Posted at 5:00 am
“If I sell my product at the same price as last year, I am in the m…”
At the end of February, according to his calculations, Alain Dulude brought his wife Caroline and his children, who are also his business partners, together to ask them the killer question. Let’s move on? he asked her.
For the first time, the gardener family from Saint-Rémi is questioning their raison d’être for 35 years.
The investment required before planting a single vegetable plant in the ground is always important to vegetable gardeners, but this year, with the rise in packaging, cardboard, gasoline and labor costs, the equation no longer works.
“It’s costing me $300,000 or $400,000 more than it did last year. If I sell my product at the same price as last year, I’m in big trouble,” concludes Alain Dulude.
The price that the grower gets for his vegetables is a bit like a lottery. If he’s lucky and the weather cooperates, the season will be good. If the heat wave rages, he could lose everything. But year after year and despite rising costs, prices remain desperately stable, the producer complains, “while everything is rising right and left.”
These are not vegetables that are sold at high prices in public markets or in farmers’ baskets, which remains a marginal activity, but products that fill supermarket shelves to be consumed throughout Quebec.
Nevertheless, this year the Dulude family, with the help of their 60 employees, 38 of them from Guatemala, planted 2.8 million cabbages, 200,000 tomatoes, onions and pumpkins.
The alternative, large-scale cultivation of cereals such as corn, soybeans, wheat or barley was considered. “For the size of the country we have, it’s attractive,” says Alain Dulude.
His wife Caroline doesn’t want to know anything about it. “I don’t want that,” she says. I want to keep feeding the world, that’s what keeps us alive. »
“I find it unfortunate that we are in 2022 and cannot make a living from our work,” laments Marie-Philippe, her daughter, who, along with her sister Carolanne and brother Jean-Sébastien, intends to take over the post Business set up by his parents.
We started from scratch in 1989. We built a beautiful farm and I don’t want to lose it. Before I lose her I will do something else.
Bye, celeriac, cabbage, onions
To do otherwise, for Alain Dulude, like all discouraged gardeners, means embarking on large-scale farming where prices are predictable and profitability assured.
Alain Ferland did it this year after 16 years of growing celeriac, cabbage and onions in Saint-Rémi.
“It was my lifeline, a little boy’s dream,” he regrets to this day, after seeding his entire land with corn.
Alain Ferland also made his decision based on his calculations at the start of the season last February.
“I have invested, energy and money. I’m still an enthusiast, but I said to myself in the spring that it doesn’t make sense. I can’t invest all that money to start a season without knowing the price I’ll get for my veggies. »
For 25 pounds of turnips, he could get $2.50 one week and $6 the next. This insecurity causes her husband to be exhausted. “I always felt like I had a knife between my teeth and a gun to my temple,” he says.
The question of succession occupied him.
If you pass your business on to your children, that’s your retirement savings, but what are you putting them into? It’s better to sell to strangers and find another game board.
More and more vegetable gardeners are opting for this. Some of the larger ones, like Vegpro, have attracted interest from American investors.
Alain Ferland has decided to continue feeding Quebec, but in a different way. “I am 45 years old, he falls. I still have a head on my shoulders, my wife is still here. I have three children who still recognize me. Cultures Ferland took up all the space and that was it. Alain Ferland came before Cultures Ferland. »
Although he still has “the motto” when he thinks back to his former job, the grower can tell the difference between growing vegetables and growing grains. “When you’re done with vegetable gardening and arrive in big harvests, it’s almost like you’re on vacation,” he notes. Recently, after the flea market in Saint-Rémi, I even had dinner with my neighbors! »
Another big difference is that the banks are better positioned towards a producer whose income is predictable as it is fixed in the international market and part of the production can be sold in advance.
Despite everything, Alain Ferland will always regret growing vegetables, which he associates with an art. “But I’ve made my decision. I have a 12 year old boy, he loves tractors. It’s sad what I’m going to say here, but I don’t want my kids to go in that direction. »
Which local buy?
Catherine Lefebvre doesn’t really believe the big talk about food autonomy and the growing desire of Quebec consumers to shop local.
“We don’t feel it, but we really don’t,” says the president of the Quebec Vegetable Producers Association, who also grows beets, cabbage and onions.
The reality, she says, is that consumers are unwilling to pay more for local products that are more expensive to produce.
The consumer, who pulls his hair out over the high vegetable prices in the supermarket, should know that the producer sells his products to wholesalers who are not afraid to play companies off against each other.
“Catherine, what price are you paying today?” $8.50? Alain makes them for me for $7! Talking to Alain, whom she knows, that’s good. It is not true. “It’s a daily struggle,” she sighs.
Catherine Lefebvre believes chains want Quebec products to ease their conscience, but at the same price as products from other countries. They buy prices before they buy products. Hence the efforts of wholesalers to “squeeze” local producers.
To say that we can produce vegetables for the same price as Mexico is, in their opinion, nonsense.
Production costs more here. We are far from competitive. Our Mexicans here earn $700 to $800 a week. It costs $80 for them. The season is short and we have to heat greenhouses. You produce all year round and do not have to pay for heating.
Catherine Lefebvre, President of the Quebec Vegetable Producers Association
Standards and more standards
One might think that the main problem faced by market gardeners is the lack of labor. This is not the case, according to the president of your association. The brunt is the successive regulations that apply to vegetable production, forcing growers to spend more time filling out forms than tending fields.
Access to foreign workers, for example, has become more complicated as all sectors of the economy, not just farmers, can access them. Regulation has increased, she explains. “We now have to reserve our workers in November for the following season,” she explains.
Nobody is against food safety standards, but they are multiplying and taking up more and more time for producers. Management of water, pesticides and pesticide residues, recycling of agricultural plastics are all new social concerns coming to the table from vegetable gardeners who do not have the resources to deal with them effectively.
Climate change is also increasing concern for producers, who often have just hours to decide whether to irrigate their fields or brave the heatwave and risk losing everything. The need is growing among the producers, their representative notes.
In the grocery store, nobody pays attention to the fact that cucumbers grown in Quebec have to meet much stricter standards than those from Mexico, regrets Catherine Lefebvre.
As a producer representative, Catherine Lefebvre is leading the struggles she believes must be waged for the future of Quebec’s vegetable production. But sometimes she is also discouraged.
At 45 she has a daughter who could take over the family business. She wonders if that’s a good idea.
“There are days when we would sell anything,” she said.