2017 IW Winners

Business of the Year - Dryden

Cloverbelt Local Food Co-operative

Cloverbelt Local Food Co-operative

The Cloverbelt Local Food Co-op is the popular voice of agriculture in northwestern Ontario.

Since 2013, the co-operative and its online farmers market have bridged the gap between farmers and supporters of locally grown and produced food.

The Dryden-based not-for-profit has a growing distribution network that connects 130 producers with some 1,400 members, a remarkable feat considering the region’s widely dispersed population base.

“The enthusiasm around starting a co-op was just so strong and so evident,” said Cloverbelt president Jen Springett, who played a key role in founding and incorporating the organization in August 2013.

Few places and restaurants featured locally grown and produced food, said Springett. Once the first online orders arrived that December, “word spread like wildfire.”

Producers list what’s in stock and members log in weekly to make their order. Baskets are dropped off at distribution points in Dryden, Kenora, Sioux Lookout, Ignace and Upsala.

Expansion is planned for Fort Frances-Rainy River within a year, and eventually the organization expects to establish a presence in Thunder Bay.

The benefits of their online model mean lower overhead, no retail storefront, and fewer permanent staff. But geography and the distance between communities remain logistical challenges that should improve as the network grows.

Last year involved the launch of an interactive regional food map on the Cloverbelt website, pinpointing and identifying who grows and produces what, and where.

“It’s pretty neat to go online and see what’s available across the region, order it, and pick it up at one place,” said Springett. “It’s caught on pretty quickly.”

The growth of Cloverbelt has been a boon to area farmers who’ve readjusted their operations to keep up with increased demand. Some have invested in cold storage to make root vegetables like carrots, potatoes, and onions available year-round.

“It certainly changed the picture for some of our area farms, for sure,” said Springett.

The concept of food security very much taps into the mindset and culture of the people of northwestern Ontario, she adds.

“People are keen to be more self-reliant: ‘Let’s support ourselves and our neighbours.’” I think this was an opportunity for people to invest their money in their own community rather than the big-box stores.”

As well as creating a thriving local food movement, Cloverbelt offers an educational angle through its workshops and involvement with youth.

Agriculture is dwindling in the North with the average age of farmers at 53.6 years old.

Much of what they promote and teach has to do with knowledge transfer, to stimulate and inspire interest in agriculture to the next generation of farmers, said Springett.

Cloverbelt hopes to play a role in Sioux Lookout’s Regional Distribution Centre project, a social enterprise mission to bring fresh, healthy, and affordable food to remote First Nation communities.

Though the project is largely focused on wholesale food redistribution, Springett said they’ve been working to build capacity among local producers who can contribute to the big picture.

“What we’re really hoping to come out of that project is supporting the reverse economy, having things produced and sold from the communities, so the planes are not coming back empty and self-sufficiency is built in those communities.”

In its short existence, Cloverbelt has already garnered two Premier’s Awards for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence.