It’s been said that no man is an island; people need people in order to thrive, both within the jungles of the amazon and – in the marketplace? In an effort to help small family farms take on the big leagues, Organic Meadow, a co-operative based in Guelph, Ontario provides the opportunity for Ontario farmers to unite under a single brand in order to “collectively store, process and market” organic dairy products, eggs and grains. The initiative not only helps support local farmers but also encourages people to revert back to farming as it was years ago – chemical free – a concept endorsed by many, including Brad Long, one of Canada’s most acclaimed food personalities and chefs (full interview available here).

In order to better understand the inner workings of Organic Meadow, BizEnergy conducted a Q&A with Project Manager, Jennifer Hyde who gave us the inside scoop on the ups and downs of maintaining a co-operative and the benefits of producing and consuming organic products.

Q: Jennifer, what prompted farmers to form this type of co-op?

A: In 1989, farmers found that they were struggling to produce anything meaningful on an individual scale and realized that, collectively, they had more volume and therefore could benefit from their combined economies of scale. At that time, the term “organic” wasn’t widely known; there were no regulations and people weren’t aware of the differences between conventional and organic products. Today, however, all of our products are certified organic and meet a growing customer demand!

Q: You mentioned the differences between conventional and organic milk. What exactly are the benefits of producing and consuming organic milk?

A: Our farmers chose to go organic because it benefits everyone involved, from farmer to cow, to consumer. As a farmer, the benefit of going organic is that you’re not putting any pesticides into the land, or the water. I once had a farmer tell me that the best part of going organic was being able to hug his kids at the end of the day and have them work beside him on the land without the threat of them being exposed to dangerous chemicals or pesticides. Going organic simply makes sense for many of our farmers; it’s a real life choice.

Producing organic milk is also much healthier for the cows since it forces them to go outside every day, even in winter. Under the Canadian Organic Standards, organic cows must have access to the outdoors which means that they are outside eating fresh grass from April-October. During the winter months, the cows still have outdoor access and they are given a buffet of organic hay and organic grains that our farmers have stored for them. Under the Canadian Organic Regime, hormones are strictly forbidden and the use of antibiotics are only allowed when the animals life is threatened and are used under very strict veterinary supervision.

As a consumer drinking organic milk or eating organic dairy or grain products produced at Organic Meadow, you know that you’re supporting local Ontario farmers. Milk in Canada is shipped all over the place, and it’s hard to always know exactly where your milk is coming from. By purchasing organic milk, you support the local economy and a healthier production process for both farmer and cow.

Q: Okay, so there are clear reasons for both farmers and consumers to go organic. But what about the co-op itself? What are the advantages and challenges to working within this type of environment?

A: The biggest advantage of the co-op is the farmers having a network of other organic farmers at their disposal. They can discuss common problems and find solutions together; it breeds team work and a sense of community. Our farmers also appreciate the ability to step into a store, see the Organic Meadow brand and know that that’s where their milk went.

The biggest challenge of working in a co-op is the length of the decision making process due to the democratic nature of the organization. The co-op is formed by certified organic farmers who have bought-in to the organization by purchasing shares and have been approved by the board of directors. Once part of the co-op, farmers are encouraged to be as involved (or uninvolved) as they want. An annual meeting is held annually and all farmers are encouraged to partake and which most high-level decisions are made. Meetings also take place within different groups and different regions. These meeting are attended by the CEO, CFO and member relations team in order to update farmers on how things are going. Because farmers have the last say in terms of directing the course of the co-op, it is important that everyone understands the issues they are voting on. This process takes a lot of time and can sometimes delay the approval of projects.

Q: Jennifer, readers of BizEnergy would love to know what the “green” impact is here. Are there environmental benefits to producing or consuming the organic products produced by Organic Meadow?

A: Besides saving the land, water and cows exposure to countless of harmful chemicals, we also save on energy by sparing the gas it takes to produce them. The production process itself for milk is fairy energy intensive but we believe in minimally processing all of our products using a pasteurization method called high temperature for a shorter period of time. Our milk is heated to 76 degrees for 25 seconds and is then cooled immediately. Other companies may heat their milk to nearly 100 degrees, cooking the milk, a process which consumes more energy in the long run.

On another note, last year a number of our members got together and formed a buying club for solar panels! The initiative resulted in over 40% of our farms being equipped with solar panels either as standalone units or on the barn itself! That energy is going directly into the grid and alleviating the need for coal plants to produce electricity.

Last but not least, we really try to minimize the amount of transportation used throughout the process. We try to avoid shipping from east to west Ontario, and particularly throughout Canada. That’s why we launched organic milk production in Western Canada. We are still in talks with farmers out East to explore the possibilities of producing something out that way – stay tuned!

Q: Sounds great! Last question. If a customer is looking to support the co-op, where can they find Organic Meadow products?

A: Organic Meadow now produces over 100 products, from eggnog and chocolate to yogourt, cheese and everything in between. Today, we even produce organic frozen vegetables, but our milk remains our bread and our butter. We have local production in Ontario, in Manitoba and British Columbia. We don’t believe in shipping milk across the country. Unfortunately, they don’t produce yogourt out West yet, but that’s something we’re working towards for the future.

Customers can find our dairy products and eggs mainly in independent grocery stores and businesses throughout Canada. We are working on getting our organic grains on the shelf very soon! At the moment, we stay small because we simply can’t meet the demand of the mega corporations and franchises. We are proud to have our products used by cafes like Balzac’s who themselves, are committed to offering certified organic products to customers.

For more information about Organic Meadow, including their full range of products, visit them online!