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Co-operatives

Foodlands Cooperative of BC

in 2018/Current Issue/Grow Organic/Organic Community/Summer 2018

Breaking New Ground

Michael Marrapese

Spring is often a time of optimism and renewed expectations. This will be Ariella Falkowski’s first year breaking ground for her new Sweet Acres Farm.She is leasing two acres of land at Lohbrunner Community Farm Cooperative on the outskirts of Langford, BC. She’s still getting to know the land and is excited by its potential. “It’s been really busy,” she says, “but some parts of the field dried up fairly early so I’ve been able to get crops in the ground earlier than I expected. My two projects this month are to finish putting up my hoop house structure and installing the drip irrigation.”

The Lohbrunner Farm is also home to Vitality Farm. Farmer Diana Brubaker and her husband Doug have been growing market vegetables on the property since 2012. When Brubaker first arrived on the property it was held in trust by the Land Conservancy of British Columbia (TLC). Norma Lohbrunner had wanted the 40 acre property with its rich peat soil and rolling wooded hills to be preserved as a working farm and wildlife sanctuary. Brubaker and a group of community volunteers signed on to maintain and enhance the existing crop beds and berry bushes after Norma Lohbrunner died in 2011. However, TLC was facing financial difficulties and the fate of the farm was uncertain.

There were hopes that TLC would still function in some manner and that the group of fledgling farmers could arrange to lease the seven acres they were hoping to farm. “We tried for about four years but it just didn’t happen. Our second option was to buy it,” Brubaker explains. “We were trying to develop a co-op and buy the property. TLC couldn’t do that because they were in the courts trying to resolve their difficulties.”

Ariella Falkowski with her walk-behind tractor
Ariella Falkowski with her walk-behind tractor. Credit: Diana Brubaker

Unfortunately, the process ended up with a court order to put the Lohbrunner Farm and other properties up for sale in order to cover some of TLC’s funding shortfalls. Brubaker and her farming group had to scramble to find another option. “The last option for us was to look for someone to transfer the land to who could hold it as a farm for eternity. That was our main drive: how do we keep this farm as a farm forever.”

The group turned to the newly formed Foodlands Cooperative of BC (FLCBC). FLCBC’s visionary mandate is specifically to hold farmland in trust and ensure that it is actively farmed, managed by a community group, and accessible to the broader community. Heather Pritchard, the co-op developer with FLCBC, notes the process of developing Lohbrunner Cooperative and taking a farm in trust is new ground for all involved. “The leases, agreements, governance processes, and Cooperative structure of Lohbrunner are essentially the template for how other farmlands can be held in trust,” she says. “The lessons learned from Lohbrunner Community Farm will be the basis for other lands held by the Foodlands Cooperative.”

However, FLCBC hadn’t finished incorporating and couldn’t act quickly enough to take the Lohbrunner lands into trust. Pritchard met with funders and stakeholders and arranged to secure the funding and have FarmFolk CityFolk hold the title until FLCBC had fully incorporated and secured charitable status.

Celebrating the Fall harvest web. Credit: Michael Marrapese

Brubaker recalls that, even though the farm had been secured, the co-op members at Lohbrunner soon realized there was still much to be done. The governance and management structure, the co-op’s constitution and by-laws, and core operating agreements all had to be worked out. “The Foodlands Cooperative has been so supportive in helping us establish our own co-op. It’s given us lots of flexibility to design something that works for us. It’s truly incredible to be in this place of options and choices. We’re extremely blessed,” she says.

While cooperative ownership can be challenging, it has big benefits, particularly when starting a new enterprise. Principally, with the high cost of farmland, pooling personal and community resources can be one avenue to secure financing. Falkowski notes that there are other practical benefits. “One of the things that initially drew me to leasing land at Lohbrunner was the opportunity to have a more stable long-term lease. Another benefit is that we have really helpful co-op members with really different skill sets. Different people have different experience and different connections that they can bring to the table.”

One of the current challenges is securing organic certification. As it turns out, the unusual ownership model has made organic certification more difficult. Initially, the Islands Organics Producers Association (IOPA) was suggesting an incubator farm model but it just didn’t fit. Brubaker reflects that, “the problem seems to be that we’re the ‘square pegs that don’t fit into their round holes’. I really liked the idea an incubator farm model where a new farmer, who doesn’t necessarily have the skills, could be mentored to help them get started. However, when they wanted to move on, they couldn’t take that certification with them—they’d have to start over again.”

Falkowski was involved in a lot of back and forth discussions. She recalls that, “what seemed to make the most sense for Lohbrunner was to certify as three different entities—as Vitality Farm, Sweet Acres Farm, and Lohbrunner Community Farm. One of the benefits of doing it this way is that if I were to leave the property or to lease some additional land elsewhere, my certification number would go with me.”

Diana Brubaker working the field while her dog Bella supervises. Credit: Ariella Falkowski

The downside to this process is that each certification will cost $500. “Using this approach we now may have to pay $1500 a year to be certified,” Brubaker says. “At this point, I’m not sure there’s enough revenue off the farm to justify the expense.” The further implication is that when other farmers come onto the property the costs could rise to $2000 or $2500 a year.

