Neighbors to the North—Seeding Relationships
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
Some 20 years ago, when Tom Stearns of High Mowing Seeds was living in Holland, Vermont, just on the border with Québec, he met Laurier Chabot at a biodynamic agriculture conference. Laurier, who has farmed in Québec since 1978, was president of the Biodynamic Association, and he invited Tom to spend a week accompanying him on Québec farm inspections for the association. “Northern Vermont can seem like the middle of nowhere,” Tom says, “but you go across the border and [southern Québec] is filled with little towns and small farms growing grains, fruits, vegetables. It’s not nearly as dairy dominated as Vermont is, and it has a distinctly European flair.”
The sheer density of vegetable production in the region was eye-opening for Tom, who was just launching High Mowing Seeds, now based in Wolcott. In the area around Sherington and Napierville, along the Saint Lawrence River south of Montreal, Tom notes that there are 10,000 acres of vegetables being grown in the two towns—five times the amount of vegetables grown in the whole state of Vermont. That’s a result of “muck soils,” rich in organic matter, that derive from drained swampland; it’s a type of soil present in Vermont as well, but not nearly as extensive or deep here. “In some of these places there’s over 100 feet of muck,” says Tom, and skilled growers in the area have been gradually turning it into very high-quality soil for vegetable and fruit production.
As a vegetable seed grower, Tom wanted to expand his networks. Building on his connection with Laurier, he has developed collaborative relationships with two distinct clusters of folks in Québec.
One is a group of conventional farmers in the Sherington/Napierville area. Although High Mowing sells exclusively organic seeds, Tom says these farmers are “smart growers, good stewards of their land, paying attention to insect and disease issues and how to handle them using techniques other than chemical sprays,” so High Mowing is conducting variety trials with these farmers on a scale that isn’t readily available in Vermont. “For example, they’ll say ‘I want to trial a new variety, do you have enough seed for five acres?’” These farmers also have the equipment and production methods that enable them to trial “complicated vegetables” like baby leaf spinach, arugula, fennel, carrots, and parsley as opposed to things like potatoes. “This is the most advanced vegetable production east of the Mississippi on the continent, and it’s two hours away,” says Tom.
High Mowing provides the seeds, and the farmers provide the data on their experiences. High Mowing staff also visit the farmers to collect their own data. No money is exchanged. Because the climate is similar, as are the pest and disease problems, Tom is able to see how these varieties perform under pressures that are similar to what they would be exposed to here. “To have this encyclopedia [of knowledge, experience, data] so close is incredible and amazing, and almost no farmers in Vermont know about it,” says Tom.
The other Québec network Tom is involved with is through Dan Brisebois, Dan’s wife Emily Board, and the other members of a 17-acre organic cooperative farm west of Montreal called the Tourne-Sol Cooperative Farm. Tom has conducted several trials on the farm, and has grown some of Tourne-Sol’s varieties at High Mowing’s research farm in Vermont. This has led to connections with other farmers in the area, as well as to a project Dan is closely involved with: the Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security, a 10-year effort to increase awareness around sustainable and organic seed production across Canada. The project includes training activities, research and community garden work around seed security, and public access to seeds. Tom recently conducted a training webinar with the Bauta Initiative.
“Québec is really fertile,” says Tom, noting that the Saint Lawrence River valley is 100 miles wide and hundreds of miles long, while the Lake Chaplain valley from the shore to the Green Mountains is just 10 miles wide. “Basically their little bread basket is almost the size of the state of Vermont.” Connecting with Québec farmers has allowed Tom to dramatically extend his capacity for trialing seeds, and gives him the opportunity to connect with the vibrant food and farming culture of Québec. “Even if I lived farther away, it’s such a huge advantage that I would go there anyway, to get access to these farmers, these fields. It’s just a huge learning experience.”