YA’er Sara Dent interviewed 35-year old Quebec farmer Jean-Martin Fortier. Jean-Martin is well known for his ecologically productive method of farming that has enabled him, and his partner, Maude Helene Desroches to run a very successful market farm. Jean-Martin is launching the English version of his book Le Jardinier Maraicher (The Market Gardener) January 2014, thanks to a successful FarmStart crowd-sourcing campaign. Jean-Martin will be coming to workshop in BC March 2014. Join us for a workshop in Richmond, Kelowna, Cranbrook, Nelson and Victoria. For workshop info click here!
Young Agrarians (YA): What is the name of your farm?
Jean-Martin Fortier (JM): Les Jardins de la Grelinette
YA: What is la grelinette?
JM: The broadfork is the original tool used for ecological tillage of the soil, brought to the United States from France by Elliot Coleman.
YA: Where is your farm?
St-Armand, one-hour South of Montreal [Quebec, Canada] on the Vermont Border. YA: Where are you from?
JM: I grew up in the suburbs of Montreal. I studied at McGill where I met Maude Helene. After university we left Canada for three years and farmed in New Mexico for almost two seasons. That is where we learned how to farm.
YA: How many acres do you farm on?
JM: An acre and a half.
YA: Can you tell us the history of your land?
JM: We bought an old rabbit farm. It had a big building – a 40 ft x 100 ft rabbit house. We converted it to our home. The land is 10 acres with a barefoot prairie, woodlot and access road. We’ve designed the garden all around the rabbit house close to the washing station. In total we have 1.5 acres in cultivation for the market garden.
YA: How long have you been on your land?
JM: 2005 we bought the farm so eight years now. Next year will be our 9th year. This is our 13th season growing full-time.
YA: How did you get into farming?
JM: It was an accident. We were looking for our purpose in life. When we finished university the first thing we did was manage a farm. We were wwoofing (volunteer farming) with a French Canadian guy in New Mexico who travelled to Mexico during the winters. Next to his booth at the farmers market was the local farm school’s market stand. The farm school manager had left and they needed a new one so we took over. Four months experience and all of a sudden we were managing a farm. There is a cool farming community in New Mexico. Since we worked the farmers market we were in a select club, got invited to parties, went to farms every weekend and met the other farmers.
Sometimes I dream of having an office job and being clean, wearing cologne and having windows to look out of. Then I wake up and I say yes to farming. Also, Maude Helene has a strong botanical affinity. She is like a plant. Farming suits her well.
YA: What do you love most about the land that you farm?
JM: We built if from scratch. Everything on the land we created ourselves. It’s imagination. We have ponds, a woodlot that we manage, fruit trees – all at a micro-scale. A sauna that we built. We have worked the landscape to make it diversified and have ecological niches all over.
YA: How much did you make on your 1.5 acres last year?
JM: We grossed more than $130,00. This year it’ll be @ $150,000. That is solely with vegetables produced on farm.
YA: So do you actually make a living from farming?
JM: Yes, we’ve been making a living ever since we started. It was profitable when we started. We won a contest in 2008, a young start-up farmer competition where people show-up with a business plan and our farm won. We’ve done 40% margins since we started because the capital outlay was so low. We’ve been farming with hand tools from the beginning. Farming is our only income, Maude-Helene and I.
YA: What’s your favourite farming activity?
JM: Definitely hoeing barefoot.
YA: What’s your motivation to farm?
JM: I farm for ecology- to do applied ecology. We also farm for the lifestyle to be outside and play with nature, and to integrate community as family farmers. We’re also in it for the money.
YA: What’s your biggest farming challenge?
JM: Having enough production to meet demand. The challenge has always been our land limitations. This is why we focused on developing an intensive system.
YA: What do you want to tell the world about farming?
JM: You can enter farming professionally by doing things a bit differently. Growing intensive makes a lot of sense when you start-up. It is not about tools and equipment or the land you have- it is about having the skillset to grow things differently. The way we farm is so much about common sense for me that I think it is incredibly that not more of us are growing in this way. Small intensive, heavily managed, small plots that are highly productive. My main message is that you can make a living and start farming using this way of farming, and eventually you can grow your farm bigger. The tractor is definitely something that you want to look into not having- for this method of farming its an impeding tool.
