Features | Producing change

Opening space for small-scale agriculture in Quebec

I used to see myself as a town mouse rather than a country one. Born in downtown Montreal, I’ve always gravitated around metropoles. I’ve found remarkable peace by losing myself in mazes of skyscrapers, shops, and dwellings of every shape and size. It therefore felt coherent to pursue my studies in urbanism, and I winded up doing an urban agriculture internship. My initial idea was to learn more about how to integrate nature into cities and resilient ways to address pressing issues such as food deserts. However my perspective changed as the internship gave me a chance to watch seeds germinate, seedlings grow, and plants flourish. I have seldom felt so fulfilled as by witnessing how my hard work has a direct impact on those lives.

Now I dream of nasturtiums, floating on the wind like lily pads for bees to hop on, flowering islands amidst iridescent swiss chard, hanging peas, fleshy tomatoes and voluptuous cabbages. I dream of hens, sheep, goats or cows grazing around, regenerating and tilling the soil, sequestering more carbon under their feet. I want to wake up every day to care for those plants, insects, and animals, so as to give back to the soil just as it it gives to me. So that I can keep contributing to a healthy community—for plants, animals, and humans. I hope to do my part in making our food system and overall interaction with our environment more holistic and sustainable.

However, as I dug deeper into the agricultural world that I so dearly wished to become a part of, I began to realize something that a number of other people have observed as well: the current Quebec agricultural system is deeply and undeniably flawed. It is drowning in regulations from another age, aimed at challenges that no longer exist, maintained to protect the assets of those farms currently benefitting from them. There is a dire need for adaptation in order to respond to new issues. The current situation is especially detrimental to newcomers and people experimenting with innovative ways to address the many issues plaguing our food system. With such an aggressive frame for operation in place, we end up deprived of a diversity of species, practices, produce and knowledge.

Now I dream of nasturtiums, floating on the wind like lily pads for bees to hop on, flowering islands amidst iridescent swiss chard, hanging peas, fleshy tomatoes and voluptuous cabbages.

One syndicate to rule them all

The core of the problem is to be found in the syndical monopoly held by the Union des Producteurs Agricoles (UPA), stemming from the 1972 law regulating agricultural producers. This statute allows a single union at a time to receive official recognition by the government, meaning every producer in Quebec within every different area of agriculture has to be part of the same one union. While joining the union is optional, it’s the only possible union to join and it’s the only way to access certain state granted benefits. This situation is unique in the world. How can a single union defend the interests of all farmers and foresters, of both conventional and organic agricultures? Surely someone raising beef would have very different demands from someone growing vegetables, and even more so if one is a large-scale industrial operation while the second is merely selling some of their surplus home produce at a local market.

It all started in 1924. Quebec producers felt the growing need to associate to ensure their own protection, especially against the competition of Ontarian farmers, and so came to life the Union des Cultivateurs Catholiques (UCC). The powers of this Union grew out of proportion in 1955 when, following the recommendation of the Héon Commission, the Act respecting the marketing of agricultural, food and fish products was created. The report claimed that, at that time, the number of farms in Quebec was too high, which was incapacitating the most productive farms. Therefore the number of farms should be decreased in order to increase concentration of resources. The new law called for the creation of collective marketing. Collective marketing happens through the creation of  producers’ offices, invested with the power to fix prices, to control quantities of production, to manage how production happens, to direct how produce is sold, and to ensure that whatever decision the offices make is thoroughly followed by everyone with the same product. They also have the right to demand any information from farmers in order to make sure they are complying with regulations. This means that they can enter farmers’ installations at their own discretion and search through producers’ documents. They can also order those producers to sell their produce to that office, at the price the office has previously set, and finally the office collects a contribution on every produce purchased.

