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Working Together Works for Atlantic Organic Farmers

By Frances Willick

It’s well before dawn – about 3:30 a.m., and Norbert Kungl is driving a truck full of his organic vegetables to the Halifax Farmers’ Market. Hauling crates of Swiss chard, spinach, and potatoes under the moonlight is the beginning of a typical Saturday morning. A long day lies ahead.

His produce is expertly displayed; a mountain of carrots is piled alongside a small wall of leeks. Customers frequently ask questions about the vegetables and how to cook them. “What has really played in our favour is that I have a good relationship with customers,” Kungl says. “I can talk to them about how to prepare that special recipe, and I can talk to chefs because I love food. A lot of the success of the farm rests on the ability to market what we grow.” Kungl says the diversity of products he offers also helps attract business. During the height of the growing season, Selwood Green’s market stand offers about one hundred varieties of vegetables.

Kungl has been farming in Bramber, Nova Scotia for about twenty years. He has come a long way since his first year at Selwood Green, when he grew half an acre of vegetables and drove them in his ’72 Chevrolet van to the Windsor Farmers’ Market, which he helped initiate. “If we were lucky, we would make $150 or $200 a week.”

Today, Selwood Green is the largest organic mixed vegetable farm in the Maritimes. Kungl farms approximately 30 acres of vegetables. He sells at the Halifax, Wolfville, and Hubbards Farmers’ Markets every Saturday, supplies restaurants and stores, and even prepares custom orders for individuals on request.

As if that weren’t enough, Kungl also serves on the Board of Directors of the Halifax market, works as an organic consultant, and is closely involved with SeaSpray Atlantic Organic Farmers Cooperative, an organic producers’ marketing co-operative. In fact, Kungl was instrumental in the development of the co-op.

SeaSpray began as a co-operative for organic growers on Prince Edward Island. The group used a one-desk selling approach that allowed wholesale buyers to order with a single phone call rather than having to contact many growers. In 2002, SeaSpray expanded its vision to include organic producers in the four Atlantic provinces.

Kungl and other volunteer members managed SeaSpray until 2005, when Allison Grant was hired to co-ordinate the group, investigate market opportunities, and manage sales. SeaSpray sells organic vegetables, fruit, and meat wholesale to restaurants and chain grocery stores, and exports to Ontario, Quebec, and the eastern United States. In 2006 – a difficult growing year in Atlantic Canada due to excessive rain in the spring – SeaSpray’s sales were approximately $150,000.

The co-op markets only its own members’ products, but membership is open to any certified organic grower in the Atlantic provinces. SeaSpray currently has nine active members. They are required to buy a lifetime share of $100, and 5% of each SeaSpray sale is reinvested in the co-op in order to help cover the co-op’s administration and marketing costs.

Grant says marketing collectively allows producers to focus on farming, and it gives farmers a stronger voice in the marketplace. “Wholesalers will drop a producer pretty quickly if they can get a cheaper product elsewhere,” she says. “Farmers have to get together and protect pricing. Producers need to get a fair return for their product.”

Since SeaSpray can offer large retailers a greater diversity and higher volume of products than can individual farmers, the co-op gives farmers access to new markets. Selling collectively also distributes the risk of entering new markets among members.

Grant says co-operative marketing has its share of challenges, too. Communicating and making decisions can be time-consuming. Also, since members have varying levels of knowledge and technical skills, maintaining the co-op’s standard of quality can be difficult.

Both Grant and Kungl are optimistic about the future of SeaSpray. “The opportunities that are out there seem to be absolutely incredible and exciting,” says Kungl. More restaurants are getting on board, universities are interested in serving local organic food, and plans are underway for SeaSpray to distribute organic food to rural areas in the Atlantic provinces. As both the co-op and the demand for organics grow, their optimism seems well founded.


Frances Willick is a Consultant for the Organic Agriculture Centre of Canada. Please send comments or questions by phone to 902-893-7256 or by email to oacc@dal.ca.


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Posted February 2007

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