Cooperative Governance and a New Narrative on Agrarianism in Calgary, Alberta

May 2019

By Mary Beckie and Elizabeth Bacon

City-regions have become key players in food system governance. As part of the effort to understand how to create more inclusive and democratic governance structures, our chapter, “Catalyzing Change in Local Food Systems Governance in Calgary, Alberta” in Civil Society and Social Movements in Food System Governanceexplores the development of YYC Growers and Distributors Cooperative (YYC). The story of YYC is about a group of urban and rural growers working together to make local food more accessible in Calgary. It is also the story about the innovative governance mechanisms they are using to make this happen.

YYC was founded in 2014 as a not-for-profit society by a small group of urban growers. Over the next two years, they expanded their production base and product range by including both urban and rural growers. As the organization grew and evolved, they recognized the need for a different and more appropriate governance structure and in 2017 became a registered cooperative. Each of the 20 members has equal decision-making power, with a one-member, one-vote policy. Members’ products are collectively marketed and distributed through a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program and at a small number of farmers’ markets. In addition to making local food more accessible to citizens, YYC is committed to environmental and social justice, educating consumers about the value of local food, and influencing policy changes that better support local food systems. The rationale for YYC is best summed up in the following statement made by a YYC member in a 2016 documentary on food resiliency in Calgary:

“With the declining number of farmers, we’re going to need new people innovating and creating a culture around food…A resilient food system in Calgary is always going to be a complex web of many parts. YYC was formed by a group of young pioneers in Calgary who have made agrarian urbanism happen. We’re on the cusp of major change, as food security is an issue for all of us” (2016 NUFP documentary).

Through our research, we examine how YYC’s adoption of a cooperative governance structure has reinforced democratic values and principles, and allowed them to be innovative and scale up, while being supported by and building strong relationships with consumers, community organizations, and municipal and provincial governments. This research was informed by interviews with growers, board members, customers, and representatives from municipal and provincial government.

View of Calgary, as seen from one of YYC’s urban farms
View of Calgary, as seen from one of YYC’s urban farms

Key findings of the research include:

  1. Connections between producers; rural-urban linkages

A unique feature of YYC is how it has forged new relationships and collaborations between urban and rural farmers. This bridging of urban and rural growers in a regional food system is new in a province where large, export-oriented grain and livestock farms are predominant. Additionally, a significant proportion of YYC’s members are young people with limited farming experience, which is reflective of an emerging trend across Canada, as captured in the 2016 agriculture census. Together, these characteristics contribute to the formation of new narratives on what it means to be a farmer. 

  1. Connections between producers and consumers; education and awareness of local foods

YYC’s members directly interact with consumers at CSA pick-ups, farmers’ markets and through an active presence on social media (Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook). Members see sharing information and developing relationships with customers as a key benefit of being part of YYC. By reconnecting people to food, farmers and land, YYC aims to spread understanding about the potential of local food systems to achieve social, economic and environmental goals. Understanding and regaining control over the ways in which food is produced and sourced enables the development of ‘citizen consumers’, consumers that more informed and engaged.

YYC’s table at the Hillhurst Sunnyside farmers’ market in Calgary
  1. Connections with civil society and government

 YYC has been built upon democratic principles and values of inclusiveness and solidarity that are embedded in the cooperative model. As an extension of this, YYC has built relationships with a variety of governmental and non-governmental actors and organizations. In doing so, they have created greater agency and momentum for change in the food movement.

Bringing diverse actors together and achieving more democratic governance structures for food system transformation is a challenging and ongoing process. The examination of the democratic nature of cooperatives like YYC and its outward collaborations can provide insights for more progressive change.  

Contributors

Mary Beckie is an Associate Professor and Director of Community Engagement Studies at the University of Alberta and is affiliated with the western (British Columbia/Alberta) node of FLEdGE. Her research on sustainable and localized agri-food systems has taken place in western Canada, the European Union, Cuba, India and Sri Lanka.

Elizabeth Bacon is a research assistant with Dr. Mary Beckie at the University of Alberta, as part of the FLEdGE network. She is currently pursuing an MSc. in geography at the University of Montréal.

Citation

Beckie, M. & Bacon, E. (2019). Catalyzing change in local food system governance in Calgary, Alberta. In P. Andrée, J.K. Clark, C. Z. Levkoe, & K. Lowitt (Eds.), Civil Society and Social Movements in Food Systems Governance (81-100). London: Routledge. DOI: https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429503597


The Civil Society & Social Movements in Food System Governance Blog Series showcases the chapters and themes from the open-access book. Follow along as we explore the governance of contemporary food systems and their ongoing transformation by social movements.

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