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Co-operatives

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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