Last week, I (Shannon) spent 4 days either on farms in Quebec or sitting in a van with other farmers on the way to and from Quebec. It was awesome! I went because I love growing as a farmer and one of the best ways to do that is to go and visit other farms (though THE BEST way, I think, is to work while on other farms…but our schedule was too tight for that).
One of the other benefits was to spend time with other farmers from our area. There were 18 of us who went on the “mission.” Most were farmers but there were also farm-support professionals (not sure if that is the right term…but it sounds good) from ACORN and the New Brunswick Department of Agriculture, Aquaculture, and Fisheries who planned the entire thing! They did a great job: we saw a great diversity of farms, the schedule was jam-packed and well scheduled, we slept comfortably, and ate plenty. And, we met other cool farm-support professionals along the way. Quebec agriculture extension folks and researchers, a greenhouse supplier, and staff from Ecocert (an Organic certification body…who we happen to be certified with) all joined and left our trip at different moments along the way, sharing and adding to our experience in a great way!
So, here’s a bit of a recap from my perspective (it’s longer than my usual blog posts but much shorter than all the notes I took!):
Our first stop was to Ferme Jean-Yves Gamelin, a 37 hectare fruit and mixed vegetable farm. From this farm, I learned about the popularity of Le Tomate Rose (pink tomatoes). We grow pink tomatoes too and people do love the flavour and the colour but, in Quebec, pink tomatoes seem to be a MUCH BIGGER DEAL. Well, pink tomatoes are some of our personal favourites at the farm, so a takeaway for me was to build that obsession among our customers here too.
I really appreciated hearing about the amount of research and talking to other farmers (ones who were happy and unhappy with their own experiences) the farmer did before selecting the type and brand of high tunnel to put up. It can be easy to buy the cheapest or most convenient items but I think time spent talking to others about a purchase is never wasted.
We then moved on to Ferme des Ormes which was nearby. They grow between 30-40 hectares of fruit and mixed vegetables and four families (who are all related) live off their farm. They sell to small stores, at markets, and through their on-farm store. Their on-farm store was the coolest one I’ve ever been to! It was in a barn and had fruit and vegetables of course, but also cool products from other local people. They had hand-made rugs and blankets, pies and other baked goods, an assortment of bulk coffee beans, canned goods and other prepared foods, garlic braids……And they had a commercial kitchen inside!
While we were there, we heard about a pepper research project that was happening on 12 farms (including this one) and saw the trials in one of their tunnels. One of the researchers was there and spoke to us about the goals and some of their current findings (the paper will be published in the winter). One of the qualities they seemed to be looking for was blockiness (more square, without a pointy bottom).
The first organic farm of the trip came after lunch: Ferme de la Berceuse, which supplies 250 CSA baskets and sells at farmers’ markets. This year, the farm has 4.9 hectares in vegetables and 3.1 hectares in cover crops.
The farmer, Robin Fortin, placed a high value on employees. He wanted to train people well and pay them well so they would stay. He wanted all of his employees to be part of the decision-making process on the farm so they felt a part of the business. As an example, just that morning, they had had a staff meeting to discuss the upcoming heavy frost and figure out their plans to prepare for it. Because of his employee philosophy, his labour costs are higher than recommended (he said his accountant freaks out about it!) but it’s something that is important to him and it seems to be a very successful strategy on this farm.
Robin had multi-bay tunnels (which you can see in the picture above) which he said was the best thing that ever happened to them. Putting them up was their biggest step forward in organic production, he said. However he expressed that the biggest challenge was figuring out which varieties to grow. What had worked well for them in the field didn’t necessarily do well in the tunnels.
The last stop of the day was also the largest farm on our trip: Le Potager Mont-Rouge, which has 120 hectares in fruit and mixed vegetables. One hundred of those hectares grow a mixture of winter squashes and you can see from one of the pictures above that they have a large washing and packing line for those squashes. One thing that really amazed me about this farm was that they were growing over 50 different varieties of tomatoes, many of which were heirlooms! Out in the field! We went on a nice tractor ride to check out all those tomatoes and just one of the fields of squash (Butternut). I have never before seen such a large farm growing so many of the specialty varieties that we are so into on our small farm.