Brubaker also finds the certification process particularly arduous for their diverse market vegetable operation. She has many different inputs for the different crops. Chief among them are all the different seeds she purchases—three to four hundred different seeds from different catalogues. “I’ll have to detail why I choose one over the other and whether they are organic or not. If we were just growing one or two crops it would be far less work.”

Despite the difficulties, Brubaker asserts that the certification process has been valuable for her. “As part of my professional career as a leader in health care one of my roles was quality improvement. When I apply those similar principles to the certification process I appreciate that it is a really good process to go through. I look differently now at everything I buy, everything I bring to the farm. I think that, in the beginning, we had the very basic principles of organic farming but this process has taken us a step further.”

Trying new processes and new approaches, breaking new ground, is difficult but in the spring, the season of optimism, it seems possible. “It’s not going to be easy,” she says, “and there are lots of unknowns. We’re hoping this year has more laughter and hugs than tears.”

foodlands.org

lohbrunnercommunityfarm.org

sweetacresfarm.ca


Michael Marrapese is the IT and Communications Manager at FarmFolk CityFolk. He lives and works at Fraser Common Farm Cooperative, one of BC’s longest running cooperative farms, and is an avid photographer, singer and cook.

Feature photo: The Lohbrunner Farm crew with their garden hoophouse. Credit: Michael Marrapese

How to Think About Bioregionalism When Growing Seeds

in 2018/Grow Organic/Seeds/Spring 2018

B.C. Eco Seed Co-operative

Meagan Curtis

For some, bioregionalism may seem like a practical concept useful for creating ecological dividing lines between regions, but the concept’s meaning extends into social, cultural, and economic realms. One of the foremost ecotheologians of the 20th century saw bioregionalism as critical for the next era of human life on earth, feeling it should encapsulate “a self-propagating, self-nourishing, self-educating, self-healing and self-fulfilling community.”[1] With “bio” standing as its prefix, the concept refers to anything within a region relating to life. This means that it is not just the ecology of our region we need to consider, but also factors such as ethics and economics that are dominating that region.

For the BC Ecological Seed Co-operative (BCESC), our focus is on vegetable, herb, grain, flower, and cover crop seed that is ecologically grown, open-pollinated, regionally adapted, held in the public domain, and GE-free. We want to increase the quantity and improve the quality of ecological and organic seed grown in BC and believe that seed sovereignty is an essential part of sustainable bioregional food systems. This means that when we think about growing resilient seed—seed that performs well in an uncertain climate—the co-op considers a variety of factors from ethics to ecology.

The Bioregional Ecology of Seed

Most of the seeds we use in our BC bioregions, for our gardens or on our farms, are not descendants of native species from our bioregions. With the notable exceptions of berries, pumpkins/gourds, sunflowers, various herbs, and wild rice, most of the crops we grow across the country stem from a very recent part of Canada’s history. [2]

Immediately it appears there may be a disconnect between the ecological emphasis in bioregionalism and the vegetable seeds we grow and produce. This is further complicated by the fact that as seed producers, we know (and maybe even enjoy) the fact that seed is shared across regions, countries, and continents. Seed always has and will continue to travel across borders – if not purposefully, then in the hair of animals, on the boots of travellers, or by the prevailing westerlies.

Right now, most seed bought by gardeners and farmers is not seed originally grown in their bioregion, not even within their own country. By growing seed within bioregions across the province on farms with published locations, the BCESC is working on localizing seed so that buyers know where the seed is coming from and are assured that it performed well in that particular region. In this sense, BCESC seed is regionally-adapted as well as regionally tested as our members trial seed from other member’s farms across the province.

Sitting at approximately 944,735 km2, our province happens to have quite a few different bioregions. Therefore, it should not be assumed that because a lettuce variety does very well on the coast at UBC Farm, it will not perform well in Southern Ontario or that it will perform fantastically in the Okanagan. A certain bioregion in BC may be more similar to a bioregion in another country than to some within our own province. Because of this, the co-op grows its seed with wide spectrum selection in mind in order to create horizontal resistance,[3] making it suited for multiple bioregions across the country. Our growers use large population sizes and shy away from selecting narrowly for one trait so that a wide diversity of traits are preserved and the plant is theoretically more resilient in the end. This means that although BCESC seed is grown and adapted to a bioregion, it also carries enough diversity to potentially thrive in other regions. In the end, the diversity our plants carry emerges from regions and then flows across regions as the seed’s resilience is shared within our province and beyond it.

The Ethics and Socio-Economics of Resilient Seed 

Aside from ecological considerations, there are multiple tangible social, economic, and ethical benefits to investing in seed grown within your bioregion. The transparency within an organization like the BCESC means that a dialogue is possible with seed producers and growers in a way impossible in other circumstances. BCESC can respond to varieties that growers in their region would like to see preserved, improved, or increased. For the same economic reasons that we tell people to eat local, we should buy local seed. The economic sustainability of inhabitants of a given bioregion is critical to a healthy society. BCESC’s purpose is to be able to offer farmers the quantities of seed they are looking for. We also offer packet size seed for those with a smaller area or who want to test a variety.

