Case study written by Peter Andrée with Brynne Sinclair-Waters
Phone interview with Sabrina Martinez by Brynne Sinclair-Waters (June 8, 2011)
Site visit (including participant observation) and interviews with Sabrina Martinez, Isabelle Perdigal, Francois Poirier by Peter Andrée and Brynne Sinclair-Waters (August 16, 2011)
* Recent but rapidly growing bilingual producer co-op serving several counties
* Based on successful “Oklahoma model” for on-line sales.
* Includes a farm apprenticeship program and is closely connected to a new privately-run farmers’ market
“The time is right. People want local food.” – Sabrina Martinez, EOLFC
Started in 2010, the Eastern Ontario Local Food Co-op (EOLFC) is a rapidly growing not-for-profit cooperative that currently includes around 40 producers from the united counties of Prescott-Russell and Stormont-Dundas-Glengarry. Co-op members sell their food products through a weekly “on-line local farmers’ market”. They then bring a wide variety of pre-packed product (including fresh and frozen vegetables, frozen meats, cheeses, sour cream, quail and turkey eggs, cakes, preserves, etc.) to a warehouse each Tuesday morning where it is sorted into orders alongside other farmers’ products. The orders are delivered to about 200 individual, group and institutional customers in Eastern Ontario, including Ottawa. The EOLFC also runs a small farm apprenticeship program, connecting young people interested in taking up farming with producers who they can learn from. Finally, the co-op is closely associated with “Penny’s Market”, a privately run farm product, antique and livestock market. Established in 2011 by one of the EOLFC’s members, the market takes place on the same property where co-op orders are sorted each week, thereby giving members another venue for selling additional product.
While the weekly market is only a sideline for the producers of the EOLFC, it is clear that having a single site where farmers meet every week has been very important for the co-operative from a social perspective. This social side of the co-op was highlighted by Martinez: “Farmers are often so alone in their world. It (the co-op) is a social thing. We can discuss things. We go through the same heartaches.” Francois Poirier (28 years old), one of the younger farmers that sells through EOLFC, is a recent graduate of Alfred College, a francophone agricultural college in Eastern Ontario that is associated with the University of Guelph. Francois now has three full time staff working on his 58 acre vegetable farm. He noted that he learns a great deal from his colleagues on his weekly visit to the co-op warehouse. There are also some sales between producer members of the co-op who buy from each other, including, for example, livestock and eggs for those who do not raise their own animals.
Sabrina Martinez started up the EOLFC because she was looking for new ways to sell all of the produce from her market garden. Between farmers’ markets and CSAs there still were not enough buyers in her rural area, so she was interested in trying to find buyers further afield including in Ottawa (approximately 100 km away). Around the same time, she was being approached by local restaurants and daycares to supply them with food. Martinez recognized that the demand was growing for “local food” bought directly from farmers, and in the winter of 2010 she began meeting with her partner Michel Pepin and a friend, Isabelle Perdigal to develop a plan. They were told by some that it would take years to get a co-op off the ground, but fortunately they came across the “Oklahoma model” of on-line sales, and were able to access the software used by that group (see:http://www.oklahomafood.coop/). This allowed the whole project to get off the ground in only a few months. By June of 2010 the EOLFC was incorporated as a not-for-profit co-operative and made its first deliveries. In November of 2010 it was awarded a Trillium foundation grant which has given the group a big boost (see below). In their first six months, the EOFLC grossed $70,000 in sales. In the first six months of their second year in operation, the co-op doubled those sales. As a result, several of the farmers that are part of the co-op have left other jobs to focus full-time on farming. The co-op hopes to be financially self-sufficient by the end of its third year of operations.
Martinez is motivated to coordinate the co-op because she wants to make farming viable. She wants to sell her produce, to see farms grow and diversify, and get youth involved. She wants to show that farmers can make a living – that farming is not just a lifestyle choice. “We need to do it. We’re losing too many good farmers. They’re giving up”, noted Martinez. From our site visit, it is clear that other producers who are part of the co-op share these values. Not only do they want farming to remain viable in the area, but they would like to see more small-scale processing as well. One producer pointed to the landscape of corn and soy that surrounds Penny’s Market and lamented the fact that these crops do almost nothing to support the local economy. He hoped that the co-op and the market can help return the land of Eastern Ontario to a diversity of vegetables, grass-fed beef and much more.
The group was advised by other producer co-ops to “stay small”, but this has been difficult because it requires each person involved to take on a lot of responsibility. In their first year, all of the work needed to run the co-op was done on a volunteer basis. The Trillium Foundation grant awarded to the EOLFC in November of 2010 allowed the group to hire Martinez as a part-time coordinator and Perdigal as their website developer. The grant also helps pay for the gas needed to make deliveries, which are carried along five routes by co-op members in their own vehicles. The board of directors, made up of five producer members, is responsible for overseeing the overall operations of the co-op and is supplemented by the work of two committees: a grant writing committee and a standards committee. The standards committee is responsible for ensuring that producers adhere to their own rule of a 65% minimum of local content for processed foods. Finally, there are volunteers that help sort and pack orders every week. These are often producer members themselves, but occasionally customers too. The co-op has also had occasional volunteer assistance from members of a local environmental organization.