I liked that they were growing annual rye between their tomato rows. Even though they weren’t an organic farm, they weren’t using any herbicides to kill weeds and the annual rye was to prevent weeds. On our farm, we don’t like weeding the pathways and have been experimenting with living pathways but haven’t used annual rye yet. I’m excited to try it! We were also told that they’ve found that growing rye for no-till planting afterwards works better than any fungicide.
One of the things that we noticed on all the farms we visited was the weed Galinsoga (in front of the butternut squash in the picture above), which so far, has not been an issue for us in most parts of Atlantic Canada (though I saw it in the Annapolis Valley last year). I’m afraid to get it so was glad I was wearing non-farming boots that I washed in very hot water in the Superstore bathroom before coming back home. Apparently, galinsoga is an indicator of easily accessible nitrogen.
The next morning, bright and early, we were off to visit Les Jardins de la Grelinette, a small farm made famous since Jean-Martin wrote a book about their farming practices called The Market Gardener (you can read my review of his book in this blog post). I was super excited to see this farm and I was not disappointed. It was great to see the soil and produce quality, the compactness of the farm, and the toolroom. Les Jardins de la Grelinette is only a 1.5 acre farm, but it has been profitable and rewarding for the farm family. I also love how much the farmers have taken their professional development seriously, through focusing on a specific crop every year and learning how to do it better (with the help of agrologists). This was the farm on this trip that is most similar to our vision for our own farm and I was very happy it was included. Also, Richard from Les Serres Guy Tessier, a season-extension structure company that Bryan has been in touch with was there and it was nice to see their caterpillar tunnels in person.
I also really liked hearing about (and seeing) their use of ramial wood chips which we’ve been excited to try out too. These are woodchips from the small branches of hard wood and they are using them in the pathways between garden beds.
Not too far away, we stopped at Les Jardins de Tessa, a mixed vegetable farm with 400 CSA baskets from 5 hectares of vegetables (also with 5 hectares in green manure, mostly red clover). Frederic, co-owner of the farm with his wife has been a big fan of the Adabio AutoConstruction ideas and book (which includes open-source plans for making your own tractor implements to use on a permanent bed system) from France, something that I’ve read about and been interested in. The implement in the picture above (a “Vibroplanche”) was made in a workshop held in Quebec for growers which one of the staff members at Jardins de Tessa took part in and helped construct! (Etienne Goyer wrote a great article in the June 2014 issue of Growing for Market about this workshop, you have to be a subscriber to read it, but here’s the link anyway.)
I was very impressed with the quality of the crops and the wash station. They have a great “hardening-off” area just outside their greenhouse which can be covered or rolled up completely, depending on the weather.
In addition to the vegetables they grow for their CSA, they grow a larger amount of potatoes and winter squash to sell to other farmers (for their CSAs) and to wholesalers.
Frederic talked about how his customers were crazy for Italian tomatoes (Romas and Plum tomatoes) and he was growing a number of different varieties of these.
Then we arrived at our very last farm tour of the mission: Potager Andre Samson, a 4 hectare mixed vegetable farm run by a young couple. They operate their organic operation on the family pig farm.
Sylviane talked about some of the crops they grow that differentiate them from other CSAs like strawberries and sweet corn (which many organic farmers don’t grow). They have also planted a mixed orchard and table grapes for this reason.
We learned that, in Quebec, one of the hardest parts of growing sweet corn organically is the Corn Borer and the Corn Earworm is a minimal pest for them. In the Maritimes, it’s the exact opposite, with the Corn Earworm being the major corn pest and the Corn Borer a minimal pest (apparently….I don’t grow sweet corn, and I’m not sure if it’s the same across all of Atlantic Canada).
Because of the big problems they have with the Seed Maggot, they transplant all large-seeded crops (peas, corn, spinach, beets). The only crops they direct-seed are carrots and radishes.
Their soils were rocky but quite fertile. You could really see it in the health of the plants!
Some of the strawberry growers in the group then went on to a strawberry farm, but the majority of us went to sample some local organic wine and then have THE BEST meal of the trip at a trendy spot in Drummondville called Le 200 Brock. I wish I’d taken pictures of our meal. We sat out on the patio where we were toasty under heat lamps (I felt like a young chick in a brooder!) despite the chill in the air.
This mission was a great opportunity for me and I’m so thankful to the organizers and all the farmers who took the time to share with us! I really hope that Bryan and I have the opportunity to go on more learning adventures like this one.