Communal Beat

Merville Organics Growers’ Co-op

Merville Organics Growers’ Co-op

Collaboration, Celebration, Revolution!
By Farmer Moss Dance, Ripple Farm

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Three years ago, some Richmond farmer friends of mine introduced me to Arzeena Hamir. When we first met at the Zocalo Cafe, Arzeena, her husband Neil and their two kids were just moving to the Comox Valley from Richmond to start Amara Farm. I had just finished my first year of running a small CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) box program at Ripple Farm in Merville.

I was excited to meet Arzeena – our mutual friends told me about her amazing work in agriculture and community organizing. I was not disappointed! Within one hour of meeting for the first time, we had decided to work together to market and distribute our produce together.

 And that’s how Merville Organics was born. It was a magical meeting of like-minded people at the right place and the right time.

Why Collaborate?

Collaboration is good for farmers. It’s my philosophy that we never need to compete at all. Everyone needs to eat – so the demand for our products is always there.

But it’s no secret that farming is a tough profession. The challenge for the Comox Valley, and most other communities across Canada is to attract and retain younger farmers. Most of the fresh produce consumed by our community comes from California, where droughts are devastating farms. When scarcity drives food prices in the grocery store up, there will be a higher demand for year-round, locally produced food.

This means there will be more opportunity for new farmers in our community, but getting into farming is risky business and very difficult for most young people. New farmers have to face start-up costs, land access issues and housing challenges before they even get to the learning curve of running a business, fending off pests and deciphering soil tests!

Growers’ co-ops are a great way for new farmers to get started – they offer secure markets, and built in social support and mentoring. Co-ops mean lower start up and operational costs for individual farms through bulk buying and resource sharing. And, joining a growers’ co-op means you might get a Saturday off in the summer because someone else can take your produce to market! We collaborate to improve the quality of our lives as farmers, and because it makes sense on a business level.

Merville Organics: The Early Years

For the first two years, we hauled our produce to the farmers’ market and CSA pick up stations, hosted farm intern workshops, celebrated each other’s successes and commiserated about our failures. When slugs eat 60% of your baby bok choi crop, it sure is good to have someone to talk to!

We grew some great produce, made a lot of mistakes, and discovered the gifts and shortcomings of our land. Arzeena & Neil quickly got a sense of the extent of the wireworm problem at Amara Farm. Wireworms are an invasive species, the larvae of click beetles who love to eat potatoes and lettuce. Creative thinking lead them to start selling wireworms to laboratories for research!

I had a few problems myself. I often cried in frustration as I watched my “bonsai vegetables” grow – last year I finally figured out I have a major phosphorous deficiency. A problem easily solved with the correct organic soil amendments.

Despite the many challenges, Merville Organics continued to grow. We were lucky to find a base of faithful eaters who invested in CSA shares with us and came to our table at the market every week. In our second year, we built infrastructure, brought more food to market than we thought possible and started to feel like we knew what we were doing!

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Last fall, two of the Amara Farm apprentices, Calliope and Russell, announced they were going to lease land in Royston to start Umbella Farm. Then our friends Kira & Ingemar bought Cloverdalen Farm in North Courtenay. Finally, our friend Robin of Edible Earth Seeds in Glenora asked about moving her farm operation, Green Arrow Farm, to the Comox Valley. All of a sudden, we had enough people to start a real growers’ co-op!

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The Germination of a Grower’s Co-op

Starting a co-op is like creating a culture. Or maybe it’s like growing a garden. It’s been a time of expansion and excitement as we plan out our crops, purchase seeds and inputs, develop record-keeping systems and watch the CSA share sign-ups roll in!

My favourite part of “co-operatizing” is the way I see this new entity supporting the new farmers in our midst. We are so proud and excited for our interns who are starting their own farm! And excited to welcome new farmers to the Comox Valley. The way the co-op structure enables us to share resources, knowledge and support is our antidote to all the bad news in the world.

This is what we can do – support our organic farmer members to market and distribute high quality farm products to our community.

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Organic or Bust!

Over the next few years, our collective challenge is to achieve organic certification for our farms. Amara and Ripple Farms are already well on their way, hoping for organic status to be granted between 2015-2016. We are excited to support our new farmers in bringing their farm operations into the certified organic program.

Why organic? It’s increasingly important to our eaters that our farming practices are verified by a third party. Besides, we value and agree with certified organic regulations, so we want to be a part of the BC-wide community of organic farmers. Sure, sometimes it means we have to jump through an extra hoop, or pay a bit more for seeds or inputs. But in the end, it means we can offer our community clean food, peace of mind and practice farming in a transparent manner.

Find out more about organic certification at: www.certifiedorganic.bc.ca

Tool Lending Library

Merville Organics is working with the Vancouver Island Organic Collective to start a tool library with high quality tools for small-scale farming. The tool library will offer a low-cost membership and affordable rental rates for members. Joining the tool library will be a great way for new farmers to avoid buying expensive equipment in their early years when funds are scarce. Tools in the library will be geared towards intensive, small-scale, organic food production.

Interested in donating equipment or sponsoring the tool lending library? Drop us a line at mervilleorganics@gmail.com.

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How to Eat Our Food

Think you might want to join our CSA* program? We offer a weekly share of fresh, in-season produce from our five farms for 14 weeks throughout the summer and fall. Find out more about our CSA program at: www.mervilleorganics.ca.

Or, you can visit us at the Comox Valley Farmers’ Market every Saturday year round, and every Wednesday in July/August!

Editor’s Note: What is a CSA?

A CSA is a local, farm-based distribution system for organic produce. It’s all about increasing community access to high-quality, locally grown produce, but it’s also about farmer-eater relationships. CSA members pledge to support local farms, with growers and consumers sharing the risks and benefits of food production. CSA members or subscribers purchase shares in the spring for a share of the anticipated harvest. Once harvesting begins, from July to September, members receive weekly shares of fresh, in-season produce from the farms.

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