Hélène Saby won’t be selling the onions, the beets, or most of the vegetables she grows on rich clay soil in Saint-Chrysostome.
It’s not that they aren’t beautiful; far from it, they are impeccable – and for good reason. Only the best ones will be planted in an unheated greenhouse early next spring to produce seed to the delight of Quebec gardeners.
Saby became interested in seed farming because almost all the seeds available on store shelves are imported from China or the United States. “It’s also to evolve the genetics so that the plants respond better to our needs, to our climate, and to the diseases that can be present,” she says, pointing out that seeds produced in other climates are less adapted to the conditions here: a bit like a child who moves to Quebec after having grown up in Florida.
Saby, who just completed her first season of production at Duncan Farm, is part of a network of small seed farms scattered across southern Quebec. She produces wholesale for Quebec seed companies such as Jardins de l’écoumène, Ferme Coopérative Tournesol, or Semences du Grand Portage. These are companies that together represent a small segment in the market, but which have nevertheless seen rapid growth in recent years due to a strong demand for local seed.
Her project represents a change in the usage of the land in Saint-Chrysostome, which formerly hosted the organic market garden Les Jardins d’Ambroisie. New owners Éric Bélanger and his wife Anne Belhumeur, who together own several Montreal restaurants, bought the land in 2021. The couple have encouraged Saby’s venture to ensure the land is put to good use.
In addition to paying Saby a salary, which allowed her to start the seed initiative without worrying about the usual associated risks of starting a small business, they also support her on the administrative side with accounting, among other things.
Many stages of seed production are similar to gardening, but with some particularities. “The big challenge is to make sure the plant remains healthy as it matures,” says Saby, noting that a lot of prevention is needed to avoid disease and pest damage in organic farming. Among the strategies implemented on the farm, ventilation is key: “The space between plants is often three to four times more than normal. For example, one radish is planted every nine inches,” she explains. A red radish is normally ready to eat in four weeks from planting but takes about four months to produce seed. This translates into at least 16 weeks of weeding, protection from pests, and staking to keep the large plants from falling to the ground.
The work is worth it for Saby, who promotes the importance of seed self-sufficiency. “It is important to have access to resources in case of a problem, or if the border closes,” she says.
Her favorite plant? “It’s the onion because it’s the most fun to produce. You take care of it from the time it’s born from the seed to when it dies. You get attached to it! There is so much satisfaction in getting to the end of the process.”