A major component of the overwhelming power of the offices is the formulation of Joint Plans (Plans conjoints). These are created by the grouping of at least 10 producers of a certain agricultural good. Together, they set a standard for the produce regarding its characteristics and production methods. There is an office and usually a joint plan for the following produce: cattle (including oxen, cows and veal), pork, game, sheep and lambs, goats, rabbits. This also includes grains such as: wheat, barley, oat, maize, buckwheat, soy, rye, linen, rapeseeds, alfalfa, mustard, and sunflowers, vegetables such as beans, peas, corn, cucumbers, asparagus, and tomatoes, potatoes, apples, strawberries and raspberries, maple products, forest products, and honey. Once the plan is laid out, it has be voted for; at least half of the producers have to vote, and at least the two thirds of that half have to agree on the measure for it to be approved. Once approved, their definition of what that product should look like becomes law, every producer in the province has to comply, and very few modifications are allowed. Most can agree that one third of agreeing votes is already a rather small proportion for such a definitive and restrictive measure. And worse yet, the only people allowed to vote have to be officially recognized as farmers by the government. The government sets the bar at farms commercializing at least 5000$ per year, not taking into account anything produced by smaller scale farmers. This system is the extreme opposite of what I consider as the foundation of an empowering food system, with production and knowledge in the hands of many, and with genuine promotion of self-sufficiency. Instead, this definition explicitly excludes all those small-scale, family-run farms from even having a voice. These family-run farms have to comply to the modifications made to laws, but get no say in how those laws are made or what they will look like. If a farmer refuses to submit to all those regulations, the Agricultural Market Authority (Regie des marches agricoles) exists to enforce the decisions of the offices, especially when it comes to producers failing or refusing to pay their contributions or to adhere to the joint plans.

The problem with standardization

The regulation of eggs in Quebec is an excellent example of the absurdity of these measures. In order to ensure conformity, all eggs must be sent to a sorting center if they are to be sold outside of the farm. However, the only actions performed there are to classify them according to their size and to chemically wash them. Nothing is aimed at verifying quality. Furthermore, cleaning them removes the fine cuticle on their shells that naturally makes them impermeable to bacteria. That’s why we are now supposed to store eggs in the fridge: to prevent the proliferation of bacteria, even though nature had already figured out a way to solve that problem. In contrast, washed eggs are illegal in the European Union.

With such constraints, the evolution of new farming techniques is severely hindered, if not fully stopped. Moreover, the options available to consumers are dramatically reduced. Another example of this can be found by looking at the processing of milk under these regulations. Since all the milk produced is bought off by the Federation of Milk Producers, which then pasteurizes it and differentiates it according to their standards of 0%, 1%, 2%, and 3.25% M.F. milk, the end result is that all the milk of the province ends up mixed. This means there is a homogenous flavour of milk across all of Quebec, even across seasons. Milk’s taste is usually characterized by a cow’s nutrition; the taste would be much richer during the summer, given that it feeds off grasses as it is allowed to graze, rather than during the winter when it is restrained to hay. The taste also changes according to regions, following their vegetation, climate, and the cows themselves. I have been told the anecdotal but eloquent story of a farmer who found that, after a conifer fell in his pasture, the milk his cows produced developed a coniferous taste. That allowed the farm to differentiate its produce and stand out from competition. Hence, limiting and standardizing production limits the variety of gustatory experiences available for consumers and impedes farmers from being recognized for the novelty and quality of their labour. Moreover, while pasteurization did wonders for public health in regards to pathogens developing during storage, raw milk is considered by many to be full of beneficial bacteria, enzymes, and nutrients that do not endure past pasteurization. Currently in Quebec raw milk can only be consumed by its producers and their family, and it is strictly forbidden to sell or give it to anyone else. If a dairy farmer’s unpasteurized milk or cheese is found outside of their property, even in the result of the product being stolen, they risk being fined up to a few thousand dollars. Again, potential findings regarding the health benefits of new ways to approach our diet are systematically pushed aside.

This process of standardization has other negative consequences. Most agricultural produce must be sold to its respective federation, meaning it has to be taken to that federation’s installation for product control, be it slaughter or simple inspection. This requires a lot of transportation. For example, there are very few slaughterhouses in Quebec compared to the size of the territory, and they might not be located anywhere near either the point of production or sale. This copious transit further increases the carbon footprint of our food, forcing a lot of “local” foods to travel greater distances than one might expect. The consequences of this requirement are multiplied if the farmers wish to transform their products by themselves. How lovely does it sound to prepare fresh and delicious pies, cheeses, or soups out of the produce you put so much of your energy, time and love into, and to be able to sell them in person to thankful customers? Considering the relatively low prices of food, transformation is among the best ways for a producer to boost their income and ensure the profitability of their activities. However, due to the fact that the ingredients of transformation are farmers’ produce, they must be sold to their corresponding federation at the price the federation has set, shipped to their facilities, processed, and then bought back by the producer, and shipped back to the place of production. This renders the process of transformation more costly and unnecessarily complicated, with direct effects on producers’ livelihoods. Moreover, considering the high volume of operation in those installations, many farmers are voicing the concern that they might not even be receiving back their own products, since they are all standardized. To further complicate the situation, once a producer goes  over a certain volume of transformation per year, they are required to  build a second fully equipped and standardised kitchen, as they are not allowed to work in their home kitchen. Obviously, small-scale farmers do not have the means for such an investment.

