Neighbors to the North—Fields of Gold
Written onNovember 15 , 2016
Over the years, we at Local Banquet have heard about Vermont farmers and food producers who have thriving professional relationships with growers and food manufacturers in Québec. So for this issue, we asked some of our writers to highlight a handful of these cross-border relationships. What follows are six vignettes about Vermont and Québec producers working together to strengthen our regional food system. —Caroline Abels
Jack Lazor called me at 8:00 p.m. the other night, which surprised me. I’m used to dairy farmer hours, and 8:00 p.m is past bedtime for most dairymen and women I’ve known. But Jack was ebullient and excited for the opportunity to talk about his friends in Québec.
In addition to running Butterworks Farm, an organic cow dairy in Westfield, Jack Lazor grows grain. At his farm east of Jay Peak, the landscape geology and barn architecture actually resembles Québec more than New England. Jack has been visiting with friends in Québec since the 1970s, when he first moved to Vermont. He developed fluency in French and used it to forge relationships with folks in Mansonville, Stanstead, Waterville, Ayer’s Cliff, and Compton. To this day he routinely discusses farming techniques, varietal research, and the effects of farm policy with his friends in the North.
Jack misses the more open, friendly, pre-9/11 border he once enjoyed. It used to be easier for him to mill grain in Québec, purchase Canadian seed varieties, and just go visit friends before increased permitting and notification requirements made his business relationships in Québec more challenging to maintain. The delays and the suspicion at the modern border now make a trip to Canada a much more carefully planned endeavor, he says. Nevertheless, Jack still regularly meets with his friends in Québec, and he expresses delight that Randy George of Red Hen Baking Company has developed relationships with Québec grain growers.
While Vermont agriculture has focused on large-scale dairy, the structure of farming regulations in Canada has allowed a broader array of cash-crop activities. Because nearly all crops are grown under quota systems, farmers must settle on a crop that has available quota space. With dairy nearly full, farmers have chosen to grow common grains, and newer farmers are growing less-common grains. When wet summers caused crop failures that forced Vermont farmers out of the oat-growing business in the 1960s, Québec farmers persisted and were rewarded with ongoing innovation and increased stability for all crop activities, while Vermont oat growers lost their mills and infrastructure, hastening the demise of Vermont’s grain-growing economy.
Although quotas contravene popular American narratives around ideas of freedom and self-determination, Jack believes they protect farmers from boom-and-bust cycles and provide the kind of price stability that permits his friends to invest in the health and fertility of their farms in ways that Vermont farmers cannot.
The subtext of our conversation was the value of having a different perspective on policy and regulation within farming. Jack notes that the diversity of farming in Québec supports stronger infrastructure and more diverse research efforts for developing better products and methods. For example, Jack points to improvements such as drainage tiles, which are common in Québec and allow for more reliable grain-growing despite our increasingly unpredictable climate.
The wide variety of sustainable enterprises in Québec also allows farmers to make use of multiple well-supported endeavors. If they grow grain, there are mills. If they grow hay, there are cows who will eat it. Farmers aren’t forced to blaze their own trails and set up completely new networks for incoming seed and outgoing product, with processing in the middle.
Jack also remarked on how many farmers in Québec rotate their crops and how well they care for their soil. At the same time, he said he wouldn’t necessarily favor Québec agricultural policy over America’s.
From my own sheep-farming experience, I know that farmers must be experts in many fields: crop health, animal health, feed science, soil science, accounting, marketing, and social media. Jack Lazor can add international trade, farm policy, and grain quota regulatory systems to that list.