Olivier Labrie: Quinoa For Change Farm Season Update

Posted by Jennifer Cline on December 17, 2014

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The season is complete, it has been for some time here on the Island of Montréal. It is the end of a season’s story, but I realize it is just the beginning of something greater! Right now the soil is dormant, giving it a chance to rest and to rejuvenate. Soil micro-flora and -fauna activities slow into their cyclical stupor. This downtime is just as valuable to any farmer, as the body’s aches find time to heal (I know mine are!), and reflections regarding the season are processed in a meticulous and caring manner.

The time for preparation was limited early on. The winter was spent connecting with people, planning expenditures, making seed orders, gathering tools, and building a schedule to guide me through the season. As the community’s support started to blossom, spring began to show its presence. I anxiously awaited to start the preparation of the field to have it ready for the collective sowing of organic quinoa and amaranth seeds, with fellow food activists that make up this passionate and empathetic generation. Surely Ferme du Zéphyr, being a diverse biological oasis and organic food system, would draw people from all backgrounds. All I could hope for was to create waves and pique the curiosity of listeners, to give me the chance to share this hidden gem tucked away from the cityscape with as many people as possible.

Approximately two weeks prior to my scheduled bed prep in Ferme du Zéphyr’s field, I was pleased to have made a contact via my first Young Agrarians blog post, with a couple from Shuswap, BC that initiated the first open source quinoa blog called Quinoa Project. I spent some time asking them a few questions, hearing their story and exploring their forum. I read a post called “When to plant”, which highlighted the importance of the precise timing for the direct seeding of quinoa. Quinoa, a relative of spinach in the Chenopodiaceae family, will only germinate successfully in cooler soil temperatures, and can be sown as soon as the soil is thawed enough to manage physically.

Anticipating air temperatures to reach the mid-20°Cs by the time of the original planting date, my nerves began firing more rampantly. Feeling the pressure early on helped me get through the bed prep and massive stone lifting on my own, and quickly organize an event to rally some friends and community members for the direct hand sowing of the seeds. Seed by seed, eighteen of us, many having met for the first time, collectively placed hundreds of quinoa and amaranth seeds in the soil during the next couple of weekends.

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Conditions were still on the cool side, but worries that the soil was too warm seemed to linger in the back of my mind. At this point, all we could do is hope for the best, be grateful for the information provided by our friends out West, and wait patiently three to four days for the germination of the seeds.

Working full-time at a rooftop greenhouse in the city during the week, I had to get my information about how the crop was doing through e-mails to Zéphyr’s farmers. The good news came that the seeds had germinated! What a relief! I was eager to examine the situation first hand. Friday evening, after work, I commuted back home to central Montréal from Laval, packed a bag for the weekend, grabbed by bike and caught the 6:30 pm train from Downtown to the Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue station. This became a weekly routine trip that took about four hours from work to farm, and the 20 minute bike ride down the mansion laden, Senneville Road, felt like the longest part.

My first trip out following the planting, I was greeted by weeds that blended in with inconspicuous rows of quinoa, and more evident rows of burgundy amaranth. Stirrup hoeing and hand weeding was a challenge, and required several hours over a few weekends to complete a first pass. I finally managed to find rows of quinoa hiding amongst its naturally occurring and nearly identical cousin, Lamb’s Quarters! For a moment, I breathed a huge sigh of relief.

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The raised beds served their purpose and helped reduce soil erosion, promote soil drainage and early plant growth as the prevalent pitter-patter of Québec’s spring showers sounded the beginning of a new season.

The next month and a half was spent on my knees, hand-weeding and harvesting amaranth greens, via thinning of the rows, for market and for donation to two community organizations in Montréal. This was quite time-consuming, from harvest to bagging the amaranth bouquets, and so help from old friends and new ones was greatly appreciated. The value of a team and of joy from happy faces!

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Weed pressure continued throughout the season, and as the crop started to tower in the field with maturity, its vibrant colours painted the landscape, carrying with it hopes of a plentiful harvest. Still, I envisioned a great deal of work ahead, and this foreshadowing kept me grounded in preparation for what was to come.

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Bountiful

Excitement grew within me as the most important part of the season was approaching from the horizon, the Harvest, processing (threshing and winnowing), and storage. The support was heart-warming and could not have been more timely. Coworkers, friends visiting from Germany, new faces, old friends, enthusiastic donors, and already tired farmers all lent a helping hand throughout each of these demanding stages.

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Getting through each day, and through each step was only possible by spending my weekends at the farm. Every night that I spent at the farm I placed two to three foam mattresses, a pillow and a sleeping bag exactly where these threshed quinoa stems lay on the ground. Sometimes sympathetic friends would join me here to get the full experience and enjoy the environment that is unique to this farm, and where the natural wonders of the Morgan Arboretum are exposed. The best experiences were those that were shared with these people. Synchronicity could be felt as we awoke together to the rising sun, worked together in nature towards a common goal, enjoyed sharing nutritious meals together, learned about the crop together, shared ideas, and finally fell asleep to the setting sun.

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Needless to preach this to other farmers, one of the major takeaways from this whole experience that I feel the need to share and to ask readers is to please take a moment before and after your meal, whether it be with fair-trade organic quinoa or organic potatoes, to appreciate the time and energy poured into the growth and maintenance of such crops that are staples in our diet. Growing organic food is not an easy task, especially at a small-scale, but it is necessary, and is valuable to everyone and to the health of the planet. The best way to find this out for yourself is to give your local organic farmer a helping hand!

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The successes of this season, and getting through its challenges, would not have been possible without the helping hand of 41 volunteers, as well as the support of the numerous donors, community members, and organizations involved. For that I am deeply grateful, and I thank you for making part of a dream come true. Being able to contribute a small part to NDG Food Depot’s and Santropol Roulant’s programs through this project, helped make a difference within the community. This journey continues as I travel to South America to seek to take part in the quinoa harvest festivities this winter.

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If you have read this far, thanks for listening, but I have a final thought. The future of global food systems holds many unknowns, yet the one certainty is that a sense of urgency for change is growing as more people come to understand the negative impact of technology-driven agriculture on the environment, on communities, and on food sovereignty. The perpetuating imbalance within conventional food systems is feeding poverty and malnutrition, which conveys a sense of dismay for global food security as we struggle to reach a balance. Let’s move forward with belief in change and passion!

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