Undoubtedly the aim of these myriad regulations—or at least the explicit aim—is to ensure the maximal safety of the food on our tables. Nonetheless, this obsession for control, sanitation, and structure can have outcomes that are the exact reverse. Many claim that executing actions—in particular slaughter—are actually safer performed on site, although that right is currently reserved exclusively to government institutions. When done on site the scale of the operation is much smaller and the risk of contamination by pathogens is therefore proportionally reduced. The refusal of officials to accept and accommodate these facts became dangerously evident during the listeriosis outbreak of 2008. As the bacteria made more and more victims, authorities needed a culprit onto which they could redirect public anguish. It had already been established that the source was the cheese industry so they decided to target small, hand-made cheese artisans. Who else could be responsible, when small scale establishments clearly  have such a lack of control over the conditions of fabrication? The government then demanded that huge amounts of suspected cheese be thrown away, sometimes the equivalent of months worth of labour. This measure resulted in some companies going out of business because they couldn’t recover from such a loss. It was only later that officials learned that listeria, the bacteria responsible for all this commotion, grows best in cold, sanitized environments, where any competition from other micro-organisms is eliminated—the very conditions found in these allegedly safe government-regulated industrial installations.

It seems clear to me that aside from some necessary regulated produce control, the best way of ensuring food safety, and quality on top of that, is by building a relationship of trust with producers. By simply taking the extra step to engage with farmers, learn more about their practice, and potentially visit their installation, one should be able to choose for themselves which approach suits their values the best. And in the case of unsanitary food the culprit would be easily identified, as opposed to facing a anonymous wall of homogenous produce. Farmers would then also have concrete incentives to ensure they bring the best quality of produce possible to their customers since they are directly accountable for it.

Due to the fact that the ingredients are farmers’ produce, they must be sold to their corresponding federation at the price the federation has set, shipped to their facilities, processed, and then bought back by the producer, and shipped back to the place of production. This renders the process of transformation more costly and unnecessarily complicated, with direct effects on producers’ livelihoods.

Quotas and access to farming

Another way the UPA limits the potential of small farms, and especially newcomers, is through quotas. They were first introduced by the federal government in the 1970s to ensure a minimal income to farmers.  They were evenly distributed so that the quantity produced in each province would perfectly match the quantity consumed in that same province, so that there would be no surplus or shortage, thus securing decent prices. Quotas were issued for the ownership of chickens, hens, and dairy cows in the province. However, this commendable initiative was carried out in a rather dubious way. The producers freely distributed amongst themselves this livestock, in accordance with their different production levels. Seeing as there were set quotas for the province, if one producer wanted to increase their production they would have to buy out other producers. Producers were then granted the right to set their prices for later exchanges—in other words, they could establish prices for buying in the future. This lead to rampant speculation, resulting in inflated prices. This is still a problem for farmers today, making starting a farm incredibly expensive. Small-scale farmers often aren’t able to only buy a small amount of livestock because farms will usually sell theirs in bulk if they are going out of business, and you are only allowed to purchase the full package. On top of that, no quota has actually been available for sale for many years now. As technology is increasing daily productivity, big producers need more and more quotas, fuelling competition and giving the whole industry a cannibal logic, where expansion can only be attained by buying off your competitors, and where concentration is unavoidable. This makes entry utterly inaccessible to newcomers, safeguarding the interests of already well-established farmers.

There is one unique exception for smaller farms in regard to birds; they are allowed a maximum of 99 chickens and 99 hens. That’s a start, but a fairly small one compared to the 2000 chickens and 300 hens allowed in Alberta. Plus, when we remember all the regulations and requirements they have to abide to and how centralized to whole system is, we can foresee a current problem: small farmers are upheld to the same standards as everyone else, but given much less support. Slaughterhouses and sorting centers that process thousands of items per day might overlook someone coming up with only a dozen chickens or eggs, or at least not give the same amount of care.

