TRANSCONTINENTAL FARM TOUR: Crossing Canada with Don Lotter

When it comes to organized support for CSAs, Canadians have a thing or two to teach us, don’t cha know? [or, eh?]
The D-Trois-Pierres CSA, outside of Montreal, Quebec, is part of a well-organized network of around 70 farms that are actively promoted and supported by Equiterre, a Quebec-based organization that champions sustainability and fair trade worldwide.

By Don Lotter

SLIDESHOW: Farming, Mentoring, Inspiring

Editor's NOTE:

After his travels through Central America and Cuba (see his wonderful articles on farming in Guatemala, Costa Rica and Cuba), Don Lotter stopped by The Rodale Institute here in eastern Pennsylvania to check in and chat. His plan—to return home to Vancouver by driving across Canada. And thus an idea was born …. Since he was driving across the continent, anyway, why not drop in on a few farms along the way?

His trip began in Quebec, with the dynamic CSA you’ll read about in this article. From there, he traveled to a dairy farm in Ontario, a hemp grower in Manitoba, an Saskatchewan organic grain farmer, an Alberta organic beef rancher, and finally an organic fruit grower in British Columbia. We’ll be featuring these stories every two weeks for the next three months. Sit down, adjust your headrest and enjoy the ride.

Chris Hill
Executive Editor



D-Trois-Pierres Farm:


Le Collectif des entreprises d’insertion du Québec:












"Every year Equiterre compiles a list of all of the participating farms in the CSA network and their available produce and publishes a large fold-out pamphlet that details the products and location of each farm. Every year in March, Equiterre holds a press conference announcing the publication of the CSA farm list. This year’s press release was followed by 150 media hits"













































"Equiterre brokers a farmer mentoring program, in which experienced CSA farmers mentor newcomers in the details of CSA farming. The newcomers visit the mentor’s farm and observe the critical operations. The mentor also serves the newcomer for ongoing phone support."
September 29, 2003: Canada has traditionally spent substantially more money per capita on social programs for its citizens than the U.S., and Quebec leads the way in this arena. The D-Trois-Pierres Farm just outside of Montreal is the site of an apprenticeship program for youth and an organic farm … and it also participates in what is perhaps the most dynamic community supported agriculture (CSA) program in North America. All of these activities are supported, in various degrees, by public funding.

When I first arrived at the D-Trois-Pierres farm outside of Montreal, I was concerned that my lack of French speaking ability would hinder my interviewing. But my fears were quickly allayed when Julie Tardif, D-Trois-Pierres Farm CSA manager, answered my questions in easy French-accented English. Virtually all of the youth in and around Montreal speak fluent English. Julie trained in a two year organic landscaping program at the Montreal Botanical Garden. The Farm’s co-manager with Julie, Ian Aldridge, took his degree from the Macdonald agricultural college of McGill University.

As Julie helps her crew of five tie tomato plants to stakes, she explains to me how the apprenticeship program and the farm work. Originally started in 1986 by an order of nuns, the sisters of Sainte-Croix, D-Trois-Pierres was formed as a model farm on which youths could apprentice. Soon after that the city of Montreal was brought in as a partner.

The 90 hectare farm sits within the 200 hectare Cap-Saint-Jacques nature preserve owned by the city of Montreal. Youth are placed into the D-Trois-Pierres farm by a province-wide program, Le Collectif des entreprises d’insertion du Québec, a 20-year-old organization of businesses whose focus is placing youths into socially and environmentally relevant careers. D-Trois-Pierres is the only agricultural participant in Le Collectif. A provincial government program pays the apprentices a wage. Every apprentice spends eight months in the program. The farm currently lists apprenticeship positions in animal care, horticultural production, restauranting, and receptionist work.

The D-Trois-Pierres organic CSA: producing everything from mixed vegetables and hothouse tomatoes to maple candy

D-Trois-Pierres farm has a healthy roster of 134 CSA subscribers, having started with 26 five years ago. A weekly basket of fresh produce is made up for each of the subscribers, and delivered to one of five drop-off points. Subscribers pay up front for a whole season of deliveries, which, in Quebec, usually lasts from the first week in June to well into November, a total of 26 weeks. Depending on the size of the basket the cost is anywhere from $12 to $26 Canadian, or about $9 to $19 US. All of the produce is certified organic by Garantie Bio of Quebec, an affiliate of EcoCert of France.

The vegetables are picked, washed, clear-wrapped or bagged, and put in re-usable plastic bins for delivery. The farm has two hectares under diverse vegetable production; snap peas, lettuce, salad mix, tomatoes, cucumbers, broccoli, herbs, zucchini, green beans, peppers, spinach, chard, celery, celeriac, eggplant, onions, garlic, potatoes, pumpkins, beets, and cabbage are grown. Hay and maple syrup from the 12 hectares of maple forest are also produced.

The crop rotation is generally three years of pasture followed by a year of vegetables. Ian generally applies about 20 tons of compost per hectare in the spring before the vegetables go in. The compost is produced on the farm from manure from the farm's livestock. Livestock are kept for training apprentices in animal care and for visitors and are not for production.

This is a bad year for Colorado Potato Beetle, which is causing damage to the foliage of many of the crops, especially the tomatoes. Julie sprays an organically approved Bt-based product, Novador, which targets the CPB. However, Novador only controls the larvae. An infestation of adults needed three one-day passes with teams of workers handpicking the insects off of the leaves of tomato, potato, and eggplant. Two of those CPB control days consisted of 25 person teams! Another pest is the racoon, which prevents corn from being grown.