Difficult issues relating to agricultural and food sovereignty can be overwhelming to consider at the international, national, or even provincial level. What may be more available to us is the opportunity to think about, and work on, the socio-economic and ecological health of our bioregion. Working at this level, we may more effectively create the kind of life and systems we want to see flourish. Resilience within a bioregion may also mean transforming our cultural norms and adapting our social relations in order to foster cooperation and collaboration. Bioregionalism indicates to us that perhaps feeding ourselves and future generations in uncertain climatic times involves not only ecological solutions, but social, economic, and ethical as well.

The full range of BCESC inventory is available online at bcecoseedcoop.com. You can also find a selection of packets in racks in local communities across BC:

Vancouver: Figaro’s Garden, 1896 Victoria Dr.

Langley: Cedar Rim Nursery, 7024 Glover Rd.

Nelson: Kootenay Co-op, 777 Baker St.

Prince George: Ave Maria Specialties, 1638 20 Ave.

Smithers: Alpine Plant World, 3441 19 Ave


Meagan Curtis is member of the BC Eco Seed Coop in Port Alberni—on Instagram @mtjoanfarm. Inspired by EF Schumacher, her farm has three goals: health, beauty, and permanenc—productivity is attained as a by-product.

Photos: BC Eco Seed Coop

[1] Berry, T. (1988). The Dream of the Earth. Berkeley: Counterpoint Press. https://gaiaeducation.org/news/cosmopolitan-bioregionalism/

[2] For the origin of geographic origins of our food crops – where they were initially domesticated and evolved over time, see: http://blog.ciat.cgiar.org/origin-of-crops/

[3] Resistance based on the result of continuous selection in the face of adversity based on many genes working together resulting in a healthy plant (Morton, F. (2018). Horizontal Resistance: An Organic Approach to Selection. Wild Garden Seed Catalogue. p. 100: https://seedstory.files.wordpress.com/2007/12/franksessays-1.pdf )

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BC Eco-Seed Coop: Seeding the Future

in 2018/Crop Production/Grow Organic/Seeds/Winter 2018

Meagan Curtis

As a physical embodiment of the next generation, seeds compel us to respect the concept of intergenerational justice also known as the seventh-generation principle followed by many First Nations in Canada. To achieve this, agriculture is practiced in a precautionary manner so that harm is prevented to our crops, the seeds they bare, and the soil they grow in whenever possible—especially when evidence regarding the effects of other potential practices is unclear or unavailable. A precautionary approach ensures that future generations are cared for and that intergenerational justice is upheld so that these generations can reach their full potential.

The principle of care and precautionary principle are embodied in the BC Ecological Seed Co-op’s (BCESC) commitment to open pollinated varieties that are ecologically grown, GE-free, and held in the public domain, emphasizing our belief in the democratization of seed (‘open source’ seed). The essentially co-operative nature of the BCESC relates to the principle of care in multiple ways.

At the heart of the co-operative model are values of self-responsibility, democracy, equality, solidarity, openness, and social responsibility. These values contribute to the realization of the principle of care as well as offer an alternative approach to agricultural practices that are premised on the manipulation and exploitation of land and plants.

These values also inform how we envision the natural world and its inherent regenerative capabilities. Rather than modernizing seed with reductionist scientific technologies or practices, the principle of care appears to lead to an approach that is instead both humble and cautious so as not to potentially produce deleterious consequences to seed diversity and health for the next generation. Instead of capitalizing on potential gains through the reduction and commodification of natural diversity, this principle instead positions seed growers as guardians of nature who act with respect for the future while utilizing wisdom from the past.

Photo credit: Michael Marrapese

Although the principle of care may not be commonly applied in many contemporary decision-making processes, it is inherent in the historical art and science of seed saving. The BCESC works with this principle to address a challenge that BC farmers face yearly—the lack of reliable access to good quality seed for the varieties they desire. Most organic farmers in the province still rely on conventionally produced seed for at least part of their operation. BCESC hopes that their collective knowledge and work may give farmers another option and begin to address the deep philosophical questions in agriculture that society faces and that we live out every season on our farms.

For more information about the BC Eco Seed Co-op find them at www.bcecoseedcoop.com.


Meagan Curtis is working on developing farmland in British Columbia and is interested in the gaps between our practices and ethics and the possible ways we may make these gaps narrower. 

All photos: BC Eco-Seed Coop unless otherwise noted

References

www.cela.ca/collections/pollution/precautionary-principle

www.slvrec.com/content/7-cooperative-principles

Resilience in Co-operation

in Fall 2017/Organic Community

Learning From Italy’s Thriving Agriculture Co-operatives

By Chris Bodnar

Over two weeks in June, I had the opportunity to join other farmers and a group of Vancity Credit Union staff on a study tour in Bologna, Italy. The focus of the tour was the agricultural co-operative sector.

