Maude-Hélène Desroches: Biodiversity in agriculture for “World Environment Day”

This week Age of Union has met with Maude-Hélène Desroches, farmer, business manager, environmentalist and mother of two. Maude-Hélène Desroches is the wife and work partner of Jean-Martin Fortier. Together they are the founders of Les Jardins de la Grelinette, a certified organic market garden in Saint-Armand, Quebec. The technique they have developed at the heart of the farm, with low-tech, high-yield methods of production employed on the micro-farm form the basis of Fortier's bestselling book, The Market Gardener: A Successful Grower's Handbook for Small-Scale Organic Farming.

AoU: In organic farming, it seems that even there we have two tendencies: family farms on a small scale, and large industrial farms. Can you explain it to us a little better?

Maude-Hélène Desroches: Organic does not necessarily mean respect for the environment. There are gigantic monoculture fields without diversity in organic farming. Yes, it’s organic, but there’s no respect for the environment or the workforce. These are whole hectares where only one vegetable or fruit is produced. The use of pesticides, even if they are organic and therefore better than the synthetic ones, is still harmful and results in high concentrations of copper and sulfur in the soil. It kills a wide spectrum of insects, spoils the soil and ends up in the rivers. So it comes down to the same approach as conventional industrial farming.

We can perceive it as two different models: small farms or large companies. Often large agricultural businesses aim to make money and keep production costs as low as possible. We, on the other hand choose quality, first.

There are specifications for the "organic" label to follow. In Canada it is much stricter than in the United States. It varies from one country to another. In any case, the best is local organic. Here, when we say that we produce organic, we are talking about techniques that promote life in the soil, we seek the minimal amount of work to ensure that the micro-organisms are nourished with compost for example. The life of the soil is essential in our approach. In addition, on our farms we promote the principle of biodiversity. We have nearly 40 varieties of vegetables and fruits, insects and birds are welcomed and seen as agents who help us.

How to take care of the soil?
Minimum tillage: no plowing
Mimicry of nature: make mulch
Feed the soil: with compost and organic matter
Diversify: plant a variety of crops and do culture rotation

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But aren't birds or insects harmful to crops?

There is room for everyone. If you observe nature, it is rare that a plant is out of balance and is eaten. We are looking for the same balance in our culture. For example, flowering plants attract some insects that eat other insects which may be harmful. And then, it should be understood that the plants, when they are respected and grow on healthy soil, send a message of well-being which attracts less unfavorable insects.

We also use insect nets that protect birds and plastic sheeting that holds water. As we work within a logic based on prevention, the nets protecting from insects make it possible to avoid having to use pesticides. We use plastic, however we choose a sustainable option: our nets last at least 15 years old, while in many agricultural environments plastics are thrown away every year.

In terms of the workforce, as we operate from the perspective of local and organic farming, there is a minimum wage. It’s not like Spain or California where workers are underpaid. We make it a point of honor to provide a pleasant experience for our employees. We are in a mindset where agriculture and human experience share the same dynamic and feed off each other. If you take care of the soil, it will give you better crops. If you take care of your employees, they will also give you the best of their abilities.

“When we pick our foods, we can choose to spend our money to select ingredients that are grown naturally and free of pesticides. Not only are organic, non-genetically modified foods better for you, they also keep our lands arable, our bee and insect populations healthy, and our waterways free of harmful chemicals.” Dax Dasilva. Age of Union: Igniting the Changemaker.

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Can you tell us more about the principle of diversity in your agriculture?

The idea is of course not to put all your eggs in one basket! The diversity of our vegetables allows for a guaranteed production and better control. Monoculture is a big risk. For example if you have a cabbage field, all the insects will come on it. This is not the case with a more diverse production. This is also why monoculture agricultural companies must put more pesticides, and generally opt for an interventionist policy, as they want to minimize the risk of losing their crops.

In addition, the variety and rotation of the plants contribute to the health of the soil. Once again, in our approach to local gardening production, the soil is our first ally, we are taking great care of it. Diversity helps balance the soil and gives it time to regenerate.

Another important aspect is that it is more pleasant for us to work in the fields with several types of vegetables, rather than being in front of the same product for weeks and even months. In the context of the pandemic, this principle has been very important because the local workforce has picked up. It is absolutely not sustainable to bring in foreign workers. If we depend on a workforce that comes from elsewhere to feed us, it is dangerous, as we have seen it in the recent months. We must favor a local chain in all aspects, from production to consumption, including employees. This is real sustainability. It’s a principle of resilience.

