The Bontés de la Vallée market garden took a step back from production this year.
The Havelock-based farm is one of the best-known organic vegetable farms in Quebec. Renowned for both the quality of its vegetables and its agri-environmental approach, the farm was the subject of Carole Poliquin’s documentary film, Humus, which opened in theatres just one year ago. This season, nearly 350 clients will no longer have access to Les Bontés’ weekly vegetable baskets.
Unfortunately, Les Bontés is far from being the only farm in difficulty in Quebec. According to a recent survey of 3675 farms in the province conducted by the Union des Producteurs Agricoles, more than one in ten farms are planning to close within the next year. High debt levels coupled with rising input costs and interest rates are among the factors straining the competitiveness of our farms, especially when compared to countries where environmental and labour standards are often much lower.
“We are not able to make a living from our business,” says François D’Aoust, the co-owner of Les Bontés de la Vallée. Years of working too many hours, low wages, and lack of time with their two young children have led D’Aoust and his wife Mélina Plante to a dead end. After 17 years of producing and distributing vegetables and fruits through the organic vegetable basket system, they have decided to temporarily stop producing to rethink the business model.
“We have not lost hope, because what we do has value. What you buy at the grocery store is not of the same quality that we produce here at the farm, but it is hard to compete against this,” he says. Moreover, the couple categorically refuses to be satisfied with just meeting the standards; instead, they push themselves to go beyond current standards to achieve truly sustainable agriculture.
“All agriculture should respect two principles: Produce the best quality, because it is food… and conserve or even improve the fertility of the land for future generations. Unfortunately, currently, it is competitiveness that prevails,” D’Aoust explains.
Caring for the environment beyond the norms has not resulted in a profitable business for the Bontés de la Vallée; however, the solution may lie in a new community farm model being advocated by the couple. With a strong core of customers, more than 100 of whom already say they are interested in a more participatory approach, D’Aoust is hopeful they can come back strong next year.
“We are looking for people who will support a community farm, where the prices are based on what things cost. We want to get back to the roots of community-supported agriculture, where the price is set according to the farm’s budget,” says D’Aoust.
Developing the new model keeps the couple busy for a few days of the week, and farm improvements fill their “free time.” As strong advocates for the benefits of biodiversity in agriculture, they are planting 300 trees around their fields, experimenting with cover crops to regenerate the soil, and are maintaining a plantation of 26,000 heads of garlic this year.
The farm also has an interesting selection of plants available for pre-order at lesbontesdelavallee.com/commander, with pickup available at the farm in Havelock on Saturday, May 20.