CED , 2015
Jennifer Zickerman graduated from the SFU Community Economic Development Program in 2015. Jennifer came into the program with a culinary herb business called Field to Fork Herbs, started in 2012. Now she runs Field to Fork Herbs as a sideline and spends most of her time on a new venture, the Lower Mainland Herb Growers Co-op, a business she developed in the CED program. Jennifer pitched her co-operative business idea in our annual Social Innovation Challenge, winning $12,000, and now her pitch is becoming a reality.
The Lower Mainland Herb Growers Co-operative offers economy of scale to local small growers growing culinary herbs. The co-op will buy fresh herbs from local growers, then dry, package into culinary herb blends, and distribute them to retail stores.
The co-op's high quality products aim to replace the poor quality dried herbs found in most retail stores that are imported from countries with poor environmental and labour standards. Local farmers will have a new market for a crop that grows well in this climate and requires few artificial supports such as fertilizer, pesticides and greenhouses.
Jennifer’s first business, Field to Fork Herbs, gave her the background to get into this. She was growing culinary herbs and selling fresh herbs and dry herb blends at farmers markets. So she had a sense of the growing and processing techniques and also a sense of the customer demand.
People are really excited about locally grown products right now. With the co-op, they are not trying to compete on price with the big bulk importers. Instead, they are offering a premium product. Their marketing plan promotes the idea that buying their herbs blends directly supports local farmers. Also, almost everything that is in the grocery store has been imported from out-of-country and is old and stale. Freshly-dried herbs are tremendously more flavourful.
The co-operative model has tremendous potential as a community economic development tool. As Jennifer learned in the CED program, it can be really hard to access capital for small local projects even if they can be shown to have really wide reaching potential benefits. The co-op model provides a mechanism where you can spread out your capital gathering activities. The co-op, as an entity, is a more appealing and accessible to small local investors, and has greater social capital as it builds a community around itself.
The SFU CED program helped flesh out her understanding of the flaws with their current economic models in terms of the economic, environmental and social impacts they have on their communities. It made Jennifer realize that many people are seeking alternatives to their current corporate capitalist model and gave her tools for starting a project that moves away from that model.
And then there was the Social Innovation Challenge. Jennifer was awarded $12,000 in start-up funding for the Lower Mainland Herb Growers Co-op. That was a huge motivator to move forward with it - not the money, but the process. The money helps of course, but it is kind of symbolic. The experience of going through the Social Innovation Challenge gave her a lot of confidence in her idea.
In the next year, Jennifer want to see the co-op up and running successfully, with a bunch of members and a working processing and retail distribution model.
Bigger picture, Jennifer’s goal is to see the Lower Mainland Herb Growers Co-op become a model for other community economic development projects. A lot of people are thinking about that right now, thinking in terms of food hubs and direct distribution to restaurants and food services and other ways to help local farmers reach economies of scale.
-Written by the SFU Certificate Program for Community Economic Development
Published September 2016