The CAPÉ: Cooperating for Local and Ecological Agriculture in Québec

Posted by Virginie Lavallee-Picard on April 1, 2014

Youth participants in one of several presentations delivered at the 2013 CAPÉ fall meetingIt was like summer camp for farmers, except it felt like winter and the food was better.

The big barn-style building was jam-packed with about a hundred farmers, most of them in their early thirties or younger, absorbed in an in-depth workshop on greenhouse production of tomatoes and cucumbers. The previous day, an afternoon tour of a local farm had led to a massive potluck dinner and a late night brainstorming session on preferred vegetable varieties.

This was my first CAPÉ annual fall meeting, and I can assure you it will not be the last. 

In French, CAPÉ stands for the Co-opérative pour une Agriculture de Proximité Écologique, which loosely translates as the “Co-operative for local and ecological agriculture”. The CAPÉ was founded in 2013 by members of the Réseau des Jeunes Maraîchers Écologiques (RJME), the “Network of young ecological market gardeners.”  Because even farmers grow old, the RJME recently swapped the “jeunes” (young) for “joyeux” (joyful).

This dynamic knowledge-sharing network also hosts a listserv that is a gold mine of information for francophone market-gardeners like myself. A few months ago, I circulated a request for suggestions about the construction or purchasing of a dibble wheel (used to space and mark transplants). In less than 24 hours, I received 16 relevant and detailed answers from farmers throughout Québec. Talk about informal, yet invaluable, peer-driven support!

In the past few years, Québec’s agricultural landscape has witnessed an upwelling of new farmers that embrace ecological production methods and marketing models based on proximity. The CAPÉ was crafted by some of these farmers as they felt the need to unite their voices and work to support one another and better represent their interests in the media and political landscape. As a producer co-op, the CAPÉ also aims to facilitate and coordinate collective purchasing of inputs and collective marketing initiatives.

For example, the co-op has received funding from the MAPAQ (Québec’s agriculture and fishery ministry) to pilot a collective marketing project whereby the CAPÉ will soon have its own kiosk in large public markets such as Montréal’s famous Jean-Talon market. To meet the vendor criteria of large public markets (primarily high volumes and a consistently diverse selection), QC farmers often have to purchase and resale goods from conventional outlets. By pooling items from its members, the CAPÉ kiosk will give smaller, local producers greater access to these markets while making more local and organic produce available to customers. A plan to develop a CAPÉ logo and to collectively purchase CAPÉ-labelled produce bags is also in the works.

The CAPÉ also organizes training sessions for its members. In the upcoming months, the CAPÉ, along with other Québec-based ecological agriculture, food justice and engineering networks will co-organize the first Farm Hack event in Québec.

Farm Hack is an open source community for resilient agriculture that brings together farmers, designers, developers, engineers, architects, and others interested in more adaptive and open food systems and technologies. Farm Hacks are all about building the creative commons through online and in-person exchange and accumulation of knowledge. A Farm Hack event can involve design, building, skills training, and documentation events, software hackathons and conceptual forums. In other words, a Farm Hack might involve developing the prototype of a farmer-built electronic tool that monitors greenhouse temperature, records greenhouse data, and sends alerts to the farmer via cell phone text messages.  A Farm Hack might also mean building a low-cost pedal-powered root crop washer or a documented conversation of various equipment lending models.

CAPÉ also has a newly formed committee on political issues. While the co-op has yet to officially position itself on issues of federal relevance, CAPÉ VP Caroline Dufresne mentioned the CAPÉ’s intent to work with like-minded organizations to develop a stance on national food and agriculture policy, including free trade agreements, seeds legislation, food labelling and GMOs. NFU International Program Committee Coordinator Stéphanie Wang recently delivered a presentation on Bill C-18 and UPOV'91 at the CAPÉ’s annual general meeting.

“The CAPÉ is a very dynamic producers’ co-op,” says Wang. “In its first year of existence, it has already laid down stepping stones towards providing collective solutions to the purchasing and marketing needs of its members as well as ensuring their political representation. The sharing and translating of NFU documents and analysis should assist CAPÉ members in better understanding and positioning themselves on issues relating to international trade and seed policies that are negotiated at the federal level''.

Nonetheless, the CAPÉ is still very much in a start-up phase and so far all projects have been volunteer-driven. Pending the approval of a funding request, the CAPÉ will hire its first employee in the spring of 2014. When considering the re-animation of the NFU youth caucus and the emergence of the Young Agrarians BC network and the CAPÉ, it becomes evident that opportunities for cross-pollinating in the maturing new farmer movement are in full bloom.

Note: More information on the CAPÉ is available online in French only at http://www.capecoop.org/fr/accueil/.