YYC Growers and Distributors is a cooperative of urban and rural vegetable farmers operating out of the Calgary area that sell their products through a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program and also through farmers’ markets. This relatively new organization is using the cooperative governance model to aid their collective strengthening of the regional food system. According to the website (www.yycgrowers.com), their core values are “local, sustainable, soil health, flavour, nutritious, freshness, lower environmental footprint, education, equitable, security, and food democracy”. The following profile is informed by YYC Growers’ president, Kye Kocher.
Operations and organizational structure
Around since 2014, YYC Growers has 18 members: 13 of which are urban and 5 of which are rural. Rural and urban farms are equally important to the organization, and the rural growers are necessary to allow for YYC Growers’ CSA’s to include crops that are typically cost-prohibitive to grow in cities, such as potatoes. The furthest rural producer is 100km away. Growers are diverse geographically, but also diverse with regards to what they produce: with everything from mushrooms grown in an urban warehouse, to Basil produced in an urban aquaponic facility, to honey from a semi-urban producer, to vegetables grown on larger-scale rural farms at Eagle Creek Farms and Country Thyme Farm.
YYC Growers’ main focus is their CSA program. Products from all growers, depending on seasonal availability, are combined into a Community Shared Agriculture Harvest Box that is available for pickup by customers in select locations in Calgary. The options for the Harvest Box include a pilot 25-week CSA starting May 1, or the more typical 16-week CSA starting July 3. The cost of the CSA is $27 per week for the couple share and $44 for the family share. This CSA is unique in that it combines products from multiple producers; typical CSAs are sourced from one farm. Customers pay for the CSA’s either in advance or in installations, which allows YYC growers to do prepayments for its growers, offering “25% of [farmers’] total annual revenue to start upfront”. Due to the tremendous growth YYC Growers has experienced, this is challenging considering larger scale rural producers are now a part of the cooperative. To meet their financial commitments going forward, YYC is in discussions with financial institutions such as Servus Credit Union, to address credit flow at the start of the season. YYC Growers also sell to select restaurants in Calgary, one grocery store, and four farmers’ markets.
Although growers are located across the Calgary city-region, a central depot for storing produce and assembling harvest boxes is necessary. Storage infrastructure for YYC Growers has evolved considerably during the time for which it’s been operational. The first years saw the organization in a garage with a small walk-in cooler that with 70 shares was at capacity. Their current cold storage warehouse was initially acquired from a food home delivery service that needed subtenants in their warehouse. Eventually, that company was absorbed by YYC growers as they grew to more than 550 boxes per week.
Origins of YYC Growers: the journey to a cooperative
Kocher got into farming in 2013 with his urban farm, Hillhurst Microfarms, but the idea of forming a collective of growers didn’t originate until a bit later. It was at the Hillhurst Sunnyside Community Association (HCSA) Farmers’ Market that Kocher shared a table with Dennis Scanland’s Dirt Boys, and over the season, had the opportunity to meet other farmers at the market. These encounters initiated discussions about growers joining forces to cooperate instead of compete. YYC Growers officially launched as a for-profit society on March 11, 2014. This governance structure was selected for the ease of establishment, and also due to the fact that YYC Growers didn’t retain earnings, instead making profit only for the farms. Empowering farmers remains a key focus of the organization today.
On April 28, 2017, YYC Growers officially became a cooperative. Despite this recent transition, Kocher noted that the organization has been functioning very much like a cooperative since it started. The decision to officially become a cooperative was seen as necessary because society members were doing too much voluntary labour, there was a desire for the organization to expand and create paid positions to increase efficiency, and the Canada Revenue Agency was no longer happy supporting YYC Growers’ status as a Society.
Forming a cooperative involved considerable background research into what type of cooperative structure would suit the needs of the organization. One structure they considered was a New-Generation Cooperative, which is a hybrid model: part traditional cooperative and part limited company. In the end, YYC Growers chose a traditional cooperative structure as this proved to be the best fit. YYC Growers hired a lawyer specialised in cooperatives to ensure all requirements were fulfilled, as opposed to a co-op developer. This was due to the lower cost, and that a lawyer would be required in the process anyway for obtaining legal approval.
