Interview with Quebec Farmer & Author Frederic Theriault

Posted by Sara Dent on January 13, 2015

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Young Agrarians BC Coordinator Sara Dent caught Frédéric Thériault  for an interview to learn more about him and his farm operation. We’re super excited to host Frédéric for three Rockstar Farmer Tour Workshops on Crop Planning for farm financial viability: Kelowna (Jan 25), Victoria (Jan 29) and Richmond (Feb 4). If you are in farm start-up, or want to learn more about how to plan the financial aspects of your future farm – this workshop is for you! More info and tickets here: youngagrarians.org/cropplanning.

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Where do you farm? Tourne-sol, Les Cèdres, Quebec

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Favourite vegetable or fruit to grow in summer? Tomatoes: I enjoy the work in the tunnels in the heat and the heavy harvest abundance. People like them and there are many great varieties! We also so some exciting tomatoe breeding work

What is your favourite vegetable to grow in the winter? We have an unheated greenhouse (GH) that we keep cropping late in the fall. One of the best crops is Spinach but I hate harvesting spinach. Carrots are really good and quite productive. We don’t really crop past December on our farm because we don’t really have the market, and it is too cold. Its -15C out today. Not that it’s not feasible, winter growing in the Northeast is at the edge in market gardening these days, and some things can work, but it’s more R&D, more risk, more time, and without a good market, we prefer to take a break.

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How did you get into farming? I was an environmentalist who was super involved with the anti-globalization movement in CEGEP and University. I started to study ecology and wanted to work in a non-profit or teach. Then I started to see agriculture as an applied form of environmentalism. I realized that if I can start convincing people to do it organically then it’ll have a big impact on the soil, the water, the environment and people’s health. I switched my studies to ecological agriculture. I worked one summer on a farm where I met my partner, and kept working at that farm for a few years and learned a lot. My plan before was to teach to make money in order to be able to farm in the future. But by the end of University we already had an opportunity to rent land and decided with some other farmer friends to start a co-op. At first, I didn’t have much confidence that we could make much money – but things turned out good and we have been able to make a good living out of our agricultural adventures.

What type of farm model do you work? (Community Farm, Farm Co-op, Business, Bio-Dynamic, Organic / Transitional or Certified, etc.)

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Tourne-Sol Farm Co-op, founded in 2005, is a worker’s for-profit co-op that redistributes profits to it’s members. We started the co-op without knowing everything about cooperatives. It was an ideological choice in the beginning. Since we were five people working together, we needed a different structure than say a business partnership.

Being in a co-op forced us to use our resources in a very optimal way, and think through our investment decisions. The biggest challenge with our structure is the question of what if someone leaves. The co-op is really structured to put forth the business objectives, more than recognizing the founders’ input. I, as an individual, don’t really own a % of the co-op, and the investments I’ve made in the co-op will not grow in time.  So, if I leave the co-op tomorrow I don’t leave with 20% of the shares or 20% of the business value. I leave with a thank-you from the rest of the members, and I leave with whatever money I have invested in the co-op through the years. Our initial investment at start-up was in money, tools, equipment, etc. was around $3500 each. We can take that out of the co-op, and every year as the farm grows, I get more shares in the co-op, which I could choose to take with me… So in that sense there is some type of return, but not comparable to what you would get with another business structure. “Co-op is really about our business rather than my business.” The benefits of the co-op structure for us have been to be able to start with little investment, work less hours, share the management load, get better results, get living wages more rapidly, work with great colleagues, stability of the work force in the long run, etc. There definitely is a lot more to say about agricultural co-op, and I think co-ops are a very good model.

How did you get into being an educator? I’ve always thought I would be a teacher. When I was in high school I was a tutor, same in College and University. It’s one of my strengths to make concepts simple for others to use. Communicating is something I really enjoy. When I started farming early on – which wasn’t my original plan (which was to p/t farm, and p/t teach or seasonally farm and teach). It became obvious over time to focus on the farming and do the teaching in the winter.

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Why did you write the Crop Planning Handbook? It was initially Daniel Brisebois’ idea – he thought there was a demand for crop planning resources, and Canadian Organic Growers (COG) were looking for interesting topics for their “Practical Skills” series. I thought the idea was great, and was excited about systematizing our crop planning technique and get a book out about it.

