In person interview and site visit August 19, 2011, Lee-Ann Chevrette
* Not-for-profit focused on community economic development for women
* Produce vegetables and tree seedlings in their greenhouses
* Sponsor food basket program
* Six full-time and up to 25 part-time employees
La Maison Verte (LMV) is a not-for-profit organization that was started in 1982 by l’Association Parmis-Elles, a women’s group located in Hearst, Ontario with the mandate to create financial opportunities and promote well-being for women in the area. In 1981 the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources advertised to potential tree growers a five-year black spruce seedling contract. The Association was looking to invest in a project with greenhouses and, together with private funding, they created what was the beginning of LMV. Seventy local investors established the greenhouses with some help from government funding. Michelle Lamy was involved in the project for 29 years; she retired in July, 2011, and was replaced by Manon Cyr who has taken on the role of General Manager.
Initially LMC was contracted by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources to grow 2 million seedlings. In 1988 and 1991 contracts with forest companies increase production to 6 million seedlings. Since then production has gradually increased to about 9 million seedlings annually. Over the years LMV has contributed significantly to the regional economy and has created jobs for the community.
LMV has a 12 million tree capacity. They have had two main clients since they began their operations: Hearst Forest Management, and Nagagami Forest Management. As a result of the sharp downturn in the forest industry in the 1990s, LMV lost 80% of its seedling business. Consequently, they recognized the need to diversify their operations.
In 1994 they started to produce tomatoes in the greenhouses. In 2009 they began to grow cucumbers. The tomatoes and cucumbers are started in December and are available for sale between April and October. They plant 2000 beefsteak tomatoes plants, 1000 cherry tomatoes plants, and 200 cucumber plants. These tomatoes and cucumbers are distributed both locally and regionally. Locally, they are sold to individual community members and local businesses, including grocery stores and restaurants. They are also distributed to numerous grocery stores in communities across the northeastern Ontario region. In order to do so, they were required to have their product barcoded, which they did in 2010.
LMV has a partnership with the local youth group who buys their green tomatoes at the end of every growing season; they make green tomato relish, and sell it as a fundraiser.
In 2011 LMV started a local food basket program. It is similar to community supported agriculture (CSA), in that individuals purchase a share/weekly basket in advance. Thirty-two people purchased shares in 2011, and received 15 weekly baskets over the course of the growing season. LMV is planning to increase the shares to 50 in 2012. Any extra produce that is grown is brought to the weekly farmers market. They are also exploring developing a multi-producer CSA, of which they can be one producer.
The original impetus for the initiative was job creation and profitability. Over time, additional objectives have been included in the initiative. These include increasing community resilience through local food production, community building, and education. LMV is exploring partnerships with the local Health Unit to get local food baskets to young families, single mothers, and other individuals who may be marginalized economically.
LMF has an eight-member Board of Directors. They currently have six full-time employees and hire approximately 20 part-time/seasonal employees from April to June. The majority of their full-time employees have been working there for between 15 to 25 years. The majority of the employees are women. They also have numerous volunteers who work for several hours each morning. Their employees and volunteers are very committed, and have been instrumental to the success of the initiative.
LMV owns numerous greenhouses. The majority of these greenhouses are allocated to seedling growth. One greenhouse is allocated to tomato and cucumber production. One greenhouse is allocated to growing the vegetables for the local food basket. The layout for the LMV site is shown in Figure 1. LMV owns three Gators (6-wheelers), and two forklifts. They also have a store which is the for-profit center in the place where they sell tomatoes, cucumbers, garden supplies, bedding plants, herbs, shrubs, trees, and giftware.
Over the years, LMV has received external funding for the development of the initiative. The greenhouse operations are not-for-profit. If the greenhouses generate a profit, there is a formula for redistribution of this profit to its employees.
LMV’s gift store is a for-profit center.
LMV applies for external funding to initiate different projects. In 2009, they were awarded $50,000 to conduct a research and development project on reclamation with willow.
In 2011, LMV received $2810 from Nord-Aski, a regional Economic Development Corporation that promotes economic growth in northeastern Ontario municipalities. These funds were used to develop and promote LMV’s newly established local food basket initiative.
