Farming can be a lonely and difficult occupation, and a group of vegetable producers has found that working together can reduce risk and help to better serve their customers.
The Innisfail Growers, a group of five farms in the Innisfail area, say co-operative marketing can create a successful business.
Leona Staples, who operates “The Jungle Farm” with her children and husband Blaine, has been a member of the Innisfail Growers for several years. Leona and Blaine have been farming since 1996 and their operation currently produces strawberries, pumpkins, zucchini, squash and cucumbers.
All members of the Innisfail Growers grow produce which they market to 20 farmers markets, as far south as Calgary and as far north as Edmonton. The group legally became a co-operative in 1999. “We operate as a co-operative in the sense that it’s one person, one vote and our voting rights are not related to the amount of produce we sell,” Staples says.
All five farm families grow different produce on their operations, and now sell year-round. Each family is responsible for ensuring their produce is picked, packaged, washed, brought to the distribution area, and priced.
Since each farm grows different crops, every farm family can focus on perfecting their growing methods, and still enjoy the benefits of co-operative marketing. That allows customers to purchase a variety of produce at an Innisfail Growers booth.
Each week, all co-operative members are paid 65 per cent of the selling price of the product sold. At the end of the fiscal year, members get a percentage of the shares after all expenses have been paid.
The Innisfail Growers group owns nothing, but buys and leases internally from members.
Staples says the Innisfail Growers have survived and flourished due to effective communication, which is critical to ensure all five farm families know what is happening with the co-operative. The five farm women meet weekly during the summertime to make short-term decisions, examine financial records and discuss markets and their potential. The group continues to meet monthly in the winter to discuss long-term plans.
PUT IT IN WRITING
To avoid complications and potential issues, the Innisfail Growers have a large policy and procedure manual available to everyone. When decisions are made, potential issues are drafted into policy and regulations. Staples says this is a critical component of maintaining good relationships between co-operative members. “Having this set of rules written down before our personal emotions become involved has been really successful for us.”
The co-operative also has an extensive manual to make staff aware of all policies and procedures. “We make sure we have good staff training and a board is set up in our staff area that they can read that tells them what’s happened on our farms so they can relay that to customers,” Staples says. “All these things are really important.”
Staff training is a major investment for the co-op. During training, all staff visit the five farms in order to gain knowledge about the operations, practices and methods. This helps staff to be more accurate when addressing customer questions. The co-op shares staff between the individual farms, which allows for a bigger labour pool.
Members of the five farm families occasionally work markets alongside staff members, so they can interact with both staff and customers.
“Criticisms and comments come back from our customers, so we can improve and be better at what we do,” Staples says. “We miss that link if we’re not there as growers.”
Ensuring high-quality produce has also helped the business of Innisfail Growers. Product is guaranteed, and the co-op gives refunds or exchanges to their customers. Staff members are allowed to use their discretion and have the opportunity to remove produce from the table if it is less than perfect.
Becoming a co-operative allows for group buying and helps take the legal risks away from the individual farms. The model does take a large time commitment and additional time, but Staples says members believe the investment is worth it.