Farsighted ‘foodies’ look into co operative organic farming

Wild Blue Yonder needed a fix. The company’s proprietors, Garrett Gillespie and Heidi Marion, were going broke on a 90-hectare farm near…

Wild Blue Yonder needed a fix.

The company’s proprietors, Garrett Gillespie and Heidi Marion, were going broke on a 90-hectare farm near Tagish that they bought in March 2005.

Their principles of organic farming were compromised by the soil fertility on their new plot of land.

They lost their entire 2005 harvest, jeopardizing dozens of individual customers signed on to their community-supported agriculture program and corporate clients such as the Alpine Bakery in Whitehorse as well.

The couple thought they had a fighting chance during the 2006 growing season.

Then the caterpillars came. And what the bugs didn’t eat, the geese took.

In August, Gillespie and Marion put their farm, with an estimated worth of $670,000, up for sale.

“We’re cutting our losses and inviting change,” Gillespie said at the time.

Then Gillespie went to a sustainable farming seminar in Vancouver and came back with a refined version of an idea he and Marion had been toying with for some time.

This week, the couple is launching a corporate venture that’s never been tried before in the Yukon: co-operative farming.

“The biggest obstacle to farming is debt,” Gillespie said in an interview Tuesday, the morning after hosting a come-one-come-all meeting at the Whitehorse Public Library that drew about 35 people interested in organic farming and food security.

“We’re forming a limited liability co-operative, like a business corporation, using member share capital to come up with the cash needed to buy the farm and also to make some capital improvements,” said Gillespie.

“The fundamental reason for it is to make the farmland affordable for farmers and to keep it in production.

“That’s the basic premise of the whole thing.”

Gillespie conceded the proposal is not a purely capitalist venture.

Instead of cash dividends, shareholders will receive food security.

There are problems with the mainstream corporate food chain that most people in North America rely upon, said Gillespie.

With world oil prices creeping upward as supplies dwindle, trucking the majority of food Yukoners eat into the territory is going to become increasingly expensive, he said.

“People are becoming more and more aware of the effects of climate change on food production and everything else.

“There are threats of pandemic, you name it.

“It would all have a pretty profound impact on where our food comes from.”

The co-operative model will protect organic farmland in perpetuity.

“The benefits are not going to be the sort of thing that are going to attract people who want to make a lot of money out of this,” said Gillespie.

“Members get preferential access to the goods and services coming from the farm.

“That means food.”

The yet-to-be-named co-operative will consist of 180 shares each worth $5,000.

Once enough shareholders sign up, and pay up, Wild Blue Yonder will sell the land to the co-operative and become tenants, just like everyone else.

“Ninety shares should be enough to trigger a sale,” said Gillespie.

Shareholders will have the opportunity to farm the land if they wish.

It won’t be a commune, where tenants work side-by-side and share meals, said Gillespie.

“Everyone will have their own living space.”

But shareholders will share some farming duties and equipment, if they choose, he said.

The next step is to make the co-operative into a legal corporate entity with the corporate registry in Whitehorse, so it can sell shares and qualify for a small business income tax credit offered through the Yukon department of Economic Development.

Thirteen Yukoners have already opened their wallets and are waiting for the opportunity to buy 40 shares, said Gillespie.

Peter Coates is one of them.

“I’m not a foody,” Coates insisted Tuesday, meaning that he is not devoted to a strict organic regimen, although he admitted to being conscious about what he puts in his body.

Food security is a greater concern for Coates — enough so that he has committed a $45,000 investment to Wild Blue Yonder’s proposal.

“They are one of the largest farming ventures in the community, and certainly the only large one that is vested in sustainable agriculture,” said Coates, a Whitehorse-based software engineer who works for a California firm.

“I like their organic vegetables and I like their grass-fed beef, but that really isn’t what it’s about.

“We are at the end of a long and complex food supply chain. Everything comes up the Alaska Highway.

“Food security is premised on the availability of cheap oil and the permission to burn it freely.

“That’s a good assumption; it has worked for 100 years. But it is not one I think we can sensibly bet on more than about 10 years in the future.

“Unless we want to be back to an economy where we shoot moose and eat berries out of the forest, we had better have local agriculture for our own security.

“Food isn’t going to vanish; trucks aren’t going to stop coming up the highway.

“It’s just going to be less secure.”

Mary-El Kerr, on the other hand, is what Coates might call a “foody.”

The well-known proprietor of Mary-El Kerr Fine Food and Catering had just returned from a chef’s summit in Turin, Italy, when she caught rumour of Gillespie and Marion’s proposal.

She committed to buy one $5,000 share right away.

“What’s my other option, importing from California or BC or wherever?” said Kerr.

“The only return on investment that I expect to have is the food security.”

What Gillespie and Marion are proposing is an essential component of the slow food movement, she said.

“It’s my way that I can ensure good, clean and safe food for the future.

“By supporting that venture, I can basically guarantee that I will have a source, locally, of organic food.”

Gillespie is hoping enough prospective investors will come forward at the co-operative’s inaugural general meeting early in 2007 to make the project fly.

Control over who does what to the land shouldn’t be a problem, he said.

Anyone interested in investing will have to do the research to decide if the strict organic practices that will be applied to farming the co-operative’s land are acceptable.

There will be no pesticides, no genetically modified material and no chemical fertilizers,

A three-member interim board of directors will be created until a board can be elected at the first annual general meeting.

Then, the shareholders will shape the co-operative to fit their needs.

“I have a decent salary, and I can afford to do this,” said Coates.

“My wife agrees with me that this is either the most stupid thing I can do with my money or the best thing I can do with my money.

“I think I’m crazy like a fox on this. What I’m investing in is, ‘The rest of you poor bastards can starve, I’m going to the front of the line with the farmers.’

“I have taken a gamble on the future of the Yukon.”