What are the potential positive impacts of local organic family farms?
Contribute to the diversity of the ecosystem
Ecological niches for birds and insects
Reduce CO2 emission
Feed the community w/ quality products
Promotes local employment
Strengthens the local economy

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Producing, working and consuming locally seems to be a key aspect for the model of tomorrow, isn't it?

Yes, for sure, if possible of course. In Quebec, for example, the winters are very harsh and nothing can grow. Thus, our farm can feed 250 families over 6 to 8 months of the year. We have no production in winter.

But the Quebec government would like to double the greenhouses in QC to lengthen the seasons and therefore have food in the winter: we are gradually increasing sovereignty in QC. The idea is not to feed the world like in industrial production, because it is not a sustainable model. You have to think about feeding the community, it’s the vision of tomorrow. We must not increase the production, but increase the farms, so that each farm can feed its community. The UN has conducted studies that say local organic vegetable farming is as productive, if not more, than a conventional system. And of course it is more resilient! In their statement of climate emergency, the second point is to increase agriculture over small areas which is exactly our model. It’s the lasting solution.

In the world of agriculture, it is mainly men who are represented. You are a woman, you manage the farm from A to Z, it's an inspiring place that you embody for many other women ...

With the development of large industrial agriculture, this image of massive farms with large tractors, and therefore of the men in charge, was conveyed. But at all times, in human-scale farming, it is women who worked in the fields. Even in market gardening, today many women are on the farms, whether for labor or family farms. It is physical work for sure, hence the importance of working with teams, but men are not more or less prone to back pain. Man or woman, you have to know how to use your body as a tool.

Personally, I have never considered myself a "woman" in agriculture, I am a farmer that's all. So much the better if my role as a woman can influence others who have not been fortunate enough to be raised in families where the sexes are equal. But for me, there has never been any question of not being able to do something because I'm a woman.

AoU: Do you have one last important message to pass on?

It is important to be aware of the richness of our terroir. This crisis has led to a global awareness and triggered an even stronger desire to return to the sources. Quebec is a country of settlers who arrived on this land not so long ago; here everyone has farming ancestors in their genealogy. So, if today there is this revival of consciousness, this craze to cultivate at home, consume local, work on a farm, it is magnificent. This awareness was necessary and it must continue.

As market gardeners, we create raw materials. This contribution to the community is very important: a strong economy is a local and resilient economy. Consuming locally is part of the culture. We are talking about the economic health of the community. Running the local economy is good for everyone.

But the benefit that family farms bring to our regions is not only measurable on an economic scale. They contribute to non-monetary vital elements, such as the health of the environment: migratory birds come to us, the water that leaves our farms is clean, the soils that we choose not to plow allow us to fix carbon, and we allow local families to eat with quality products. There is not a dollar sign on these aspects. We are talking about life, a set of elements that are just as much, if not more important, than the purely economic aspect. The great truths emerge from such a system, and from such a vision.

Industrial Agriculture or Family Farming? Do the right choice!

Industrial agriculture → mass production → international exportation → poor quality product and risk of collapse if borders are closed → not sustainable approach on the long run

Family farming → local production → feed the community → Products are fresher and of better quality product → sustainable on the long term and resilient

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Interview of Maude-Hélène Desroches by Mariette Raina.

Maude-Hélène Desroches is a farmer, business manager, environmentalist and mother of two. A native of Lanaudière, she was awakened at a very young age to the importance of living in harmony with nature and sought, through environmental studies at McGill University, ways to have a positive impact on the health of the earth. It is during her travels that she has found local organic farming an immediate way to contribute to the well-being of her family, her community and the environment.
In 2004 she co-founded Les jardins de la grelinette with Jean-Martin Fortier. The farm demonstrates that an organic farm of less than one hectare can be financially viable in addition to providing an enviable lifestyle to its owners. Since 2015, she has operated La Grelinette on her own, continuing to produce healthy food on a site where biodiversity is at the rendezvous and where employees are trained in order to spread this nourishing agriculture.
Nature conservation and eco-citizenship education projects are at the heart of its interests.

Mariette Raina writes articles discussing environmental, spiritual and artistic subjects. Mariette has a Master's degree in Anthropological studies and vast experience within the Fine Arts field. She has contributed to numerous projects for Dax Dasilva since 2016. She is currently Head of Research for Age of Union.