As YYC Growers adjusts to its new role as a cooperative, with all members now class shareholders, there are a few changes anticipated by Kocher. First, this governance change has made the operation a “more legitimate body” in the eyes of the government, which requires the establishment of contract agreements, which historically, the organization has never had. Second, although previously the board of directors consisted of growers only, new bylaws require that only two thirds of the board are coop members. The organization will continue to hold an annual November retreat to set priorities. At these retreats, farmers are provided with annual growth and revenue figures, and discussions take place about production and revenue targets for the upcoming growing season, as well as the overall trajectory for the organization. Kocher noted that this is a highly iterative process, with the goal of developing a consensus.
Kocher’s position as President of YYC Growers entails a variety of roles, including receiving input from board members, and being the “mouthpiece for the farmer…listen[ing] to find out what they actually want, because it’s their business. And where do they want to put this ship, and then what’s the best idea to do this, and then how do I present this to the public”. Kocher acts as the spokesperson for the farmers, in balance with Dennis Scanland, who in his role as Harvest Box Administrator, is the mouthpiece for the customer.
A food hub for the future: goals, challenges, and opportunities
Looking forward, YYC Growers has a number of short, medium, and long-term goals. In the short term, they aim to do 1000 CSA shares, increase farmers’ market sales, and see their 25-week pilot CSA program become successful. Another short-term priority is the establishment of a business advisory panel with a variety of interests and skills represented.
In the medium and long term, establishing a system of home-based CSA pickup is a key goal. Kocher views this as “the most beautiful, perfect amalgamation of things that we should be doing, in terms of community economic development, grassroots connecting people with the people, and empowering their foods”. These connections are created between YYC growers and the homeowner, “who then connects with their neighbourhood. It forces them to meet their neighbours, it forces [YYC Growers] to still communicate with at least a customer directly. And it builds our network in a lot more meaningful way.” A longer-term goal is to establish some sort of home-delivery system. This might include bringing on meat and dairy producers. To test this out, YYC Growers is planning to do a trial with Winter’s Turkeys, a free-range and organic turkey producer south of Calgary.
YYC Growers has had strong growth and it is anticipated that formalizing as a cooperative structure will facilitate further development, however, local and urban food businesses face a number of challenges. These include municipal governance that does more to inhibit than facilitate urban agriculture, leading to issues of public perception, financial constraints, and overall lack of general education and knowledge about regional food systems.
Kocher feels that businesses like YYC growers are de-legitimized by the city because rather than granting business licenses to the organization, which would legitimize and empower, the cooperative is undermined by being told that they require a permit. This limits the growth of the organization. Instead of creating policies to enable and empower small businesses, governments look at YYC Growers as “a nuisance thing to deal with”, despite the fact that YYC growers is succeeding and making money in a rapidly growing local food industry. This restrictive policy environment also plays into issues of perception. According to Kocher, perception is everything…”in the eyes of the people, you’re not legitimate” if you’re not seen as “monetizing correctly”. Yet due to the limited nature of urban food policy in Calgary, there is strong opportunity for adopting policies that facilitate the development of resilient regional food systems. Kocher noted that policymakers just need to be two steps ahead of what is going on, as opposed to reactionary.
Another challenge facing not only YYC Growers, but local food actors in general, is limited public awareness and understanding of the importance of supporting local producers by changing food purchasing behavior, and advocating for policy changes. This is summarised by Kocher, in that people “don’t understand what food tastes like, they don’t understand that paying more for food that is more nutritious and flavourful makes more sense. People don’t understand that you can grow food here at the level you can, governments don’t understand it either because they’re in the same mindset and they don’t see [urban] farming as gainful employment”. Urban farming also increases opportunities for new entrants into food production, who would otherwise not be able to afford the high cost of farmland, equipment, machinery and other inputs associated with large scale farming.
The general disconnect between consumers and the food they eat is a concern, but Kocher sees the growing interest in locally produced food in Alberta as a huge opportunity for YYC Growers and other local producers. But there is still a need for more wide-reaching education about the food system as a whole, including indigenous food traditions. The key is to empower people through increased knowledge so as to become aware of the immense opportunities that await for strengthening local food systems.