The fruit farm of the future
I meet the farm-school students of the Institut National d’Agriculture Biologique (INAB) in Victoriaville. Eleven of them are part of a new program in organic fruit growing, started two years ago in response to growing interest. Between a permaculture forest, an orchard, greenhouses, gardens, and hives, they are experimenting and reflecting on all they’ve learned.
“What they tell us is that there’s a demand in Québec for organic fruit, and that we’re capable of meeting it,” says Maya Boivin-Lalonde, a teacher in the department of agriculture at INAB. Fruit trees are perennials that survive year after year “thanks to the Québec winters that cut the cycle of sickness,” she adds. “It helps us do this organically.”
The students, aged 20 to 40 years, know that you have to have a solid backbone to start a fruit farm, if you consider that the trees won’t produce fruit for the first three years.
They don’t all want to become entrepreneurs. Some simply dream of self-sufficiency and know that buying local and organic begins with education. “I’ve already converted a few people!” says Elisabeth Christopherson proudly. On the day we speak, the 31-year-old is responsible for preparing floral strips that will serve to concoct jellies.
“I like the idea of building something that will survive me,” adds Valentin Mohy, 23 years old. Mohy is not in a hurry. A decade might well pass between the pandemic spring and the moment when he’ll drink the first glass of cider in his organic orchard in Saguenay — a Nordic region, where he dreams of agroforestry — and he’s okay with that.
Here, the model proposed by Stefan Sobkowiak is either completely unknown, or it polarizes the students. “I have a lot of trouble with permaculture, because I want to make a living some other way than writing books and taking on unpaid employees,” blurts out Simon Jalbert, a 34-year-old student.
Jalbert picked cherries out west for 15 years. Now he wants to offer sweet organic varieties of cherries to consumers without resorting to monoculture. He also wants to acquire a freezer to make provisions.
When they’ve finished their course, the graduates will be eligible for subsidies to help them start up their businesses: sums of up to $50,000, accessible under certain conditions. These, however, are meagre amounts for a farm that won’t produce fruit in its first years, and which will require investments of land and equipment.
For the moment, the government programs mainly favour large-scale crops, focused on volume — a profitable model that represents less risk for the Financière Agricole du Québec. Diversified organic farms don’t fit easily into the business models of MAPAQ and financial institutions, which don’t often take exceptions into account.
Mohy and Guillaume Bélanger are among the students, researchers, and marginal farmers who are thinking about the role of bees in fruit production. Last year the bees at the hive-school were stressed from a lack of food. “We’re trying to rebalance the ratio of domestic bees and indigenous pollinators,” explains Bélanger, 23 years old.
So how long will it be before we can see a greater offering of local organic fruits on the shelves?
“Five years from now!” answers Lalonde, optimistic.