The EOLFC owns little infrastructure itself, but Penny’s Market is owned by farmers who are part of the EOLFC. It has a warehouse where the co-op packs orders and hopes to establish a commercial kitchen for the processing of local foods. The co-op’s only other physical assets are about a dozen coolers, which are used to keep some orders cool or frozen during deliveries. These were bought through a small grant from the united counties of Prescott-Russell.
Penny’s Market is on five acres of land adjacent to Highway 417 between Montreal and Ottawa, thus offering lots of room for expansion.
The group received $108,000 from the Trillium Foundation over two years. All farmer members of the co-operative pay a lifetime membership of $100. Consumers also pay a $50 fee the first time they buy from the co-op, but consumers do not become members of the co-op. The co-op decision-making structure is made up only of its producer members. The co-op also collects 10% of all sales from producers and 5% from consumers. Orders currently average about $40/week/order. Perdigal noted that it was surprising that order levels stayed high throughout the winter. As fresh produce became scarce customers started ordering more meats, preserves, cheese, pies and frozen fruits and vegetables.
Early in its development, the EOLFC received support from Ottawa Valley Food Co-operative (OVFC), a similar coop on the west side of Ottawa. From the OVFC they learned how best to freeze, bag, and transport product, in order to meet the expectations of health regulations. The EOLFC also has a partnership with Tucker House, a local historic site, with whom they organized a canning and preserving workshop in the summer of 2011.
In general, the EOLFC actually has few formal local partnerships compared to many of the other food initiatives documented in this report. Those involved in the co-op believe that collaboration has been an issue because some other groups in the region have felt threatened by their initiative. In order to try and foster cooperation, the leadership of the co-op has made an effort to be as open and helpful as possible to other initiatives that are trying to get started up and Martinez has become a member of the Eastern Ontario Agri-Food Networks in hopes that it could contribute to building better relationships between local food initiatives and organizations in the area.
One of the resources that has contributed most to the success of the EOLFC is the computer software used to organize online orders, which came from a community quite far away in Oklahoma. The software is used by members for posting available products, by consumers for entering their orders on-line, and by members and volunteers again for printing labels that help to organize consumer orders. The software was shared free of charge with the EOLFC. The EOLFC is working on making the program bilingual by adding French. They are sharing the bilingual version with the Oklahoma Valley Food Co-operative, which hopes to translate it to Spanish as well, and which will continue to share it with others who would like to use it.
Policy and Program Resources and Challenges
The fact that they are basically doing “farm-gate” sales cooperatively means that regulations (i.e. regarding how processed foods are packed and labeled) are not as stringent for co-op sales as they might be for commercial producers and processors, or even as stringent as some of the regulations governing farmers’ markets. Similarly, even small EOLFC producers who do not own “quota” (which confers the right to sell these products through conventional market channels) can sell chicken and eggs to customers of the co-op because it is like selling from the farm gate. However, marketing board rules do restrict those eggs and chickens from being sold to restaurants and institutional buyers.
It is clear that the group would like to see both its producer and customer base grow significantly. One producer noted that 1500 customers was a good target to aim for. They look admirably at examples from Oklahoma and Quebec, where similarly structured co-ops are grossing over $2M/year. It is notable that the group currently has producers on a waiting list, as they can only accommodate a few producers in each category (e.g. beef) until the customer base grows. The EOLFC is also currently seeking grant money to help establish a commercial kitchen, flash freezer and cold storage.
The group is keenly aware that stronger public awareness about the availability and nutritional benefits of fresh and local food is crucial for local food networks to be effective and continue to grow.
Finally, interviewees pointed out that governments can support local food networks in several ways: First by helping to get local food into public institutions and schools; Second, by offering more funding to small producers (to help them establish greenhouses for season extension, for example) and to farmers’ markets; Third, by not shutting down small abattoirs. As Martinez noted, “they (government) are shutting down the abattoirs and they’re creating laws and regulations so the small to medium farmer can’t be one anymore.”
Constraints and overcoming them
Barriers to building effective local food networks include lack of co-operation among local food initiatives and financial constraints (i.e. advertising and start-up costs). Martinez has also sensed competition and some level of secrecy from other food initiatives and thus makes a point of being open and as helpful as possible to other initiatives that are trying to get started up.
It is difficult to judge the overall success of the EOLFC at this early stage, but they appear to be actively working to meet all of the key aims included in their mandate with regards to supplying more sustainably produced local food, building the local farm economy, creating internship opportunities, and through all of this helping to “establish the security and sovereignty of local food in Eastern Ontario”. A key part of their success to date appears to be the sense of community that the group has created among producers in the region by coming together at the co-op every week throughout the year.
One of the next items on the expansion agenda of the EOLFC is the commercial kitchen. Whether or not this will be successful at this particular stage is something that the EOLFC will have to carefully consider by looking at other projects and by preparing a suitable feasibility study.
Relevance to other projects
The EOLFC is working with a model that has clearly proven successful in other regions, and that model is likely to be relevant to many other local food projects across Ontario. Because the EOLFC is a producer co-op, with all the producers sharing the same interest in building market share for their own food products, and with quite a simple distribution model (weekly deliveries year round) it was able to get started up quite quickly. The rapidity with which the EOLFC was able to get going with relatively few resources is notable for other groups trying to strengthen local food networks in their own communities.