LMC is currently in discussions to receive 50% funding from NOHFC for a geothermal project.
LMV is a non-for-profit initiative that is run by L’Association Parmis-Elles. They have numerous informal partnerships within the community including restaurants, local businesses, and a youth group.
The greatest challenge has been the loss of 80% of their business due to the downturn in the forestry sector. They have overcome this by diversifying their operations and moving into growing food.
Transportation and distribution are significant challenges due to the nature of the geographic location of the communities and the large distances between neighbouring communities. Currently, local businesses work independently but Manon sees a need for greater efforts to cooperate, and pool resources, so that transportation and distribution systems may be improved. Manon is interested in exploring a distribution/delivery system along the transportation corridor that could be shared among businesses in the northeastern Ontario region.
Other challenges include the “one-size-fits-all” approach to government regulations and policy relating to food production. Manon feels there are unrealistic expectations on small, local producers who do not have the same resources available to them as do large scale producers. Manon feels that the policies that affect them do not necessarily reflect the reality of what is happening on the ground.
For example, for their safety policies, LMV is expected to meet all of the requirements that large corporations are expected to meet, but with only a fraction of the budget. Although safety is a very high priority, they simply do not have the same resources available to develop their internal policies, rules, and procedures. They feel that the rules and regulations are prohibitive, and deter a lot of people from starting their own small business practices. For example, in the larger stores such as Walmart, binders that include all of the health and safety and other policies, including training manuals, come with the store. For smaller operations, the responsibility is on the business person to develop the necessary policies to meet higher level requirements.
There is a significant loss of expertise when old farmers retire, because this knowledge stays with them rather than being passed down to younger generations, as has been traditionally done for many generations. However, younger generations are generally not interested in taking over their parents/grandparents’ farms, as they do not feel that farming is a viable career. Consequently we are experiencing the loss of local food producers.
In order to get into the mainstream market, LMV had to research and invest in a barcode system for their packaging/products. They recognized this as a necessary investment, which enabled them to move into that market and distribute to local and regional grocery outlets.
Another constraint is the seasonality of their food production operation, and the highly perishable nature of their products.
Their greatest success lies in the fact that in 2012, they will be celebrating their 30th year in business. Although the organization has seen many changes over the last 30 years, it has demonstrated its ability to adapt to a fluctuating and declining forest sector and to diversify its operations in order to survive. This diversification has enabled the operation to maintain all of its six full-time jobs, as well as its 20-25 seasonal jobs. These individuals have been able to remain in their home community and raise their families there.
LMV was awarded a new seedling contract this year for Tembec.
LMV has ongoing community support, and tremendously dedicated staff and volunteers. They recently celebrated the retirement of Michelle Lamy, who has been with the project since its very beginning (29 years).
In August 2011 LMV was on the front cover of Northern Ontario Business magazine.
The new barcoding system for their packaging/products has enabled them to move their products into the mainstream market.
LMV was awarded “Prix Phénix – Nord de l’Ontario” in 2002.
LMV is unique in many ways. It is owned by a not-for-profit women’s Association whose objective since the early 1980s has been to set up business ventures that create jobs for women.
Hearst is an isolated rural northern Ontario community with few employment opportunities for its local residents. LMV has provided six full-time and 20-25 seasonal jobs for last 29 years. Despite an 80% loss in their seedling business as a result of the downturn in the forest industry, LMV was able to diversify their operations and maintain all of these jobs.
They are also unique in the ways in which they have diversified their operations. Given the fact that they had the infrastructure, it was relatively easy for LMV to move into local food production. They have abundant capacity to increase local food production and to explore the development/growth of additional crops.
LMV has demonstrated its ability to adapt to changing economic conditions, identify opportunities and needs, and diversify their operations in order to capitalize on these opportunities and meet these needs. It demonstrates that there is a need to ‘change with the times’ in order to maintain viability; it is necessary to be able to adapt and diversify. They have demonstrated how a small, remote northern community may create and maintain a successful business that creates long-term jobs for its community members, while creating products that are safe and healthy for its local residents and regional neighbors.