By Lorraine Stevenson
During the summer, Daniel Gosselin’s and Suzanne Dufresne’s cows graze on pastures seeded to more than a dozen carefully chosen flowering plants. In winter, they move back indoors to a warm, spacious barn and switch over to a diet of dried fodder.
The cow’s seasonal diet is the secret ingredient imparting the distinctive flavours of fine cheeses this Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu couple make with the rich milk their certified-organic small herd of Brown Swiss produce.
Their farm, Ferme des Belles Prairies, has been in the Gosselin family since 1950 and certified organic for more than 20 years.
Gosselin and Dufresne became cheese makers and started their on-farm cheese company Au Gré des Champs — roughly translated to mean ‘For the Love of the Land’ or ‘For the Pleasure of the Fields’ in 2000. Today they sell a variety of high-end speciality cheese, branding and marketing lines as ‘summer’ and ‘winter’ cheeses to customers who love both the darker yellow-orange cheese they produce while the cows graze the fields, and the much whiter cheese they produce in winter.
Being a cheese-maker or certified organic dairy producer isn’t unusual in Quebec, of course. The provincial directory of certified organic products for Quebec currently lists 111 organic milk producers, certified by either Ecocert or Organisme de certification Québec-Vrai.
What distinguishes Gosselin and Dufresne’s farm business is that they’re still one of the relatively few cheese makers in Quebec who remain in the highly-regulated business of producing raw milk cheese.
Quebec is the only province in Canada where raw milk cheeses aged fewer than 60 days can be sold, so long as all the required standards related to hygiene, monitoring and inspections are maintained.
They chose this route to diversify their farm but also to create a product that would help maintain a precarious agricultural heritage in Quebec, said Gosselin, speaking through a translator.
“They were looking at ways to improve the profitability of the farm. Instead of expanding and having more cows they decided to go for cheese making, ” said Francois Labelle, organic dairy production expert with Valacta, Centre d’expertise en production laitiere Quebec-Atlantique, who also served as translator for non-French speaking visitors to the farm during the Canadian Organic Science Conference earlier this year.
To say that Gosselin and Dufresne have been successful is an understatement. They have produced award-winning cheeses and today employ nine people, including their daughter Marie-Pier. They use all the milk their 30 cows produce and their organic management methods for their land have enabled their 65-hectare farm to be almost entirely self-sufficient in feed.
Au Gres des Champs today includes an elegant store-front retail site where other gourmet made-in-Quebec food products are sold and they are popular destination for tours and product tastings.
Their farm business is an outstanding example of the astonishing array of organic producers doing value-added production in this part of Canada, where organic agriculture has been widely embraced as a way to make small farms sustainable economically and environmentally while contributing to a robust rural culture.
In 2015, of 39,000 farmers in Quebec nearly 1,040 were specializing in organic agriculture, with dairy products, including milk, cheese and yogurt notably producers’ top offerings.
That’s a small fraction but still signalling significant gains by the sector here.
“The latest data we have from 2012 shows that we have 3.6 per cent of (provincial) farmers that are certified organic, but that’s data from 2012.” says Caroline Halde, an assistant organic agriculture professor at Université Laval and the September conference’s co-chair, Quebec’s considerable uptake of organic farming is attributable to several factors, including very good incentives offered by the provincial ministry, she said.
MAPAQ (Ministere de l’Agriculture, des Pecheries et de l’Alimentation du Quebec) has fostered a policy environment and invested millions in biological agriculture, or organic farming, including funding to help farmers make the transition.
This is a province where there is very well-managed certification services and distribution models such Équiterre that link farmers with consumers of organic and local food.
Farm organizations themselves are a key driving force behind this province’s organic growth, Halde said.
“They’re just very well organized,” she said noting organic farmers in Quebec hosted conferences and field events dating back at least 40 years.
“That has really helped with the knowledge transfer to farmers,” she said.
Former financial planner and now agriculture student Marie-Josée Roy, who was a participant at the organic science conference, is an example of the younger entrepreneur the sector is attracting. She and her husband recently left positions with banks in Montreal to begin studying animal production at St. Hyacinthe, Quebec. They plan to buy land and start a small herd with the long-term aim of producing cheese and ice cream, she said.
There are good supports in place in Quebec to get non-farmers like themselves started, says Roy, noting that instructors and meetings with farmers have been very helpful as they prepare their business plan.
“We meet a lot of dairy producers who are agreeing to give us help,” Roy said. “My husband worked for some of them. For the training and the support, we think that it’s not a problem for us. ”