Business Mentorship – Lessons Learned: Merville Organic Growers’ Co-op

Posted by Kristen Nammour on December 10, 2016

Merville Organics - Robin Market

1. Name, Farm, Location?
Arzeena Hamir & Neil Turner (Amara Farm), Moss Dance, Russell Heitzmann & Robin Sturley (Ripple Farm), Kira Kotilla (Kloverdalen Farm) and Calliope Gazetas. Together we are Merville Organic Grower Co-op, in Courtenay, BC.

2. What were your goals for this season and how did you work to achieve those?
Our first year working together as a co-op was very exciting and we made a lot of progress. We all run our own farms as well so there were still plenty of important things that we just didn’t have time to work on in our first year. For 2016 our goals were reviewing our 2015 financials, developing budgets for 2016, re-evaluating our percentage of co-op revenue on sales, and researching ways to grow and improve our CSA program.

We’re interested in bringing new members into the co-op, so we also wanted to develop job descriptions, get a better idea of how many hours these jobs take, and determine which jobs we can realistically out-source. Looking ahead, we’re working to define goals for our long-term growth as a co-op.

3. Did you meet your goals?
Yes, it is working out thanks to the awesome guidance we have received (and continue to receive) from our business mentor! We met our goals around financial review and planning (a big step in that direction was hiring a professional bookkeeper), and we have made decisions around expanding our CSA and bringing in new grower-members. We set aside some mentorship hours so we could have a few more ‘check-ins’ over the course of the season.

4. What were your most profitable avenues of sales?
Our Summer CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program is our best market. Some of the reasons we love this model are: we get to crop plan based on pre-sold shares, we get paid at the beginning of the season, and so far there is plenty of room for growth. This year we sold 90 shares and we have a 30-person wait list.

Merville Organics Cabbage

5. What is your unique value proposition in your market? Why buy from you?
As a grower-member co-op we can provide more quantity and variety than a single small-scale farmer, yet we still provide high quality produce by small-scale growers. Co-ops are a great way to support new growers too, so when people support our co-op they are ultimately supporting the growth of local organic farming in the Comox Valley. We’re also a Certified Organic co-op, so all of our members are either Certified Organic or Transitional to Organic.

6. How did the mentorship impact your business?
The mentorship has really helped us to focus in on our priorities. Growing a business takes a lot of work and a lot of juggling, especially with so many people involved! Our mentor’s guidance has given us the confidence to focus in on the most important tasks for growing our co-op, and helped us to navigate making a five-year plan. All the details can be overwhelming so it is really helpful to have advice on what to put energy into and what to leave for a later time, or what to hire others to do for us.

7. What business skills have you gained through the mentorship? 
The mentorship has helped us to hone our business planning and decision-making skills. With the benefit of our mentor’s perspective and experience we made some important decisions about what jobs to hire others to do and where our time and expertise were best applied. We have also gained some financial planning skills so we can make realistic financial goals and projections.

Merville Organics Cooperative

8. What was the most important information you gained from your mentor?
The most important information we gained was probably that our CSA program is the most important element of our business model. Our mentor helped us to see that our CSA is the backbone of the co-op, so we should prioritize those customers.

9. Overall, how are you feeling about your farm business this season?
We’ve had some challenges come up, in particular a couple of our founding members not being able to continue farming. At first those challenges seemed like a big blow to our small group. But we also realized how committed we all are to the co-op’s success so we are all feeling more positive about the season now.

10. Did you learn any lessons the hard way?
Yes: don’t attempt to do your own bookkeeping, unless you have some proven bookkeeping skills! We struggled with keeping our books in good order in our first year, and ended paying about as much to get them sorted out as we would have to get them done properly in the first place. Lesson learned!

11. Do you have any big plans for future growth?
Yes. Our goal is to provide a primary market for at least 6 small-scale veggie farmers and supply the north island from Nanaimo to Campbell River.

12. Did anything silly happen on your farm this season?
It’s always silly when there are just as many laptops as farmers at our co-op meetings. Farmer LAN party, anyone?

13. What are you most looking forward to this winter? Planning for next year, obviously!

Merville Organics Cooperative

2015-16 Funding for the Young Agrarians Business Mentorship Network Pilot is provided in part by Salt Spring Coffee, Vancity, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the BC Ministry of Agriculture through programs delivered by the Investment Agriculture Foundation of BC.

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