charity will not be affected. We are, however, establishing formal partnerships with both RAU and Reading University (and, excitingly, several UK organic organisations as well).
Trustees are reassured that the great majority of staff have chosen to make the move, although understandably it will not work for a handful. Sadly we will also be losing two of our Administration team whose roles will not be necessary at Trent Lodge, including Gillian Woodward, who has been associated with ORC in one capacity or another for 34 years, and we wish her and Suzanne Oliver both well for the future.
We also welcome a new Chief Executive – Lucy MacLennan – see Announcement.
Alongside the new premises we have substantially revised our Business Plan, focusing on the three years to 2021-22. In the process, Stuart Rogers and Bruce Pearce, our Director of Research & Innovation, canvassed the views of the main organic organisations and were encouraged to find how much the quality and objectivity of ORC’s research and knowledge exchange work is valued. The Business Plan process also provided an opportunity to clarify our role. What seemed to come through most clearly from our canvassing of the sector, of funders, of our farmer network and of staff, is that ORC’s uniqueness stems from the fact that we:
“ combine scientific excellence with practical experience to deliver real benefits on the ground”.
This doesn’t just describe us, it’s what drives us. So from now we are calling it our Mission.
The planning process has also helped us clarify, in our own minds at least, what we think of as ORC’s other ‘defining characteristics’:
Please feel free to let us know if you agree – or disagree.
A key part of our emerging strategy is a change in our approach to securing contract funding, while maintaining our unique approach to delivering research using participatory methods. Rather than re-actively responding to bidding opportunities, we intend to prioritise areas of research and knowledge exchange that play to our strengths, and develop pilot projects in these areas in advance of making bids for external funding. A benefit will be greater control of the research agenda and less reliance on opportunities that funders happen to favour, although there is a place for the latter as well, provided the work that we bid for fits with our strengths. We will be investing some of the proceeds from the Elm Farm sale as ‘seed funding’ over the next two years to support the change. Quite how this will work we are still working out. If there is an area of research that you think should be pursued, and is potentially fundable provided a convincing proposition can be developed, please contact Bruce Pearce.
The organic sector faces a challenging time over the coming months, given the uncertain future for UK farming and food supply arising with an Agriculture Bill and Brexit.
This year we celebrate our 40th anniversary. With a refreshed business strategy, driven hopefully by a new CEO and from a new base, we are confident that ORC can continue to be a driving force in the British organic movement at a crucial moment when biodiversity is under unprecedented threat and UK agricultural policy is at a crossroads.
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