Co op frees farmers from marketing headaches

Growing food isn't easy in the Yukon, but selling it can be even harder. The Potluck Food Co-op is hoping to change that. The goal of the organization is to connect Yukon farmers with local consumers.

Growing food isn’t easy in the Yukon, but selling it can be even harder.

The Potluck Food Co-op is hoping to change that.

The goal of the organization is to connect Yukon farmers with local consumers and help grow the territory’s agricultural sector.

“Farmers want to get out of the marketing,” said Ruth Lera, who helped start the co-op in 2009. “They want to be able to be farmers, do their farming and let the retailers do the marketing.

“One of the gaps in the local agricultural scene at the moment is a reliable retailer.”

A passionate advocate for local agriculture, Lera was motivated to start the co-op after several disappointing trips to the grocery store.

“The Potluck Food Co-op has been a perfect project for me because it is working towards having the food I want for my family,” she said. “It comes out of my own frustration, going to the grocery store and having nothing I want to buy there. It’s not where I want to spend my food dollars and not the kind of food I want to put in my body.”

Three years ago, Lera put an ad in the newspaper calling on like-minded foodies. Ten people showed up for that initial meeting and the Potluck Food Co-op was born.

They applied for grants, created a business plan and carried out a feasibility study.

There are now 90 members and five farmers signed up, but more of both are needed.

This Saturday, the Potluck Food Co-op is holding a membership drive at the Fall Market Day at the Old Firehall.

The hope is to raise $120,000 by December and have their first sales by April of next year.

“That would give us the money we know we need to make it through the first year,” said Lera.

It costs $250 to buy a membership in the co-op, but it’s a one-time fee that makes you a part owner of the business.

“It’s a co-op. You’re not at the mercy of a business owner. We as a community own the business,” said Lera. “You have a chance to put in your input about what you think is working and what products you want to see.”

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Every two weeks, members will be able to place an order online for meat, produce and dry goods.

With the Yukon’s short growing season and small agricultural community, it will be impossible to source everything locally, but the co-op is going to do what it can, said Lera.

“It’ll be a hierarchy,” she said. “We’ll source local organic first, number two local sustainable, number three local conventional and B.C. organic.

“If we can’t find those products there, then we start going Alberta, Saskatchewan, western U.S. and Mexico. It will really come down to what the demand is from the members.”

And that will give local farmers a better picture of what kind of crops they should be growing.

“Carrots are a great example,” she said. “In the first year, say we have to bring in B.C. carrots but we’ll keep a database of how many carrots we bring in, then the next year we can say we know that we can sell this many carrots.”

“Just our existence will make it able for local farmers to grow more food.”

Farmers seem to agree.

The co-op is a great idea, said Cain Vangel who raises chickens and turkeys.

Right now Vangel only sells his poultry directly from his farm. To sell to the co-op, or anywhere else, he needs to have his birds inspected, which would take a sizable investment.

“For an inspector to come out there’s all kinds of regulations that come into play,” he said. “You have to have a waste-disposal permit for the feathers, you’ve got to have an engineer sign off on your water system and build a building.”

Having a demonstrated market demand would go a long way to justify making such a large and potentially risky investment, he said.

“It’s really a chicken and an egg type thing,” said Brian Lendrum, who grows vegetables and makes goat cheese near Lake Laberge. “You’ve got to have the market in place, but the market only gets in place when they see that you have product that you can provide for them.

“If the co-op sort of steps up and says, ‘Here we are. We are a market and if your price is right we will buy from you,’ then boy oh boy, that’s a great incentive for farmers to ramp up production.”

Once the co-op gets past the first year, Lera hops to expand to make it more accessible to the broader community.

“Not everyone can afford $250,” she said.

The idea is to allow low-income members to make staggered payments or trade volunteer hours for membership fees.

Given the response she’s had so far, Lera is very optimistic about the co-op’s prospects.

“I think people are very knowledgeable about the environmental impact of food, and I think that people understand that in terms of food security we’re really vulnerable here in terms of how far we are and that we’re at the mercy of some quite big multinational corporations,” she said. “I think, in the spring, when we had the road washouts and food wasn’t able to come, people really felt the vulnerability of that situation. The co-op is the exact opposite of that. This is us as a community owning our food system.”

Contact Josh Kerr at

joshk@yukon-news.com

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