YA: What did it feel like when you acquired your land?
JM: It felt like a big disaster because it was so complicated. In Quebec we have a lot of zoning regulations. No one knew what organic bio-intensive farming was. We had our business plan and said we had 1.5 acres and we would make a living doing it. It was a big, really stressful uphill battle to educate people about what we were doing. Also, we bought the rabbit house here not knowing if we could actually build our house in it. If that didn’t work out it would have been very complicated to start. It is a lot of work to build a house and farm – that is why keeping things small and productive was how we pulled this off.
YA: What farming tool could you not live without?
FM: La grallinete and perhaps the washing machine for the salad mix.
TC: What farming tool do you wish you had?
FM: I don’t wish for any more farming tools. I have what I need. I am content with tools that we have. We’re working with Johnny’s Selected Seeds. There is cool stuff coming up. Stuff I didn’t know I needed or wanted. Actually – maybe a robot cultivator. They do exist. They go in fields. They have these censors. They weed and then when there is a plant… No actually I’m kidding…
YA: If you had a farming superpower what would it be?
JM: I’ve never been asked these type of questions before… I’d like to be a sales marketing expert and get people buying this stuff that they aren’t buying much of. Like bok choi – everyone would want it. Oh and in Spring I could snap my fingers to stop heavy wind to stop row cover from flying away. A bubble to protect the farm.
YA: If you weren’t a farmer, what would you be?
JM: Perhaps a professional skate boarder. Why not?
YA: What’s your favourite vegetable to grow in Summer?
JM: I really like mesclun. Its our signature crop. I’ve put a lot of time into it. I feel close to it. I’m always on my knees harvesting it. Besides that what else – beets are really cool.
YA: What’s your favourite vegetable in Winter?
TC: I like not farming in winter. Avocado (chuckle)
YA: What have you had to sacrifice the most to farm?
TC: The nightlife I guess. Or the life I should say. We had to sacrifice watching TV, which is a bummer because there are all these great shows now.
YA: What is your least favourite farmer stereotype?
JM: That farming is so much hard work, that we’re poor – I guess this is a reality for a lot of people but it doesn’t need to be that way. You don’t need to be rich but you can have a good lifestyle. You can manage things so that you have time. Have you ever read Richard Wiswall’s book about the business of farming? He writes that his parents always wanted him to be a doctor. They would of paid for him to go to medical school and he was bright enough. And he goes on to say ‘I just couldn’t take the pay cut’ and he went on to farm. There is money in farming its just how you go about it. Learning how to do it well and how your organized. It is like a trade. Not everyone’s a good engineer for example…
YA: What inspires you to farm?
JM: Well – we’re going to spend most of the time in this life working… So we wanted to have meaningful work. We were interested in ecology, community, homesteading – farming got to be how we do all of these.
YA: What is the biggest challenge for young farmers in Quebec?
JM: Really – political. For vegetable growing not such a problem. But for other types of farming – all of the quotas and legislation that make it so that you can’t have more than 100 chickens, 200 broilers. Can’t have cows. Can’t sell milk. Can’t give milk away. All of these legislations that have been past. In Quebec there is one syndicate and you have to be part of that syndicate and give money to that corporate syndicate. Lots of law have been passed to help farming to compete at the international level but the overall system is like a big cartel.
YA: In BC we have 105+ farmers markets across BC- is it like that in Quebec?
JM: There are not that many real farmers markets here yet- we’re not there yet in terms of local farmers markets. There are two big markets in Montreal that allow people to sell what they don’t grow. What is big here is CSA (community supported agriculture), which has grown a lot here because of the work of Equiterre.
YA: What do you think the future of farming is in Quebec?
JM: Small farms and the young agrarians that are interested in growing food without petroleum and providing food for their community and for the community to find interest in real food. Have these young people start their farms in the country. Not a lot of jobs in the country but can make a living farming if there is community to support.
YA: Do you have any last words for us?
JM: I think that as young agrarians we’re a growing movement of like-minded people and pretty soon we’ll be a strong force to be reckoned with!
We’re looking forward to hosting Jean-Martin Fortier here in BC in March 2014 as part of the launch of his book The Market Gardener!