The Bologna region is unique because of its co-operative sector. It is located in the heart of the Emilia-Romagna region, which is an agricultural center of Italy. Agriculture in this region makes up 4% of the region’s employment, while the overall agrifood system (including agriculture, food science, distribution, retail, and restaurants) makes up 16.7% of the region’s employment.

Co-operatives are integral to the region’s overall economy of the region. While only 1.3% of businesses in the region are co-operatives, they generate approximately 15% of the region’s employment and 20% of the region’s GDP. Co-ops play an even larger role in agriculture and agrifood systems. 95% of the region’s wine is produced by co-operatives. Co-operatives pack and distribute much of the fresh produce, meat, and dairy. Over 60% of the region’s groceries are purchased through consumer co-operatives.

In many ways, Italian farmers are facing the same challenges as farmers in BC and other parts of the world. The production of agricultural land is decreasing, the age of farmers is increasing, and many rural areas are depopulating. Global trade has made it more difficult for individual operators to access markets.

By working together in co-operatives, the farmers of Emilia-Romagna have been able to respond to the global pressures on agriculture. Co-operatives have allowed farms to specialize, produce high-quality, value added products, and sell into an international market.

The specialty products of Emilia-Romagna farmers are known around the world. For example, farmers don’t just produce milk; they make Parmesan Cheese. Farmers don’t just grow grapes; they make high-end wines and balsamic vinegar.

Now, agricultural universities in the Emilia-Romagna region are at enrolment capacity and many see new opportunities to maintain the region’s agricultural strength into the future.

BC Farmer Arzeena Hamir speaks with a Fattoria Rio Selva farmer who specializes in radicchio production using permaculture practices in the Treviso region of Italy. Photo Credit: Chris Bodnar

Some of the key lessons from the study tour are:

Supporting Diversity of Scale

The processing co-operatives we visited had many farmer members—up to 1,400 in some cases. These members were not uniform in size. Some farm a couple of hectares while others farm 25 to 30 hectares. The co-operatives are open to members of all sizes. This supports a diversity of farmers to continue producing when many would otherwise be unable to access markets on their own. In turn, most co-ops have rules that require members to sell exclusively to the co-op.

Market Response

A key message we heard throughout our trip was that Italian consumers increasingly demand environmentally responsible production of their food products. Co-operatives have helped farmers adapt to these demands through extension services, restricting the use of GMOs, and marketing products in response to consumer demands. In some instances, co-ops have focused on Integrated Pest Management (IPM) practices to reduce chemical use. In others, they have helped coordinate transition to organic certification by ensuring market access for products. Overall, 8% of Emilia-Romagna’s agricultural land is farmed organically.

It’s All About Quality

Italian co-operatives place a high importance on overall quality. Many producer co-operatives provide extension support to their growers to help growers achieve the highest quality possible. By requiring members to sell exclusively to the co-op, the co-op is also assured it will receive the highest quality product and that growers will not undercut the co-op in the marketplace.

The co-operatives also invest in infrastructure to ensure their processing, packing, and value-added products meet the highest standards. For example, one wine producer we visited has a full-time lab that tests grape samples and wine batches daily, a task individual producers could not achieve on their own.

The el Tamiso organic co-operative manager explains that their co-operative of 35 members has grown by 10% annually and now distributes across Europe. Photo Credit: Chris Bodnar.

It’s Also About Logistics

An efficient food system ultimately comes down to being able to move the food products to market in a fast and efficient manner. We visited two distribution centers where many distributors are housed in one facility. By co-locating, distributors have been able to achieve logistical systems that support getting their product to market. Buyers are able to visit one facility and purchase from over 35 distributors, representing hundreds of farms. The Bologna distribution facility can load 30 trucks an hour, sending produce across Europe each day. One organic co-operative of 35 farms, el Tamiso, has been able to grow sales at a rate of over 10% annually by being able to access improved logistical services through these shared facilities.

Building Resilience During Plentiful Times

A key lesson from the Italian co-operative model is that co-operatives are incentivized to save during good times in order to be better prepared for the bad times. Profits are not taxed if they are kept within the co-operative as “indivisible reserves.” These reserves cannot be paid out to members, but can be used to stabilize the co-op during poor economic conditions. This helps to achieve balance in the co-ops’ annual finances; they attempt to achieve the best possible return to the farmers for their products while building reserves to support the long-term well being of the co-op.

The results of this planning are clear: during the economic crisis of the past decade, the number of businesses in the region decreased by 1.9%, while the number of co-operatives actually increased by 5%. During the same period, employment decreased by 3.8% while employment in co-operatives went up by 3%.

Using Scale to Access Opportunities

Ultimately, Italian agricultural co-operatives have allowed farmers to achieve a critical scale to produce high-quality products that sell into global markets. While these co-operatives started small, many have merged over the past two decades in order to be better positioned for global trade. The primary lesson learned in this example is that co-operatives can scale up and take advantage of new opportunities while respecting and supporting a diversity of scales of farming.


