How many of us in Quebec are still eating from our gardens in the month of December? Global warming aside, I would hazard very few. One such fortunate man is Bertrand Montpetit, a market gardener for over thirty years, organic for the last four. One dark and starry night last December, with flashlight in hand, I assisted as Betrand dug out a fistful of leeks that were destined for a vichyssoise. Where most of his four acres were covered in a thick blanket of snow, the earth in this bed was moist and crumbly, ideal for growing leeks.
The bed had been banked with straw bales at the end of the growing season and it was this protection that made it possible for us to be eating fresh vegetables in December. When I spoke to Bertrand this week he told me he had discovered another five leeks when he turned over the bed this spring. They had safely waited out winter under their straw bale roof.
The use of straw bales to prolong the growing season is an old technique, one Bertrand learned from reading gardening manuals published in the 1930s by the Trappist monks at Oka, Quebec. Prior to la Révolution tranquille, the Catholic Chuch dominated education in Quebec at all levels. It was monks from the Abbey Notre-Dame du Lac who ran the Oka Agricultural Institute, affiliated with the Université de Montréal. Canada’s first domestic poultry breed, the Chanteclerc, developed for cold weather hardiness, originated there.
When Bertrand graduated from MacDonald College’s farming program in the early 1980s there was not much of a market for organic vegetables. Pesticides were still considered the way of the future. When his professor inspected his first field after graduation, he told him what chemical went with which plant. During his twenty-five years as a market gardener on the West Island, Bertrand stuck with chemical agriculture — but with a growing sense of alarm. No one knows better than the people who apply the chemicals, just how toxic they can be. He tells me of one incident involving a man he was working with who accidentally inhaled some of the chemical he was applying, The man lost all feeling in his legs before his passed out cold on the ground.
In 2004, the forty-acre spread Bertrand rented for his garden was sold to developers. With this transaction, Bertrand’s career as a market gardener came to and end, and the last parcel of land for agriculture use in Saint-Anne-de-Bellevue disappeared. With it went some of the richest topsoil in Canada, which was stripped off and trucked away to be sold separately. Bertrand figures the price they got for the top soil was probably as much as they paid for the land which is now a subdivision.
By the time the bulldozers had demolished his garden, Bertrand was ready for a break. Inhaling pesticides and herbicides for a living, and the back breaking work of hand planting and weeding had taken its toil on his health. After a few years of trying his hand at other things Bertrand knew he wouldn’t be happy until gardening became his occupation again.
In 2010, while driving on a back road outside of St. Eugene, on the border between Quebec and Ontario, Bertrand found what he had been looking for: a few acres of good topsoil where he could grow vegetables organically. And that is where you will find him.
In the summer months he sells some of the best vegetables I have ever eaten from his stand near the corner of Grand Montée and RR. 7 (chemin du Petit Brûlé) in St. Eugene, about an hours drive from Montreal.
Read more of the Who’s Your Farmer series here.