Q&A: SFU alumna launching new "open source" food co-op

SFU alumna Jennifer Zickerman is making it easier to access locally grown, high-quality herbs through her venture, the Lower Mainland Herb Growers Co-op. 

The co-operative offers economy of scale to small local growers growing culinary herbs. It will buy fresh herbs from local growers, then dry and package them as culinary herb blends and distribute them to retail stores.

The co-op's high quality products aim to replace the poorer-quality dried herbs found in most retail stores that are imported from countries with lower environmental and labour standards. Local farmers will also have a new market for a crop that grows well in the Lower Mainland climate and requires few artificial supports such as fertilizer, pesticides and greenhouses.

Zickerman first developed this business idea as a student in SFU's Community Economic Development (CED) program. She pitched it as part of the program's annual Social Innovation Challenge, winning $12,000 to implement her idea.  Zickerman, who graduated in 2015, shares with SFU News how CED helped her realize her idea, why she chose a co-operative, and her vision to turn it into an "open source" project.

How did SFU's Community Economic Development (CED) program help you to develop this idea?

The SFU CED program helped flesh out my understanding of the flaws with our current economic models in terms of the economic, environmental and social impacts they have on our communities. It made me aware that many people are seeking alternatives to our current corporate capitalist model and gave me tools for starting a project that moves away from that model.

And then there was the Social Innovation Challenge. I 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 me a lot of confidence in my idea. A lot of people looked at it, a lot of people thought about it and workshopped it with me.

Why did you choose the co-op business model?

The co-operative model has tremendous potential as a community economic development tool. As we 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 more appealing and accessible to small local investors, and has greater social capital as it builds a community around itself.  

So, the farmers would get some money when they sell their herbs, but they would also be shareholders in the co-op?

That's right. The co-op will pay farmers up-front for the fresh herbs and then also share the profits from the co-op.

What is your vision for your new business?

In the next year, I 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, I would like 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. I think the business model of a co-op has a lot of potential to help with that goal.

If it's successful, I would like to make it an open-source project. I want to share the tools and experience of starting a co-op, like a blueprint that I could just give to other people and say “Here, this is how I did it. This is the business plan I used, these are the financial projection models I used, these are the incorporation papers, these are the membership and shareholder contracts.”  

Why do you use the term “open source”?

I came out of the tech industry and I worked a lot in the open-source area. "Open source" in the tech arena means software for which the underlying source code is available to anyone, and can be read and modified and improved or branched out and used for someone’s own purposes for free.

Open source was really a revolutionary idea in technology and had a tremendous impact on how quickly the technology industry grew over the last 30 years because rather than having all these proprietary closed programs and technologies, more people were able to get involved and contribute. This ended up making innovation much faster and more inclusive. The tremendous rise and success of the Internet has much to do with the open source standards and technologies on which it is built.

Open source projects tend to inspire a sense of community. While some are paid to work on them, often people work on them voluntarily. To me, this intersects with ideas in alternative economic theory: enhancement of public good, enlightened self-interest, gift economies, co-operation. Oh look—there’s that “co-op” word again.

How did you come up with this idea?

My first business, Field to Fork Herbs, gave me the background to get into this. I was growing culinary herbs and selling fresh herbs and dry herb blends at farmers' markets. So I had a sense of the growing and processing techniques and also a sense of the customer demand.

So what is the market like for locally grown herbs?

People are really excited about locally grown products right now. With the co-op, we are not trying to compete on price with the big bulk importers. Instead, we are offering a premium product. Our marketing plan promotes the idea that buying our herb 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.

That sounds delicious. Can I buy your herbs today?

We are not up and running yet. We have incorporated; we have a board of directors; we have a business plan; we have done financial modelling. After the harvest season, I will be talking to the farmers. Many have already expressed interest in the co-op, but I have to go around and get full commitments over the winter and then the farmers can incorporate that into their farm plans for the spring.

What other help have you received?

Vancity is on board as a partner and have been enormously helpful and put me through a co-op development program with the BC Co-op Association. That gave me a lot of understanding about how to set up and run a co-op.