At Home On His Farm

He grew it into one of Quebec’s largest farm operations. Still, Laurent Bousquet continues to look for new opportunities provided by the markets, his own ingenuity, even the weather.

By Caitlin Kelly | Photos By Alain Lefort

One minute. That’s how long it takes Laurent Bousquet to drive to the land where his grandfather, William Bousquet, began farming more than a century ago. The family still owns the land, 34 miles southeast of Montreal, where William ran an award-winning dairy, raising purebred Holsteins, a practice Bousquet’s father, Hubert, continued. While living and working in the shadow of a proud tradition, as well as the imposing, rounded summit of the 1,358-foot-high (414-meter) Mount Saint-Hilaire that dominates the horizon near the farm, Bousquet, 62, is a man little bounded by his history and location. He’s traveled to France, Brazil, China, the United States and, most recently, Germany, to study agricultural methods. He continually returns, however, to his own piece of acreage, which he calls Ferme Grand Rang.

New Crops, Better Returns

Bousquet and his partners own 2,500 acres, cultivating wheat, barley, soybeans and corn in fields adjacent to his white roadside farmhouse and in several large plots nearby. Lying so close to Montreal and its ever-encroaching suburbs, local farmland has grown prohibitively expensive to acquire. According to Bousquet, land now costs some $25,000 an acre (about $20,000 U.S. as of this writing). Since he took over the farm operations in 1976, Bousquet says he’s bought up whatever has become available, and that these days, “there’s much less available on the market.”

The farm was 250 acres when his parents passed it to Bousquet. By 2010, he had grown it to its present size. “We acquired it piece by piece,” he explains. Ferme Grand Rang was once one of the biggest farms in Quebec, and, while there are more farms of that size now, they remain a tiny fraction of the overall farm landscape; only 5% of Quebec farmers are as large, he explains.

Chastened by the hard work, long hours and the smaller returns he saw his father earn from dairy farming, Bousquet started out producing sugar beets and other vegetables for seven or eight years. Yet, for him, they proved less lucrative than his current crops. His soybeans, like most of those produced in Quebec, are destined for export to Asia. “They’re crazy about our quality,” he says. Some of his soybeans (often called soya in parts of Quebec) are sold as seed and for industrial use, while his non-GMO crop is sold for food.

Bousquet runs the farm with his two brothers, two sons and one nephew. The farm also comprises multiple silos and an additional storage shed. And he has a wealth of equipment, including 11 tractors, a 12-row harvester and two planters.

Ferocious Winters, New Opportunities

While Quebec is Canada’s largest province, only 2% of its nearly 600,000 square miles is arable (by way of comparison, some 17% of Texas is arable), so the need to maximize the yield of every acre is even more pressing. Like all farmers, he’s at the mercy of the weather, and Quebec offers its own specific challenges. “Our season is shorter and cooler” than that of American farms, he says. “We have less sun and less heat.”

Yet, Bousquet appreciates his relative good fortune, since his farm’s northern location protects his crops from natural disasters, such as tornadoes and hurricanes. And Quebec’s ferociously long, cold winters offer another advantage. “It’s a very powerful barrier against insects and fungus,” he adds. But, like every farmer in Canada and northern climes, “We’re stuck between the last of winter and the first frost. The weather is a tough boss.”

Over the course of his farming career, Bousquet says he’s observed the effects of climate change, now planting his crops at the end of April—a month earlier than he once did. And, he says, “Fifty years ago, we were told we couldn’t produce corn or soya here, but we can now.” The first frost, says Bousquet, now arrives a month later than it did 50 years ago (on or about Oct. 15 today). He adds, though, that better drainage and crops that are better adapted to the region have also helped.

Irons in the Fire

Deeply embedded in his community, Bousquet has long been active in his local farm co-op, Comax, working for decades as a volunteer to help improve the yields of his fellow farmers—whether they’re raising crops or livestock. He was first elected to the organization’s board of directors in 1996, served as its president from 1999 to 2003 and as vice president in 2011. The co-op, with 1,600 members and 250 employees, is an essential part of local farming success, and Bousquet, who joined it as a teenager, is proud of his contributions.

Staying up to date on farming in the community is also a boon to Bousquet’s other businesses. Recognizing the value of diversifying to help supplement his farm income, since 2002, Bousquet has owned and operated that most distinctive of Quebec properties: a 100-acre stand of maple trees and a facility that produces 500 gallons of syrup per year.

Working for both public and private concerns, Bousquet has also added to his bottom line during the past 30 years by providing commercial snow removal for “every winter night.” And with all the irons he has in the fire, this Canadian producer expects his sons and nephew to keep the farm in the family for years to come; his oldest grandchild is only 11.

Bousquet loves the life and the long family tradition he’s helping to sustain. “I was born into it, and I chose it,” he says. “My father needed help. He’d worked alone for a long time, but [joining him] wasn’t an obligation; it was what I wanted to do.”