Surrounded by Lake Huron, Georgian Bay and the North Channel, Manitoulin is the world’s largest fresh water island. It’s known for its natural beauty, but Mike Meeker didn’t move to the island just to take in the scenery. The cold, clean water attracted Mike. “I moved here specifically to grow fish,” he explains.
Twenty-five years ago, aquaculture was not a common business. Now, Meeker’s Aquaculture ships about 900,000 pounds of rainbow trout a year, and has a strong spin-off business selling garden compost made from fish waste.
The amazing growth of two businesses made Mike and Sharon Meeker ideal candidates to be recognized as outstanding 25 year entrepreneurs. They were honoured recently, when the 25th Anniversary of the Community Futures program was celebrated at the Annual Conference of the Ontario Association of Community Futures Development Corporations (OACFDC) held in Niagara Falls. The Community Futures program was created by the federal government 25 years ago to assist small businesses and economic development in rural communities.
Meeker’s Aquaculture and Meeker’s Magic Mix were nominated for the 25th Anniversary Entrepreneur Award by LaCloche Manitoulin Business Assistance Corporation (LAMBAC), a Community Futures Development Corporation (CFDC) located in Gore Bay. Manager Mary Nelder thought of Mike’s innovative and thriving business as a prime example of a business that is going strong after receiving assistance from a CFDC 25 years ago.
“Mike Meeker would describe himself as a farmer. I would describe him as a pioneer, an innovator, a passionate environmentalist, a hard-working entrepreneur, and a tireless lobbyist for his industry. He is also a strong community person who volunteers to coach high school sports teams even though his children are long-ago graduated and gone from the Island,” Nelder explains.
Mike started out in 1984 with one cage nailed together, made out of wood floated on 45 gallon drums, with nets he sewed himself. Learning to deal with the winter’s ice movement was a big challenge, but Mike learned to sink the fish cages below the ice over the winter, then bring them up in the spring each year, and put the fingerlings in them.
When Mike sought funding to start his business, banks and investors were skeptical about aquaculture. He went to the newly-opened CFDC seeking a loan from then-manager Marg Hague. “Of course, aquaculture was a totally new industry everywhere, but on Manitoulin it was very new. He was on the cutting edge in this field,” Hague says. She gave him a start-up loan: “It was actually the first cheque that LAMBAC issued,” she adds.
“I am so personally happy that LAMBAC supported Mike 25 years ago – and they’ve done so well. Mike and Sharon have done a superb job and I hope they have another 25 years of great success,” Hague says.
There are 61 Community Futures Development Corporations (CFDCs) across rural and Northern Ontario. They offer free business counselling, loans for start-up and expansion of small business, strategic planning on local projects, and community economic development. Each CFDC is locally managed by a volunteer board of directors, funded by Industry Canada’s Community Futures Program through FedNor in Northern Ontario, and FedDev Ontario in Southern and Eastern Ontario. To learn more about CFDCs in Ontario or the OACFDC, go to www.ontcfdc.com