(Saint-Pascal-de-Kamouraska) They left Montreal for the remote countryside to settle on a small farm, plant their vegetables and live on them all year round. Here’s why. And first of all how.
“Are we going to like this?” “Are we gonna be good?” “, “Are we going to be in our place? »
Maha Farah Elmir and Olivier Bissonnette-Lavoie wondered about it before taking the leap. And what a leap. From a three and a half in the Centre-Sud in Montreal to a small vegetable farm in the heart of Kamouraska, after a detour through the Eastern Townships, we can say that their lives have taken quite a turn. Like what feminist studies (for her) and communications (for him, doctorate included, postdoc in progress) lead to everything. Even small baskets of winter organic vegetables. Rather unusual concept in this small corner of the country, with notoriously arid winters, it should be specified.
To see them smile, satisfied after their very first season, we understand that they do not regret their decision too much.
We went to meet them in their pretty farmhouse, freshly renovated by their hands (“everything can be learned!”) in Bas-Saint-Laurent, on a sunny Friday in late March, as they were preparing to sell their very last baskets of winter — winter that was not yet quite over in this part of the country. Because who says baskets of winter vegetables obviously says sale in winter, typically from November to April. Culture all the rest of the year. There were only a few bags of onions left, rutabagas here, carrots there, in addition to a few tubs of squash. The dog Ziggy still found a way to steal a daikon!
But don’t think that Maha and Olivier are going to take it easy the rest of the year. If they sold 55 baskets every two weeks during the winter, they intend, due to the waiting list, to double the number next year. Not bad, for a first year in a niche that no one around here believed in! Unless I’m mistaken, only one other farm has attempted the project in the region.
Already, the seedlings are in pots for planting in the spring and it is by pruning leeks or watering onions that the couple of young intellectuals in their thirties who have become farmers tell us their improbable, but no less inspiring story. Ah yes, while the couple’s son, Youssef, 17 months, sleeps comfortably in his stroller, right in the middle of this old cattle barn converted for the needs of the cause. A barn that also serves as a playroom at times, as evidenced by this swing cleverly planted in the middle of the space.
Where to start ? Maha and Olivier met 10 years ago, in the middle of maple spring, in Sherbrooke. They quickly moved to Montreal together to continue their studies. Maha in history, culture and society, Olivier in communications. After a master’s degree, then a doctorate on social movements and the question of coloniality in Quebec (we agree that we are far from soil management or irrigation), and while Maha was co-directing a small festival of films (Les Filministes), Olivier was preparing to teach at CEGEP. “I haven’t really found a job. But I didn’t really look,” he smiles, harvesting his sunflower microgreens.
It’s because both of them were already dreaming of somewhere else. Maha comes from a family of restaurateurs and Olivier from… farmers. But not market gardeners, rather pig farmers. However, there was no question, neither for him nor for his siblings, of taking over the family business in which he nevertheless worked for many summers. Because he knows the workload too well. Crazy life, very little for him. Very little for them.
They therefore first settled in Sutton just before the pandemic and before this return to the land became the fashion that we know. Due to the lack of available land at a reasonable price, they decided to push further… as far as Kamouraska.
Olivier comes from the region and his parents bought some land and a barn as a bonus: this one. With this golden opportunity and after simmering a thousand projects (from the coffee show to medicinal herbs), this is how our budding farmers came to organic vegetables. Clarification: after a (pandemic) summer, still in the area, volunteering on a friend’s farm.
“We liked the setting, no bosses, and then it sparked a lot of interests that we had. »
“And then the contact with the plants, he continues, there is something magical. There are billions of interactions with organisms. It’s fun, you discover all the time. […] But yes, it requires curiosity and a thirst for learning. Thirst that he does not miss, we will have understood.
If they have opted for winter vegetables, it is to work in “complementarity” with the already existing offer. “And we’re super happy. Because it brings a much more balanced workload throughout the year,” says Maha, unlike the summer baskets. “And it helps with family-work balance. »
Besides, do not believe that they see here very big. ” Truly not ! We are a small start-up company. And our goal is to be as small as possible while being able to live off it. […] We don’t want to become managers! “There is something generational there: “I think so, confirms the one who also works as a community organizer to make ends meet. Young people are no longer interested in monoculture with big machinery and pesticides, with lots of employees. As we can see, there are many small farms emerging. »
For good reason: “There are many things that are questioned in relation to our food, the environment, our footprint on this earth, continues Olivier. How can we not just bequeath environmental problems to future generations? »
With these organic and local baskets, they respond on a small scale to this very big question. And to see the enthusiasm of their subscribers, it seems not to work too badly.
And different: he himself hadn’t been so familiar with daikon or kohlrabi so far. Imagine its customers. Next year, thanks to the two greenhouses they promise to build and heat to a minimum (under the inspiration of the Du Coq à l’âne farm in the Eastern Townships), they plan to offer greenery in their baskets as a bonus. . On the menu: arugula, green onions, kale, spinach, even Asian greens! “We introduced people to new sourcing models and new vegetables! »
All that being said, the couple remains awfully lucid. “It looks bucolic, shade Maha, these people having fun and having chickens. But it’s tough to make a living from it…” As we know, times are tough for Quebec farmers. More than one in 10 farms is considering closing, even a recent survey by the Union des producteurs agricole (UPA) reveals. The objective of our two neophytes? Find a way to sustain the project. And we won’t be surprised: all options are under consideration. “We will stay on the lookout for reflections, seek to develop links, develop new, more sustainable organizational forms,” concludes Olivier. We wish them.
No more Monday blues. Not only are Maha Farah Elmir and Olivier Bissonnette-Lavoie of Ferme des Rhizomes in Kamouraska now working every day, but above all they are motivated. And inspired by the cause: growing organic, preservative vegetables to feed locals all winter long. Explanations in four seasons.
Spring is the time for sowing. In particular onions and this, from mid-March. No choice: “The time for onions to mature is too long for our climate, so we leave them indoors, under the light,” explains Olivier after his very first year of cultivation, watering them religiously, as he does. done these days daily. No respite for sowing. From May, onions and leeks can then be planted in the fields, once they have been weeded and irrigated.
The following months will be followed by other crops that do not require sowing, planted directly in the fields: carrots, beets, radishes, parsnips, potatoes, etc. Note that here, if the land is more than 100 hectares, only 2 are used for the plants, the equivalent of a football field, judiciously located sheltered from the wind. In summer, the days are long. From 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., you have to weed, irrigate, in short, maintain the land. Last year, in addition to Olivier’s sister, the entire Filministes team came to lend a hand.
It’s harvest time. Starting with garlic (August) and onions (September), then everything else in October. Insider’s tip: “Many vegetables are sweeter if they’re frozen,” Olivier says. The trick is to leave them in the fields a little later! That being said, our friends also had their share of little worries: for fear of running out, they planted far too many onions, they were attacked by the carrot fly (and they lost a lot of plants ), as well as the Colorado potato beetle (better known as the potato beetle). Good news: “We vacuumed them with a vacuum cleaner and it worked well!” »
At the end of November, the vegetables must be cleaned, then stored in the various storage (or cold) rooms built for this purpose in the barn. They will stay there all winter to be distributed to customers. And they live up to their name very well, these “preservation vegetables”: when we visit, they are still very beautiful, as fresh as can be. Every two weeks, the baskets must then be made, which customers come here to pick up, often with their families. Picking becomes a kind of event. “We knew there would be a demand, but not to this extent, welcomes Olivier. People are obsessed with taste! “People come here to see the dog, the baby, there’s a very human side to it. People love it! adds Maha. And obviously, so do they.