Robin Sturley is part of the new face of farming in our region. She started farming because she wanted to build her “hands-on skill set.” As a member of Merville Organics, she’s finding plenty of opportunities to build this skill set.
“I’ve always loved food and cooking. I’ve always appreciated “artisan food,” food crafted by people who care about what they’re growing, what they’re preparing. I wanted to experience this.”
Robin arrived in the Comox Valley in 2015. She says it was Merville Organics that brought her here. “I saw an opportunity, and I took it. I love to work with the other members of the cooperative. I had no idea how this opportunity would blossom!”
Merville Organics is a farmer-owned and run marketing cooperative that includes five Comox Valley farms. As Robin explains, “Farming is hard work. Working as a cooperative really makes our lives better.”
Working as a cooperative also allows the farmers to collaborate more effectively. “That’s important, because four of us are new farmers. We learn from each other, and we support each other.” Arzeena Hamir, another member of Merville Organics, also stresses that each farm has its soil strengths and personal passions. Some members are good at growing potatoes, while others are less interested, or have pest issues, like wireworm.
One of the persistent issues in our local food economy is that of scale. How can small producers generate enough produce to meet the demands of larger buyers – restaurants, grocery stores, institutions. Working as a cooperative helps.
“That was a big part of deciding to work together,” Robin says. On our own we couldn’t service larger clients, or reach larger markets. Working together allows us to achieve economies of scale and service larger and more distant markets.” For example, Merville Organics currently services restaurants in Tofino and Ucluelet, and they’re interested in working with restaurants and grocers in Victoria and Nanaimo.
Another important part of the Merville Organics business model is their CSA program. Customers buy a share at the beginning of the season, providing cash flow for farmers when they need it in the Spring, when they’re purchasing seed, planting, and setting up. The Merville Organics Summer CSA provides customers with 15 weeks of vegetable boxes. They’ve seen 50% growth over 2015, with 90 shares already sold out and a growing wait list. In 2015 they also did a pilot Fall crop CSA. Robin explains that “CSA customers get first pick, the best of what’s on our farms. People really like it, and so do we. We’ll be looking for ways to expand this.”
Even with sales to the burgeoning restaurant scene on the West coast and a thriving CSA program Robin says the Market remains “a big portion of our yearly sales.” But the Market is more than sales. “It’s a very social place. We get to talk to our customers face to face, to meet new customers. They’re touching and feeling our fresh, organic produce. They’re excited. Overall, the Market is a rewarding experience for all of us.”
As well as growing a wide range of field and greenhouse crops, Merville Organics produces vegetable starts. This year they’re part of Jeremy Kirouac’s The Good Food Project, an innovative service that delivers starts to home gardeners on a monthly basis. But there are more than enough starts to go around. “We’ll be bringing them to market in the early spring,” Robin says, “and on Mother’s Day we hold our annual Spring plant sale.”
Merville Organics was one of the businesses that went “on deck” with the #WeAreYQQ BizOnDeck workshop series last Fall. Their ask, for the entrepreneurs in the room to help them grow their business bigger. Robin says the experience was very positive. “We’re farmers. Farming is a business. We’re also ‘food entrepreneurs.’ It’s very valuable for us to meet and learn from other entrepreneurs.”
The #WeAreYQQ BizOnDeck model focuses on collaboration and sharing of expertise, to help grow our Comox Valley / YQQ economy. For the team at Merville Organics this is a good fit. “You can’t know everything. And working with Team #WeAreYQQ has been a totally positive experience,” Robin says. “It’s about collaboration. We’re a cooperative. Collaboration is what Merville Organics is all about.”
Farmers are an important part of the Comox Valley entrepreneur ecosystem. In the Fall of 2015 the #WeAreYQQ Project applied to Startup Canada to create a Startup Comox Valley chapter. The Comox Valley Farmers’ Market was one of the first regional economic development organizations to sign on as a member. The Comox Valley Farmers’ Market is in the business of incubating food entrepreneurs. Startup Comox Valley and the We Are Comox Valley Project will help create a stronger, more collaborative entrepreneurial ecosystem in our region.
This is part of a series of Comox Valley Farmers’ Market producer profiles sponsored in part by The Comox Valley Project (aka #WeAreYQQ). Buying local food and supporting local farmers is one of the best and most direct ways to grow our Comox Valley economy.
Supporting local food entrepreneurs is one of the best ways to make economic shift happen in our region. That’s what the The Comox Valley Project / #WeAreYQQ is all about: inspiring and supporting Comox Valley (YQQ) entrepreneurs to think and grow BIGger!
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