Chris Bodnar co-owns and operates Close to Home Organics with his wife, Paige, at Glen Valley Organic Farm in Abbotsford. They operate a 145-member Community Shared Agriculture program and sell at two weekly farmers markets during the farming season. Prior to farming, Chris earned a PhD in Communication from Carleton University. He now teaches the Business of Agriculture course in Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s Sustainable Agriculture program. Chris sits on the board of the Mount Lehman Credit Union.

Feature image: The Cantina di Sorbara produces Lambrusco wine for Italian and international markets. The co-operative of 1200 members has invested in five processing plants and lab facilities to test grape and wine samples daily to ensure it is producing the highest-quality product possible. Photo Credit: Chris Bodnar

Collective Marketing for Veggie Farmers

in 2016/Marketing/Organic Community/Spring 2016
Merville Organics Farmer Co-operative

Moss Dance

Get Your Produce in a Pile!

I was lucky to witness the flourishing of the Saanich Organics farming (and marketing!) co-operative when I lived and farmed on southern Vancouver Island. In their book All the Dirt: Reflections on Organic Farming, Saanich Organics farmers Robin Tunnicliffe, Heather Stretch, and Rachel Fisher describe an amusing scene—it may be familiar to you, too. Picture three stressed out, overworked farmers, hauling produce in small, worse-for-wear pick-ups—all of them headed to make deliveries to the same restaurants!

Back in 2012, they might as well have been describing me. At my new farm in the Comox Valley, I was spending four and a half hours every Tuesday delivering 25 CSA shares to members’ doorsteps after a morning of frantic harvesting and packing shares.

But that all changed when I met Arzeena Hamir and Neil Turner at Amara Farm in 2013.

As soon as we met, Arzeena and I started hatching plans for a growers’ co-operative. Thanks to those clever Saanich Organics farmers, I was feeling pretty excited about the idea of collective marketing by this time. The only issue was, we needed three members to start a co-op! So we began with a two-farm Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program. We also took turns at the local farmers’ market where we sold each others’ produce under the Merville Organics banner. By uniting under Merville Organics, our marketing efforts could be more concise and targeted.

By 2015, several of our apprentices graduated onto their own farms, and some new young farmers were setting up shop in town. We finally had our founding member quorum and took the initial steps towards “inco-operating” through the BC Co-operative Association.

Merville Organics Farmer's Co-op

Why Collaborate?

I’m not going to lie: collaboration takes a lot of extra work at the beginning. Setting up tracking systems, establishing effective group dynamics, and doing the legwork of starting up a shared business is a huge commitment. It took many long meetings and volunteer hours from our members to get started. As we begin our second year, our co-operative still relies mostly on volunteer labour from our grower members to keep things running. For many farmers, co-operative or not, marketing comes at the end of a long list of things that just can’t wait, like thinning the carrots. Still, in our view, the benefits outweigh the challenges.

Despite the volunteer hours we spend running the co-op, our goal is to lessen the marketing workload on our members so they can spend more time farming. Here are a few of the best results of our work together:

Increased Marketing Reach

People power is real when it comes to marketing a farm—we’ve seen this time and again when our seven grower members combine their contacts in the community to spread the word about our products.

For example, when we post about our CSA on our co-op Facebook page, we can reach a portion of our 800 followers (thanks to Facebook’s limiting algorithms we can’t reach them all at once for free). If each member shares that post, we exponentially increase our online reach. Friends, family members, and co-workers who know us personally take an interest and spread the word for us. This kind of grassroots marketing is essential in small communities.

Abundance & Visual Appeal

Working together, we not only increase our marketing reach, we also increase the variety and consistency of the products we supply to our markets. A three-farm market table overflows with produce. This in turn revs up interest in our market stall—the more variety you’ve got, the more people you’re going to attract to your table!

Shared Infrastructure

Thanks to our marketing co-op, our new grower members are saving on farm start-up costs by sharing essential equipment such as a walk-in cooler, wash station, delivery vehicle, harvest totes, packaging materials, and co-op office. We hire a bookkeeper for the co-op which means financial record-keeping is much simpler for all of our members. As well, we share marketing resources—everything from printed materials to social advertising, thus reducing the cost and the workload for all.

Grower Member Specialization

Sharing in the larger tasks of operating a farm business means our grower members can specialize in roles that they enjoy and excel at such as customer relations, farmers’ markets, marketing, or sales tracking. The increased number of growers also enables each farmer to specialize in growing crops they have success with instead of trying to grow a full array of crops to ll their own CSA program. Several of our members have expertise in marketing and the co-operative as a whole gets to reap the benefits!

Merville Organics CSA

Harvesting Grassroots Media

We use three social media platforms and one in-person platform to get the word out about our CSA programs and our annual spring plant sale. During CSA season, we post our weekly blog to all of our social media platforms.