As mentioned earlier, the UPA is the umbrella organization overseeing all that has been discussed.  Not only is it excessively controlling, it is also omnipresent. It funds most if not all agriculture trainings and school programs, events and promotional and educational campaigns, ensuring that their ideals are spread as far as possible and therefore limiting defiance. How can the public in Quebec have a multi-faceted understanding of agriculture in the province when every contact it has with it is sponsored by a single entity? To add another level to the pervasion of the UPA, it only allows and recognizes agronomists from its own organization to perform “agronomic acts” on farms, something which simply entails giving advice to farmers on how to handle an issue they’re facing or on how to increase their efficiency. Receiving advice from anyone else is illegal. All the UPA’s employees have to set aside their own stances and stick to the guidelines of the union. Aside from the creativity that a farmer may bring to his operations on his own, there is very little room for innovation or collaboration. The expertise of many professionals and the exchange of ideas that could contribute to breakthroughs in the field is blocked. Additionally, not only is the state granting the UPA exclusive recognition, but it is also tweaking its policies in order to constrain farmers to adhere to the union; only members who duly pay their contribution to the organization have access to governmental benefits such as land tax returns, which are quite a substantial amount.

Reclaiming control

As I discovered more and more about plants and food production, I simultaneously discovered the extent of my ignorance about food production. When I enthusiastically shared my new knowledge with those around me, I found that most of them were in the same situation. We have a very skewed understanding of where our food comes from. The overwhelming abundance of standardized identical foods in the supermarkets couldn’t be more detached from the reality. Our current ways of obtaining food have made us put food in the same category as any factory-made object. It becomes easy to neglect that those fruits, vegetables, meats, eggs and dairies are in fact side-benefits of the natural life-cycles of living organisms. But those beings have to be cared for until and after that point. Their growth is as unpredictable as the weather can be, and as unique as the amount of different food there exist. You can’t create those products, all you can do is facilitate their creation by assisting the life form which is its true origin.

Our diet used to be something so organic; people had their gardens and animals, and could produce a part of their own food. They had a much deeper understanding of what they ingested. But now, we have an increasingly impoverished grasp of what we are putting in our bodies, although it is probably the most vital aspect of our everyday life. It is the fuel that allows us to go on adventures, to learn, to love, to create; it is at the core of everything we do. Why are we blindly trusting such distant organizations to feed us according to their own values and interests? An important step in reclaiming control of our bodies is to reclaim control over what nourishes our bodies—the food that we eat.

Instead we trust a sea of ambiguous labels to tell us what we are about to eat. Organic, free-range, non-GMO, “Made in Quebec,” etc. We are drowning in appealing words that speak to our values, but seldom to reality. In fact, these labels are very often deceiving. Free-range certification only requires hens to have access to a small outside cemented yard, and “Made in Quebec” products could very well be made using imported ingredients. There are a range of farming practices, unique to each producer. Categorising them with these labels overly simplifies their work. Within the free-range label, there might be eggs produced by hens roaming around in sunny grassy fields as well as hens restrained to an overcrowded chicken coop with a few meters of cemented access to fresh air. The label diminishes the efforts of the former and allows the latter to profit from them. Getting closer to our egg producers, and asking them about their methods and values, allows us to get a much clearer understanding of the agricultural practices our money supports. 

More and more people are standing up everyday to challenge this system that is not working. For example, Union paysanne is an organization trying to get recognition as an alternative but valid syndicate in the eyes of the government; the C.A.P.É is promoting local organic producers. You can also read La Ferme impossible by Dominic Lamontagne, a veritable goldmine of information on the issue, that provided me with a lot of content for this article, or watch La Ferme et son état by Marc Séguin, which draws a comprehensive portrait of the current situation in Quebec through its main actors; you could also look up the extensive work of Joel Salatin to get an understanding of the similar challenges the USA is facing. Alongside his work, Dominic Lamontagne is currently working on organizing a black mass (la messe noire)—a feast open to everyone where farmers would bring produce considered illegal: unpasteurized cheese, chicken slaughtered on site, eggs from their 101st hens, as well as a panoply of homemade recipes.

Witnessing all these voices, and countless others, rise in an attempt to redefine our agricultural system makes me hopeful that someday I will also be able to have my own farm and care for all the living beings on it according to the values I hold close, not the ones imposed upon me. It makes me hopeful that this province will choose to see farmers not only as the ones providing food to put on the table, but also as ecological architects with their own creative processes. The most likely path to this is for the government to recognize more than a single union, so that farmers from all backgrounds can organize according to their beliefs and finally have a voice in all the issues I’ve been discussing and, hopefully, lead the way to a diversified farming system in the province.

Comments posted on The McGill Daily's website must abide by our comments policy.
A change in our comments policy was enacted on January 23, 2017, closing the comments section of non-editorial posts. Find out more about this change here.