Business co-op considered for Salt Spring producers

Bree Eagle shares a problem with other operators of small businesses on Salt Spring Island.

She just can’t do it all.

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The founder of Salt Spring Artisan Vinegar would love to be part of a distribution hub on her island and share a sales agent to promote local products.

“I think that there are a lot of producers on Salt Spring who are in the same position where we would like to expand, but we just don’t have the capacity to do all of our own deliveries or the capacity to sign on with a big distribution company,” she said.

“It’s just me in the business. I’m tiny and I’m pretty occupied with making the product.”

Eagle has been selling her small-batch fruit wine vinegars and balsamic-style fruit vinegars since 2013.

In any given week, there are probably three or four people from Salt Spring Island riding a ferry to deliver products to Vancouver Island — and sometimes they are even going to the same stores, she said.

Although they try to help each other out, it can be difficult to co-ordinate, Eagle said.

Large distribution companies are too big for the quantities produced by companies such as hers, Eagle said.

The Capital Regional District and the Salt Spring Island Economic Development Commission sympathize with these small operations. They believe the businesses could grow if a co-operative agency was established to support economies of scale and provide shared-services, tailored to what’s needed on Salt Spring Island. This would see a central distribution hub set up and other options are possible, such as shared labour, information technology and marketing. One idea is to have a special brand identifying a product as having been made on Salt Spring Island.

A request for proposals to set up such an initiative has been issued by the CRD, with a budget of $108,000.

“Local businesses are challenged by limited access to markets, elevated costs for many core business services, and a limited and costly ferry connection to the mainland that makes exporting to nearby markets a major challenge,” the proposal document says.

Francine Carlin, commission chairperson, would like to see the program get underway next year.

The proposal arose out a 2018 feasibility study by EcoPlan International, prepared for the commission, which was set up by the CRD. The study focused on producers of non-perishable food and beverages, artisan goods and health-and-wellness businesses.

“We are trying to develop an entrepreneurial eco-system that creates year-round employment and sustainability,” Carlin said.

There are some established larger businesses on the island, but “most of the economy is driven by the small cottage-based industries,” she said.

“A lot of people come here and they want an alternative lifestyle and find that it is a challenge to sustain a livelihood.”

The commission’s goal is to increase the average income of Salt Spring Island residents. “There are many operators that can’t live off their business activity and the average income on Salt Spring is actually below the provincial average,” the proposal document says.

The commission has been working for the past three years on fostering entrepreneurship. It earlier offered a rural business accelerator program aimed at increasing sales and profits by providing education in areas such as financing, marketing and long-range planning.

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