Facebook

Facebook is definitely the workhorse in our social media strategy. All of our members have active personal Facebook accounts, and this has definitely helped us to gain a good following on our Merville Organics Facebook page. It’s not all free, but it’s not expensive either. The reality is, Facebook doesn’t want you to get much exposure for free, especially if you’re running a business. That’s why we “boost” posts strategically to increase our reach at key times in the season.

Boosting Posts on Facebook

We boost Facebook posts 5-7 times per year, usually with a budget of $14-25 per boost. Here’s the break- down of our strategy:

  • Spring CSA launch
  • #CSADay
  • Spring CSA – one week before the sign up deadline
  • Spring plant sale announcement
  • Spring plant sale reminder (2-3 days before the event)
  • Fall CSA launch
  • Fall CSA – one week before the sign up deadline

Twitter

Developing a good following on Twitter can take a long time, and a bit more strategic thinking. If you really want to drive traffic to your Twitter feed, it’s important to re-tweet, post relevant content, and not just plug your sales. In our experience, Twitter isn’t a popular social media platform in our community—so it means our reach is a bit more far-flung and therefore doesn’t help much when we are selling CSA shares.

Instagram

Instagram is great for farms! We live in image-rich en- vironments—whether we’re growing microgreens or raising sheep—and people LOVE farm pictures. We use Instagram to build a story about our farms, who we are and what we are offering to our community. It’s not so much about hard sales with Instagram, it’s more about the slow process of relationship building.

“Like” Each Other

Our philosophy as a co-op is that there is no competi- tion, only more room for collaboration. We take this approach in social media too. When that amazing local yoghurt company is launching a new avour, or a new locally-owned feed & supply store is opening in town, share that news on your social media feeds!

Building this network of businesses who support each other’s work means we are creating fantastic new local economies where community members can clearly see where to redirect their dollars. Think of it as over-throwing the stodgy, competive capitalist system, one “Like” at a time.

In Person at Farmers’ Markets

If you’re running a CSA, potential members really appreciate the chance to talk to a real person and ask questions about the program. It also helps that we have solid weekly face-to-face connections with people at the market—that kind of trust helps people to take the leap to try something new. The marketing tactic on this one is so simple: put up a sign at your booth that says, “Ask us about our CSA program!”

Co-ops Love Co-ops!

Don’t be shy about reaching out to the co-ops in your community if you’re starting your own collective venture! The beauty of co-ops is that they are creating a culture of collaboration, and what could be more exciting than more people joining in?

Suggestions for Starting Your Own Marketing Co-operative

If you are interested in starting your own marketing co-op, here are a few suggestions:

  • Get together and host a meeting with farmers in your community who you think you would enjoy working with (liking each other IS essential)
  • Look for common ground: What challenges are growers facing? Do you have shared goals & values?
  • Brainstorm opportunities: What could you do together that you can’t do alone?
  • List needs & resources: What do you have that you can share? What do folks need to improve their farm businesses?
  • Start small: collaborate on something simple & manageable in the beginning and expand on your successes

Moss Dance is an organic farmer & founding member of the Merville Organics Growers’ Co-operative. She also works with the Young Agrarians on Vancouver Island.

Photo credit: Boomer Merritt

Facebook: MervilleOrganics
Twitter: @MervilleOrgCoop
Instagram: @mervilleorganics

Co-operation As a Business Model?

in Organic Community/Spring 2016
farming at Close to Home Organic farm co-operative

Chris Bodnar

If you tell most people that they can succeed in business by cooperating rather than competing, they might laugh you out of the room. Competition is, after all, the basis of our market system. Co-operatives, however, operate within a competitive marketplace, but are based on values and practices of cooperation. And co-operatives have a history of success across a number of sectors.

The Co-Operative Advantage

There’s a very simple way that co-operatives are different from other businesses: they exist to meet the needs of their members. Not only that, but their members are also their owners.

This might not seem revolutionary, but in a world of shareholder-focused profits for corporations, co-operatives exist for a different reason. Sure, many co-operatives are pro table but their success is contingent on helping their members succeed by providing a necessary service.

Similar to companies, co-operatives provide legal benefits such as limiting liability and providing a legally recognized structure to raise capital for a business venture. But co-operatives are different from corporations. They are democratically controlled through a one-member one-vote principle. Economic benefits such as profits are returned to members based on the proportion of business the member did with the co-op.

While co-operatives are not the primary choice for most new business ventures, they are appealing at a time when many citizens distrust corporations that they perceive as acting in the interests of profits for shareholders with little transparency or accountability.

Co-operatives generally have a social perspective built into their operations. The values at the core of co-operatives include self-responsibility, democracy, equality, equity, and solidarity. Social responsibility – something many corporate bodies struggle to define – are a basic component of most co-operatives as they exist to serve their membership.

