Spotlight Series

Black River Cooperatives

Interview with Mike Degagne, Founder Black River Co-operative

The Black River co-op is a burgeoning farming cooperative located in the quaint and picturesque town of Matheson, Ontario, 70 kilometres north of Timmins. They support knowledge-sharing around regenerative farming, protection of farmland, and community resilience. 

By Sadaf Kazi, Social Enterprise Development, NORDIK Institute

What inspired you to start the Black River co-operative?

My wife and I started the Black River Co-operative with a farmer from Matheson who was looking for a succession plan. He is 71 years old. He had his farm that he cared for his entire life. He was driven to make sure that his land was available to young people who wanted to grow their food and have a sort of self-sufficient lifestyle, without going into massive amounts of debt. Before we met him, we were trying to figure out how to live our lives according to our environmental and social values. We met and figured out that a co-operative was the only financially viable way and time-effective way to reach our goals.  Three years ago we got together with Bill and started talking about the co-operative.

What is the motivation behind your social enterprise?

We’re trying to create a sustainable place where we can work the land and grow food, and where we can work with others to efficiently protect our farmland, and possibly farmland around us for future generations.

Who do you hope to impact or reach through your work?

We want to reach people who want to live a just lifestyle, similar to us. We want to improve the resiliency of their communities. Some people don’t have access to land and others lost the knowledge, equipment and land. We want to make that available to anybody who wants it. We want our social enterprise to break down the barriers that are stopping people from creating their food security and their resilience. It is not necessarily a lifestyle for everybody.

Do you want to create change by helping other people start their social enterprises?

It is not just helping others start their social enterprises. We have just organized our board of directors this summer, and we’ll be incorporating our co-operative in the next month or so. We are still in infancy, so we haven’t actively worked with a lot of disadvantaged communities yet because we haven’t had a lot of projects. We hosted a delegation from Peru that was focused around mining and how it affects indigenous land communities. Under the umbrella of the co-operative, we work with and are closely linked to companies. We do a lot of work with Wahgoshig First Nation, the Matachewan First Nation and women’s groups.

Do you consider yourself a social entrepreneur? Why or why not?

I mean, the term is relatively new to us, but we do consider ourselves a social enterprise, especially this project. We use the triple bottom line of people, planet, and profit. So yeah, I guess in that way, that would make us social entrepreneurs.

What words or phrases might you connect with more?
I’m a bit hesitant to attach to any labels to what we do or to our project. There’s a lot of buzzwords, and they can certainly be helpful to gain traction or media attention, but they seem to come and go. One word that surrounds a lot of work to do in terms of agriculture and in terms of economics around our projects at the farm is ‘regenerative’ because it means that we’re putting more in than we’re taking. It an approach we use on everything.

What barriers or challenges have you encountered?

We live in an off-grid tiny house. My wife and I have three kids, so our day to day is pretty challenging. But above and beyond that we had to bear much of the burden of educating our local council and our local community about co-operatives, not necessarily about their benefits, but just to explain what they are. We live in a very extraction-based economy, mostly mining and forestry, so people don’t understand or have a harder time understanding the benefits of a co-operative. Educating people was really challenging.

We also struggled to find an insurance provider. We’ve had probably 30 companies turn us down either because we are a new enterprise, or because we’re a farm enterprise or because we are in Northern Ontario. We even had the insurance companies tell us that because of climate change, they couldn’t get behind our project. And because we are talking about regenerative agriculture and community building, it is sometimes difficult to get what we are doing through to people, especially in rural Northern Ontario.

How did you confront these challenges?

We reached out to fellow co-ops. One of the greatest things about being involved with co-operatives is that we are sort of mandated to support each other. We can find another farm to call or even other grocery stores to talk to, someone that has gone through similar challenges and is willing to share best practices. There are also webinars and workshops and things like that that are made available to co-operatives. So that helped.

What resources did you need, and what do you project needs as you move forward?

We needed labour, and we may need to talk to people who have done it. Something like a peer mentorship. We had some people, but it took us a year or two to find them. And we definitely need more. Probably when we were trying to grow the sector and if we’re trying to encourage people to do these things. Starting a new is terrifying. You need someone who can guide you through insurance or how to incorporate a business, especially if you have no idea what co-operatives are. Of course, we could use money, but in the long term, it is peer mentorship.

Who is your community of support, and how important is the local face-to-face community of support?

When we first started, our community of support was small, mostly our family, and then we found Local Food and Farm Cooperative. They have been with us from day one, my number one supporter. They are the ones that we went to, to understand that what a co-operative was. They are the ones who showed us where we might fit within a co-op spectrum and how to move forward with it. They’re continually supporting us in any way that they can. They have elected me to their board of directors so that I could learn about board processes and how these things develop in companies so that we can do it on our own. They’re just a marvellous organization. So that gave us the opportunity to be confident enough to go forward.

Last spring, we had a community stakeholder meeting where we reached out to the local community and, because of all the development work that we did, we had a solid turnout. We had an excellent presentation and were able to start developing our local community support because, at the end of the day, it’s wonderful to have the support of the LFFC, but it is more important to win over our local council, mayor, and the people in the community.

What would have made this process easier for you?

I think getting the idea of co-operatives popular so that it wouldn’t be such a foreign concept to everyone would make it easier. That way, we could really start a conversation within communities about things we can do together that would benefit our local area that it is going to make it better for them.

Every conference that we go to is in southern Ontario or Montreal. There is a sort of movement happening there. But then we come back to Northern Ontario, and we have to explain it to our parents. It is not common here, and people misunderstood the legal co-operative partnership.

What do you hope to see your social enterprise becomes in the future?

I hope we are able to create a reliable platform from which our social enterprise can develop into whatever it needs to be. The more people are involved, the better the co-operative.  But that also means that they change according to who is cooperating with them. It can vary with the community needs. What we are trying to do is to create our energy, self-sufficiency and our land trust. We are hoping to remove the barriers so that whatever it needs to develop for our communities’ sustainability. I don’t presume that I know what my town will need even two years from now. But if we have a place that is self-sufficient and is maintaining itself effectively, we can do whatever we want to do or whatever needs to be done.

What other community initiatives are you involved in apart from the Black River co-operative?

We work with a program called Choose Life, a youth program in Wahgoshig First Nation
that does plant identification and processing, among other things with the youth in the First Nation to encourage connection to the land. We have also partnered with the Anti-Hunger Coalition in Timmins when they got a donation of potato fingerling, potatoes, research facilities, and numerous grids. As they don’t have any farms, they reached out to a couple of local farms, and we took on the majority of it, grew their potatoes, and then gave it back, with enough to regrow.

Are you aware of other youth social enterprise or those with innovative ideas that need support and resources?

Social enterprises are slowly growing in Northern Ontario. A year or two ago, there was a social enterprise pitch competition at one of the local colleges. But in terms of other actual enterprises developing, we have heard through the grapevine that there may be another food farming co-op with a similar structure to ours developing in eastern Ontario. We are really excited to see them develop. We are hoping to talk to them. We are presenting part of our project at the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario Conference; we are expecting some of them there.

While not exactly a social entrepreneur, one of the people with innovative ideas is Mandy Hutter from the Green Feet Ecosystem Services. She is a dear friend of ours that has combines her passion for land and community with drone technology. Using imaging technologies from the drones, we can collect various data for our farms like water drainage, moisture content, soil health, etc. She is terrific and specializes in environmental protection, and she goes to places before logging or mining operations or even farm operations like ours and can do field monitoring, among other things. So that is really cool.