Small business is important to B.C., especially so in the Lower Similkameen.
Ninety-eight per cent of all business in the province is defined as small business – which are enterprises employing fewer than 50 employees, or a business that is operated by a person who is self employed and working without help.
Small businesses are even more important in the Lower Similkameen, where few, if any big business exists. On a provincial basis, small business employs 57 per cent of private sector jobs; in the Lower Similkameen, that number is closer to 100 per cent.
Direct Organics Plus, based in Cawston, is one Similkameen based company that understands the importance of small business in the province. The organic packer, one of three in the valley, fills a market niche in the province for smaller shipments of organic fruits and vegetables that larger packers can’t efficiently handle. It’s a case of small business supporting small business.
Direct Organics employs between eight and 15 seasonal workers at its packinghouse on Main Street in Cawston, and one full time position.
The company puts together mixed pallets of locally grown produce for distribution to small stores. The facility is supplied by smaller agricultural operations in the Lower Similkameen as well – the largest of the packinghouse’s 15 growers produces 500 bins annually.
“We’re referred to as a “hybrid” limited company,” explained organic grower Ron Schneider, who directs the operation along with Ted Abbott. Growers also have shares in the company, which did over one million dollars in sales last year.
Schneider describes the operation as “struggling” but viable.
“Our costs continue to go up – but food prices aren’t,” he said ruefully, adding that Direct Organics plays an important and necessary role in supplying smaller retail operations as well as providing a place for the smaller grower to bring their produce. Growers who market on their own can also use the company’s facilities as a depot, and Direct Organics also sells directly to the public out of their facility.
The company has found a niche sale, assisting in supplying the B.C. schools lunch program, something that is shared locally with Harker’s Organics, also in Cawston.
The packinghouse complements neighbour Cawston Cold Storage, who field an operation roughly ten times their size. Cawston Cold Storage do not assemble mixed pallets, working with larger retailers. The two packinghouses work together when mutually convenient, but for the most part enjoy different markets.
Direct Organics markets roughly 40 per cent of its fruits and vegetables through Discovery Organics for distribution throughout the west. The remaining 60 per cent is marketed directly to retailers, who are also located anywhere from the Lower Mainland to Manitoba.
“Direct Organics approached me to start this business more than a decade ago,” said Annie Moss of Discovery Organics. “They couldn’t find anyone in B.C. to market their production, and had just come through a bad experience selling to American markets in the east, the end result of which was a bill from the distributor for six dollars a case for their apples.”
Moss said that her company can provide fresh fruit to all points of Canada, from Manitoba west within five days. Locating in the Lower Mainland makes that possible, she said, because transportation systems are set up to distribute most efficiently and cheaply by locating in the Vancouver area.
“I found out early on that it just didn’t pay to market locally” she explained, “It may seem foolish to truck produce out of Lillooet to Vancouver, only to ship it back to Kamloops, but it’s actually the most effective way to do it.”
Discovery Organics supplies chain stores, but is committed to supplying small retailers most of all.
“The mom and pop operations out there are stable, Canadian owned businesses that employ other people in the community who are receptive to comments from customers who want local produce. They help us find local sources, stimulating local growing in B.C.”
Moss urged consumers to make their preferences regarding local produce known to grocers, including the chain stores.
“Consumers have the power by voting with their dollars,” she said, “Eventually their wishes will be brought to distributors like myself, who will work to satisfy that demand.”
As far as Moss is concerned, that kind of input would be more than welcome.
It’s my company’s agenda to put B.C. product on the shelf first,” she conclued.