Different Types of Co-ops

  • Supply Co-operatives provide farmers with inputs at competitive prices
  • Marketing and Processing (Producer) Co-operatives market and process goods delivered by farmer members. The co-operatives aim to provide farmers the best price possible for their products by securing large contracts or developing and pro- ducing consumer products desired in the market- place
  • Worker Co-operatives exist to provide employ- ment to their owner members
  • Consumer Co-operatives serve consumers by sourcing and selling goods

A Natural Fit For Agriculture

There is a self-help nature to co-operatives. Communities often start co-operatives to provide services that otherwise wouldn’t exist. Co-operatives have allowed many farmers to reduce risk and achieve economies of scale by marketing together. This has been an important component for many rural communities, where the local economy and social fabric only exist by virtue of the community members who crafted the society they wanted.

As a result, co-operatives have a long history in agriculture, allowing farmers to work collectively to succeed. Many co-operatives originated in rural communities as local initiatives to provide the population with a service they needed. In most cases, the communities were deemed too small by outside businesses to open up shop – but the communities wouldn’t survive without basic services. Enter the co-operative.

Farmers established co-operatives to source their inputs, from fuel and seeds to building materials to construct their homes and barns. They started producer co-ops to market their products – apples, berries, dairy, and grain – to a larger market. Credit unions provided financial services to farmers in communities where banks wouldn’t operate or wouldn’t serve farmers.

In the late 1940s, co-operative farms offered veterans an opportunity to become farmers, and eventually to purchase the land to continue their own farms.

Agricultural Co-Ops Today

Co-operatives remain an important part of agricultural communities around the world. In BC, ower growers market their products through the United Flower Growers co-operative in Burnaby while cranberry growers sell through their producer co-op, Ocean Spray. Over 500 growers are members of the BC Tree Fruits Co-operative.

Smaller co-operatives are filling important roles as well. Workers co-ops have become a structure for some new farm businesses such as the Vancouver Food Pedalers Co-operative, which grows microgreens. Glorious Organics is an established workers’ co-operative in Aldergrove – and it operates at Fraser Common Farm, a co-operatively-owned farm.

In recent years Merville Organics has emerged as a producer co-op in the Comox Valley for the purpose of marketing member produce through farmers markets and a Community Shared Agriculture program. Members are able to offer customers a wider selection of produce while reducing their individual farms’ time and expense spent on marketing.

Nationally, 75-year-old Agropur dairy co-operative has over 3,400 farmer members across Canada. Canadian worker co-op La Siembra works with producer co-operatives to purchase cocoa, sugar, and coffee for their Camino brand products. This allows small-scale farmers to remain viable while supporting local education and health programs through the reinvestment of organic and fair trade premiums back into the community.

Future Directions

Co-operatives provide a distinct advantage to farmers. Producer co-ops help farmers retain the greatest share of the retail price of products while achieving larger contracts for greater marketing reach. Many of these co-ops also provide services to members, including field research and extension services as well as quality control and product research and development.

Co-operatives can also differentiate themselves in the marketplace by offering a values proposition to consumers that includes social impact and community investment.

In the realm of worker co-operatives and land co-ops, these models offer alternative modes of entry into agriculture for new farmers and creative solutions to the problems of high land costs or lack of family history or support in agriculture.

Ultimately, those involved in the co-operative economy understand that cooperation provides distinct benefits to the broader community. Cooperation recognizes that our individual success within society is best based on the collective success of our communities.

Interested in Starting a Co-operative?

Check out the BC Ministry of Agriculture’s Co-op Start-up Guide. As well, the BC Co-operative Association offers a business boot camp in May for co-operative ventures.


Chris Bodnar co-owns and operates Close to Home Organics with his wife, Paige, at Glen Valley Organic Farm in Abbotsford. They operate a 145-member Community Shared Agriculture program and sell at two weekly farmers markets during the farming season. Prior to farming, Chris earned a PhD in Communication from Carleton University. He now teaches the Business of Agriculture course in Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s Sustainable Agriculture program. Chris sits on the board of the Mount Lehman Credit Union.

Intentional Peasantry at Tipiland Organic Produce

in Farmer Focus/Organic Stories

Marjorie Harris

The Way of the Past is Hope for the Future

What a magical adventure it was to visit Tipiland Organic Produce in Argenta, BC!

The ideals of the Aquarian Age generation are manifest in every aspect of Tipiland’s success, demonstrating how the dreams of social interconnectedness, collective action and co-operative systems can become a positive and sustainable reality.

Tipiland celebrated their 25th year of operation in 2014, another milestone in their success story which is rooted in the back-to-nature, counter culture movement of the 1970s. The journey has been a fulfilling one for lifelong gardeners Inanna Judd, Gary Diers, and Sarah Ross. Their collective commitment has been to provide the purest, freshest, most nutrient dense, and beautiful certified organic produce possible from their market garden.

To reach Tipiland I headed to to the northern head of Kootenay Lake and then turned south, driving along the base of Mount Willet’s evergreen covered slopes that rise up out of the steel blue waters of the lake and climb high into the sky to form a brilliant white peak. The gravel road only got me as far as Tipiland’s upper level garlic patch. From there I embarked on a 15-minute hike downhill through an enchanting forest, enjoying the aromatic scents and the springy soil underfoot that creates gentle earth music, like drum beats in your walking. As I lifted my eyes way, way up, 150 feet through the trees to the sky above, I was in awe of such a forest and such a location for this very special organic garden patch. I could sense the meditative pace of daily living here, even during the feverish work of the growing season: the forest calms the soul.

