Uranga leads a group of people on a tour of the farm they plan to buy. Photo by Scott Strasser.

Comox Valley group plans large-scale agricultural co-operative

A group of residents want to convert a 56-acre farm into the region’s first agricultural co-operative

An eclectic group of residents has some big plans for a future agriculture project in the Comox Valley.

Cumberland-based engineer Eduardo Uranga and 15 others want to establish the first large-scale agricultural co-operative in the Comox Valley. The group — which includes a goat farmer, a chef, a naturopathic healer and multiple PhD-holders, among others — forms the “production group” behind the Community Created Agriculture Co-operative (CCAC).

(An agricultural co-operative is a farm in which farmers pool their capital and their resources in certain areas of activity).

Uranga said the CCAC’s goal is to promote sustainable farming practices in the Comox Valley. The group plans to buy a 56-acre plot of land located behind the Wal-Mart in Courtenay for $1.35 million and convert it into a co-op.

According to Uranga, the co-op would provide organic, glyphosate-free food, as well as other products, to 300 people.

“This idea is really nurtured by the fact that we would like to have that kind of food for us in the Valley, which is virtually impossible with food coming from the prairies, the U.S. or Mexico,” said Uranga. “One of the top concerns is being able to find food that is glyphosate-free.”

Glyphosate is a herbicide commonly used to kill weeds that infect crops.

Another reason for the CCAC, says Uranga, is the decline in farmers throughout British Columbia and Canada. He mentioned how the average age of farmers is 57 in B.C., according to Statistics Canada.

Only 6.4 per cent of B.C. farmers are under 40 and 64 per cent are over the age of 55. With the CCAC, the group wants to promote sustainable farming to younger generations.

“We need to use this farm as an incubator. Let people learn how to farm, then go somewhere else and do what they want,” said Uranga.

To finance the agricultural co-operative, Uranga says the CCAC plans to apply for a loan from the federal government through the Canadian Agriculture Loan Act (CALA).

According to the federal government’s website, CALA is a “loan guarantee program designed to increase the availability of loans to farmers and agricultural co-operatives.” Agriculture co-operatives may use a CALA loan to process, distribute, or market their products.

The maximum amount for a CALA loan is $3 million. Uranga says the CCAC plans to apply for the maximum.

“A farmer can request a loan from a bank and after the down payment is paid for, the bank can ask the Canadian government to guarantee 90 per cent of potential loss to the lending institution,” Uranga explained. “In other words, the bank can register the loan with Agriculture Canada and a guarantee will be made by the government, not the farmer.”

The farm is located on Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) land and includes 40 acres of crop land and 16 acres of wooded area.

The CCAC has set up a crowd-funding page to raise money for the down payment on the $1.35-million farm. They want to raise $300,000 by having 300 people pay $1,000 each. Those who pay the $1,000 would receive $100 per year of produce from the co-operative, for life.

Uranga said despite a highly ambitious target, some people have already expressed support for the initiative.

“A lot of my friends have shown interest in doing this,” he said. “I’ve been talking about doing this forever. There are already quite a few people interested in supporting it.”

Uranga said the co-operative would operate by Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) principles, meaning people would pay in advance for a pre-specified amount of food and their money would fund the production costs.

He insists the CCAC’s steering community has done its homework. The group has secured a purchase agreement with the land-owner of the farm, met with a consultant from the B.C. Cooperative Association and reached out to the provincial and federal governments.

“The feedback I’ve gotten from the majority of people who know about this [is that] it’s a great idea and the time for this has come,” said Uranga. “This is what’s needed in our culture.”

Though they haven’t heard back from provincial Minister of Agriculture Lana Popham, the CCAC has received a letter of support from the office of federal Minister of Agriculture Lawrence MacAuley

“Your email reflects serious consideration of a wide range of topics, including food security, health, environmental concerns, young farmers, use of agricultural land and the management of a food-related organization,” reads a portion of MacAuley’s letter. “I also note that long-term thinking is evident in many ways, including in your environmental considerations.”

Uranga says those interested in contacting him about the project can call him at 250-898-4874. To see the group’s crowdfunding page, visit http://bit.ly/2vGTemB

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