Benoît Coulombe – Ferme la Giroflée
by Susan Fisch (August 2020)
In 2004, Benoît Coulombe and his then partner, Nancy Blanchette, were looking for a piece of land in Hemmingford Township, drawn by the vibrant energy and beauty of its natural environment. They settled on a house in the Village. The family thrived, with their two children, Baptiste and Caleb, and Nancy’s son Jérémy. But their dream remained, to own a piece of land. Finally, in 2013 they found their farm on Napper Road.
This was perfect for Benoît, whose expertise is in the production of fruits and vegetables. He consults for farms in management and agronomy and teaches agricultural production.
They chose blueberries because organic farms in the region are rare. Blueberries are always in demand, as a superfood with medicinal properties that benefit the heart, the brain and the immune system, and are a powerful antioxidant. They also keep well in storage. This allowed them to have a family venture, where one continued working outside, while the other looked after the blueberries. Nancy and Benoît worked tirelessly, clearing the land and planting several thousand plants, to which Benoît adds yearly.
A blueberry farmer needs patience. While conventional farms take 8 years to see profits, organic farms take 10, and for the first 3-4 years there is no harvest while the plants grow and mature. He has 20 varieties, from tart to sweet, from small to large fruits, and a harvest season from mid-July to mid-September.
This year is an ample harvest. It is hard to find workers, due to its part-time, on-call nature. Normally, people pick between 6am and 1pm, and in the evenings. But if there is dew on the plants, they have to wait until 9am. Or if it is raining, they can’t pick that day. So the schedule is in split shifts, driven by weather. The main challenges are birds, insects, diseases that affect the plants, and shortage of pickers, which is across the industry. Benoît believes in “fair trade”, or, equitable wages, for workers to make a decent living, in a pesticide-free environment. His wages are higher than most. His mission is based on a value chain, giving equal value to the pickers, providing equitable wages, to the farmers producing an organic product, and to the consumers who wants to invest locally, while caring for their health.
He invites the community to come and pick blueberries. You can:
1. Work for wages a few hours here or there, or a few days a week.
2. Pick your own and pay less.
3. The barter system, where you work for blueberries – 30% of what you pick is yours. A great way to spend a day in nature.
His latest offering is prepaid, year-long frozen blueberries for individual clients. Place your prepaid order, pick it up at the farm bi-weekly or monthly for a whole year, for top quality berries, frozen within 24-48 hours of picking, in reusable plastic bags. He also offers a #2 quality for pies or jams.
Benoît has organized organic blueberry producers in the area into a collective, for greater marketing advantage, selling locally, to Marché Tradition, at Le Café, U-pick and a kiosque at the farm. He supplies Lufa Farms – a large distribution network, a wholesaler, and at Atwater Market, where Nancy has a kiosque since 2018. He also provides blueberries to organic farms that offer weekly vegetable baskets.
The farm also grows two kinds of specialty peppers, called snack peppers, which are very sweet and delicious. Benoît rents parcels of land to people who have a project they want to try. The benefits are low investment, Benoit’s expertise and mentorship, the synergy of a community and the end product will be certified organic. As such, La Giroflée is an incubator for start-up growers, creating diversity at the farm. He would love to attract start-ups like medicinal herbalists or other specialty organic products. He is also exploring offering his expertise to small organic farms in the area.
Benoît’s vision for the future is to attract people growing a variety of organic products as a community, meaning local people who visit the farm, people who work there, and those who come to use the site because they enjoy the synergy and environment and come back frequently. He envisions a simple infrastructure for people to use the farm for events, like a day of Yoga or Meditation, or retreats and workshops, or other events, in a natural setting. For the past three years, he organized a Spring Festival and would like to add a Harvest and a Fall Festival for the enjoyment of families and friends.
Of course, this year it had to be put on hold. Hopefully it will inspire others to make use of the site for their events.
If you have some free time to pick wonderful, organic blueberries this summer, they are located at 753 Napper Road, corner of Williams Road. But please telephone first. 514-951-0193. Benoît will be happy to receive you. You can also follow him on Facebook at Ferme Giroflée.