The ideals of the Aquarian Age generation are manifest in every aspect of Tipiland’s success, demonstrating how the dreams of social interconnectedness, collective action and co-operative systems can become a positive and sustainable reality.

In 1989, Tipiland’s founding farmer — the young and brave Sarah Ross, then in her mid-twenties — had a vision to start a market garden. She set about very carefully selecting a 2-acre garden plot near the middle of the 200-acre virgin forest held in common by the members of the Kootenay Co-operative Land Settlement Society. The land co-op was established in Argenta in 1972, emerging out of the back-to-the-land movement and locating itself next door to a Quaker Intentional Community. Both communities shared common goals to live more locally, consume less energy, and make positive changes while having fun.

One of Tipiland’s current farmers Gary Diers, explains how without Kootenay Co-op, Tipiland would simply not be Tipiland: “We have grown together hand-in-hand,” says Gary. “A farm on a land co-op, selling to a food co-op: what a great fit!”

Thus began their long relationship. “Kootenay Co-op clearly lead the way,” remembers Gary. ‘Local’ is natural for the Co-op, it is an organization embedded in the community. The members are the Co-op. So when Sarah approached the Co-op about selling them local organic produce they quite naturally said, “Yes!”

Gary continues, “the management of the Kootenay Co-op didn’t stop there. They decided to make what was then a radical commitment to sell only organic produce. They were listening to their members, and I think that they, like Sarah, sensed the blossoming of the organic movement.”

By the mid 1990’s Inanna and Gary took over operating Tipiland Produce fulltime, finally realizing their dreams of farming. This coincided with the time when Kootenay Co-op was instrumental in getting the Kootenay Organic Growers Society (KOGS) started. Gary recalls how every winter local organic farmers would meet with the produce team of the Kootenay Co-op to decide who would grow what in the following year. “They certainly didn’t enjoy the task of trying to filter out just who was really organic, or who wasn’t — a ridiculous task for a store. So KOGS was born.” Tipiland was one of the founding members of KOGS, which was kind enough to issue them with the certification number #00l, which remains with them to this day.

Gary enthusiastically remembers how Tipiland helped develop the market and has grown with the market. “Every single year Tipiland has sold more vegetables than the year before. We now sell 15 times more produce than when Inanna and I first took over the reins of Tipiland and we still have more capacity.”

When Inanna first suggested growing kale, the Co-op manager was skeptical, since kale had never been seen in local stores before — but was willing to give it a try. The rest is history. Kale is now Tipiland’s second largest crop, with 10 varieties planted this year. They still sell their kale to the Co-op, and to eight other businesses.

Tipiland also has a flourishing business in certified organic flowers. Again, the Kootenay Co-op was their first buyer, and continues to retail their bouquets. Inanna has trialed hundreds of varieties of vegetables and flowers and saves seeds of over a hundred varieties. Gary says with a smile, “ Inanna can run circles around anyone with a wheel hoe!”

In Gary’s estimation, in order for a farm to truly be sustainable it must employ farm workers from its local community. And for farm work to be viewed as an honourable occupation in our society, the workers must receive all the same rights and pay as other workers in Canada. Early every Wednesday and Thursday morning a crew of locals, ranging in age from 18 to 72 years old, from Argenta to the Lardeau Valley, assembles to fill farm orders. Gary proudly notes that Tipiland has not missed one delivery from May to November in all these years.

In Gary’s estimation, in order for a farm to truly be sustainable it must employ farm workers from its local community.

Farming at Tipiland is mostly unmechanized. As Gary says, “We have always enjoyed working with our hands and believe it is not only the way of the past, but the hope for the future. One might call us intentional peasants. The beauty of all this for us at Tipiland is that this model works. With our low capitalization we have never needed to secure a loan. We pay our farm workers above average agricultural wages, providing jobs in our community. The bottom line is definitely working.”

Tipiland uses almost no electricity in its operation. Their home and farm are completely off the grid. They do not need a cooler as all produce is picked, then hydrocooled and delivered to stores within 24 hours. Tipiland is labour intensive, not energy or capital intensive. Everyone walks or bicycles to work.

But as Gary is quick to point out, “We’re not purists. We do have an Italian rototiller and a truck. Our rototiller has a diesel engine and last year we used almost 40 litres of fuel for our entire operation. Our Japanese import delivery truck is also diesel with a 4 cylinder engine and we can deliver almost one and half tons of produce all the way to Nelson and back for about $40 in fuel.”

Gary’s final take home message is a quote from Wendell Berry, “Never farm more than you can garden!


Marjorie Harris, BSc, IOIA V.O., P. Ag. Email: marjorieharris@telus.net 

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.” – attributed to Hippocrates

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