D-Trois-Pierres farm also produces hothouse tomatoes. Indeterminate varieties of tomatoes are grown on eight foot high trellises. Bumble bees are used for pollination. Tomato flowers need vibration to release their pollen. Honey bees lack this action when gathering pollen, so hothouse tomato producers developed special electrical vibrators to do the job. Bumble bees were found to be superior to the vibrators, and husbandry techniques for bumble bees were developed in the 1990s. The bees are housed in boxes in the hothouse.

Another of the products D-Trois-Pierres produces is maple syrup from the 12 hectares of maple forest on the farm property. The 12 hectares hold 2,000 “taps”, with 1 to 4 taps per tree. Buckets go up and the trees are tapped in February. The winter of 2002-03 was so cold and came on so early that the sap tapped in February was "leaf sap", instead of coming from the roots which makes the best maple syrup. Apparently the sap didn't get the chance it needed to move to the roots from the tops of the trees. Leaf sap is more watery, takes more boiling, and ends up as a darker syrup, with a taste that is not as good as root-sap syrup.

After tapping, the liquid, known as "water sap," is taken to the sugar shack and boiled down to maple syrup, which reduces the volume 40:1. The boilers are fueled by wood from the surrounding hardwood forest. D-Trois-Pierres makes maple candies to sell and include in subscription boxes.

Equiterre builds a region-wide CSA network of 70 farms and 5,000 subscribers

The D-Trois-Pierres farm CSA’s ability to grow from 26 participant subscribers to 134 in five years couldn't have been done without the superb promotional and support work of the uniquely Quebecois organization, Equiterre. Equiterre, whose mission is to "build a citizens' movement promoting individual and collective choices that are both ecologically and socially responsible," is the umbrella organization under which the Quebec-wide CSA network functions -- the integrating force, so to speak.

Every year Equiterre compiles a list of all of the participating farms in the CSA network and their available produce and publishes a large fold-out pamphlet that details the products and location of each farm. Every year in March, Equiterre holds a press conference announcing the publication of the CSA farm list. This year’s press release was followed by 150 “media hits” – announcements or articles on the CSA program in newspapers and broadcast media. The brochure is sent out to people who request it, as well as to all Equiterre members.

When a farm attains the optimum number of subscribers, about 150, that farm is taken off of the list, which helps the other farms make their quota of subscribers. Quota-filled farms are allowed to continue taking subscribers, they just aren’t listed as an available farm in the brochure.

Equiterre does promotions at public events, on radio, and materials are sent by mail to tens of thousands of people. Without this promotion, many of the farms would not be able to survive on CSA subscriptions. Once participating farms have made their quota, they pay about 2% of their profits to Equiterre.

"We have taken the role of marketer and intermediary between consumers and the farms. Our first role is promotion of the farms to potential consumers. But we also occasionally play the role of intermediary between farm and subscriber when problems arise," says Sydney Ribaux, Executive Director of Equiterre.

Two types of problems occasionally arise. The most common problem is when new subscribers don’t fully understand that they are participating in the farm, and when say, in June, there are only lettuce and radishes in the food basket, they complain. Equiterre explains to them that early in the season there are very few crops yet mature, and that an abundance of produce is on its way.

There are now about 70 farms on the Equiterre list (D-Trois-Pierres is number 39), with 5,000 subscriptions from about 10,000 people. When a farm joins the list, they sign an agreement with Equiterre that they must be certified organic, must have some type of program for its subscribers to participate in or visit the farm, and must produce the bulk of the food in its baskets.

Currently there is more demand for CSA produce than there are farmers to supply produce in the Montreal area. The amount of work involved in producing, harvesting and packaging such a diversity of crops is the biggest factor limiting the growth of CSAs, according to Ribaux. There just aren't enough farmers willing to put in all the work involved in producing the diversity of crops. Most farmers would rather focus on producing a few crops. Also, dealing with people on a one-on-one basis, which may be a pleasure for some CSA farmers, is fraught with difficulty for other farmers.

"We also promote a social aspect of the CSA relationship,” says Ribaux. “Subscribers are asked to occasionally participate in some way in the farm, such as doing a half day of work once a year. This is important, as it helps to connect the consumers to the source of their food."

Equiterre also brokers a farmer mentoring program, in which experienced CSA farmers mentor newcomers in the details of CSA farming. The newcomers visit the mentor’s farm and observe the critical operations. The mentor also serves the newcomer for ongoing phone support.

Equiterre's activities range wider than promoting the CSA. The CSA program is the core element in a larger ecological agriculture program that promotes organic foods and farming. Equeterre has three other programs: home energy efficiency (efficacite energetique), energy efficient transport (transport ecologique), and fair trade (commerce equitable).

One of the current activities is the promotion of fair trade chocolate. Equiterre's website lists over 150 points of sale of fair trade chocolate. As with the CSA program, Equiterre promotes the products but does not sell or trade. Their winter newsletter discusses the problem of child labor in West African cacao plantations, and how fair trade chocolate promotes a fair price for cocoa farmers, does not allow child slavery and forced labor, and supports programs that give children who work in cacao plantations the chance to go to school. Other fair trade commodities promoted by Equiterre are coffee, tea, handicrafts, and sugar

The D-Trois-Pierres Farm, Equiterre, and Le Collectif serve as an inspirational model for communities and organic farmers in North America, and show how organizations can work together to promote socially and environmentally sensible and sustainable choices.

Don Lotter has a Ph.D. in agroecology and has worked in sustainable agricultural development in North America, Latin America, and Africa over the past 25 years. He can be contacted via his website