No one told Jean-Martin Fortier and Maude-Hélène Desroches that small-scale organic market gardening was endless hours of backbreaking work for low pay.
“Our first role model was a French Canadian guy we worked for who was farming in northern New Mexico,” says Fortier.
“He worked hard but made a lot of dough. People lined up for his produce at the market and he did $2,000 in sales every Saturday morning. And he spent two months in Mexico in the winter. We thought, ‘wow.’ ”
So did they get a wake-up call when they started Les Jardins de la Grelinette in eastern Québec? Nope. They generate $140,000 off 1.5 acres and pocket 45 percent.
They also travel, especially Fortier, who is in great demand because of his hit book, Le Jardinier-Maraîcher, which has sold 15,000 copies. That’s an astonishing figure for a how-to book largely focused on things such as drainage, weed control and rotations. The recently released English version, The Market Gardener, is creating a similar buzz.
It also offers a lesson for large-scale, conventional producers because Fortier, who grew up in Montréal, retains his outsider’s view of farming and a passion for achieving maximum results with a minimum of effort.
“If you want to have a life, you have to be efficient,” he says.
“I used to be a tree planter and anyone who has done that knows it’s funny how it works. Everyone puts in the same effort, but some guys make two, three or even four times more than you because they are efficient with every movement they make. It’s an art, and we’ve applied that to the farm.”
The Market Gardener is all about a system built around 30-inch-wide, 100-foot-long raised beds. All the equipment, and there are a lot of innovative machines and tools out there, is sized to that width, and every practice from minimum tillage and tarps to crop selection and marketing is geared to boosting productivity and efficiency.
However, it’s Fortier’s incredibly detailed crop calendar that showcases his unrelenting drive for efficiency. Every task, from planting to harvest, on every foot of his 193 beds is mapped out before the first seed is planted in the nursery greenhouse.
Here’s one example.
Fortier uses ultraviolet-resistant tarps (30 inches wide, of course) and dense planting to reduce weed pressure, and then goes a step further.
One week before seeding, off comes the tarp so the sun can germinate weed seeds. Then exactly a week later — it’s in the calendar — he sows his seed using one of two types of hand-powered precision seeders.
When the weeds emerge seven days later, Fortier is waiting with his 30-inch-wide flame weeder. The crop emerges and grows robustly in the absence of competitors, quickly establishing a thick canopy that not only thwarts late sprouting weeds but also reduces the need for watering.
The equipment on the 11-year-old operation, which ranges from walking tractors to broadforks (grelinettes in French) — is testament to the rapid evolution in small-scale farming. The “counter-culture” approach to food production is all well and good, but “you must be very serious about it and really organized,” he says.
“People need to understand this is a trade.… A carpenter or baker can’t improvise all the time. You need to know what you’re doing and have an action plan.”
Action plans work only if you have measurable benchmarks, and Fortier and Desroches, parents of two, have one that is virtually unheard of on farms of any sort: they almost always knock off work at 5 p.m., even during the busiest times of the growing season.
“To me, it’s not realistic to work from 6 a.m. to 10 every night. We work from seven to five. This forces us to plan better.”
Of course, that’s not possible when you’re calving or seeding several thousand acres in a few short weeks. However, you get creative when reducing your workload is a priority and not just a vague hope.
For Fortier, the “art” of efficiency is about gaining 10 minutes here, half an hour there, and doing that with every job.
A strong work ethic is a virtue, but working endless hours instead of working smarter is nothing to brag about.
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