What appeals to you most about farming? The fact is that it is a fundamentally good thing that we’re doing. I grow food the right way to feed the people around me. I have no qualms around what I do at work and what we do in the world. I feel like we’re bringing the world further. I wouldn’t want to work for any corporation that is doing harmful things. Working for ourselves and doing something that is fundamentally good is a big draw. And the work is fun, diverse and fulfilling- as long as my body can handle it.

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Tell me about your land situation: We never bought. We’re still renting! There is a lot of legislation that makes it complicated. We are now working on buying a small piece, however we’ve been renting from the beginning and it’s a great startup option. It’s been a great way to minimize our costs and use the land we have to its’ fullest production potential. The farmhouse on the land was serendipitously for sale when we started the co-op. We went to plant garlic fall 2004 and on that day the house was put on the market. At the time, we had no idea where we were going to live and how it would work out we just wanted to do it!

One the co-op members bought the house and we all lived there for a couple of years, renting, and helping to pay the mortgage. Then we all took our own separate dwellings because we wanted to start a co-op not necessarily a commune. We knew we needed personal space outside of the business. I moved back to Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue with my family. It’s a small town, close to Montreal, and close to farm and rural life at the same time.

This has also helped grow the market for the Tourne-Sol since living in Sainte-Anne means that I can spend more time developing the farmer’s market here, while the couple on the farm can manage any immediate on-farm emergencies.

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What farming tool could you not live without? Wheel hoe. I like the wheel hoe. It’s a tool that helped us a lot the first ten years.

What farming tool do you wish you had? We think about that every year. If we really want something we get it. We decided to buy a flame weeder this year but I don’t know if we’ll love it. I don’t want everyone to think they need to get one but that’s the tool we’ve decided on for this year.

If you had a farming super power what would it be? Super-weeding power, it would be really nice to have super clean fields effortlessly. But magic-harvest power would really make a difference!

If you weren’t a farmer what would you be? Teacher. Probably. My future career though if I leave farming is going to be osteopathy. {Sara and Fred blab about osteopathy for a bit- which is a form of non-invasive body work that can help heal old injuries and re-align the muscles and bones, especially helpful if you need some TLC after years of farming.}

What have you had to sacrifice the most to farm? We’re focusing a lot on holistic management and putting our life goals in the centre of the business- making sure the business allows us to meet our life goals. So – it isn’t about sacrificing what I want most – the business supports what I do. But farming is a time consuming endeavor. So having time for hobbies – with farming and kids its not so easy. I’d love to spend more time playing guitar and music, reading, doing new things. Those are the things I’ve sacrificed.

What is your least favourite farmer related stereotype? People think we work 80 hours a week, and that there is no way to make a living farming… that farming is back breaking work. I like to show people what and how we do what we do to prove it isn’t true.

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Who inspires you to farm? A lot of my friends do the same things that we do. They are a constant source of inspiration. We do a lot of sharing and coordinating in Quebec right now. We feed off what each other are doing and learn from each other.

What is the biggest challenge that you think young farmers in Quebec face? Developing the market for your products and making sure that more people want to buy organic food from local producers. (Sara comments that this is the case in BC as well.)

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What do you think the future of farming in Quebec is? Being smart and being organized. There is more and more interest for our small-scale and medium-scale agriculture. I don’t think it’s going to be easy but I do think it’s going to keep growing. Organics is the sector growing the most in the agriculture world right now. There is a lot of space for new farms. My hope is that one day we’ll repopulate the countryside again and make for vibrant rural village life.

Tell us about CAPE: The “Co-op pour une Agriculture de Proxité Écologique” is a producers co-op in Quebec that was founded two years ago by a number of us local producers to give ourselves a voice in the political arena and to provide ourselves with services that will help our businesses to grow.

A long time ago, we were a group of agriculture students who organized a yearly event to meet other students. Then we started our lives as farmers and decided to make a network. We created a listserv, and organized a first event at Tourne-Sol. The network grew and continued to host yearly events, but we were just a network, we had no structure, we were not a real entity.This grew the desire to be more political and organize to be a voice for our kind of agriculture. We then started a sub-committee to set-up the co-op.

CAPE is for organic producers in any kind of production but mostly it’s veggie producers who are members right now. Our goal is to network everyone who does direct marketing and represent our interests in local and ecological agriculture. In order to do that, we formed a co-op. The co-op provides services to members like: collective marketing, collective buying of inputs, conferences, training, training, outreach and more.

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