Finally, I’m here, in Québec City, the heart of French Canada. Now, if I can get by on the six words of French I learned from Beauty and the Beast, all will be well.
I’m welcomed warmly and ushered into the offices of Québec Parmentier, the biggest marketer of potatoes in the province. I sit down with CEO Pierre Chouinard, general manager Audrey Boulianne, and seed sales manager Laurence Côté to get a brief overview of the company and outline our week touring Quebec’s potato industry.
Québec Parmentier is a grower-owned company that was formed in 2012 in an effort to better produce and sell high-quality potatoes throughout the province and into the big Toronto and the major markets on the East Coast of the U.S. As Chouinard shows me a map of where potato farms are located across the fertile but enormous province, it’s not difficult to imagine why growers would want to form a unified organization to get their crop to market.
“All these growers are really far from the market,” says Chouinard. “We’ve actually lost a lot of growers in the past 15 to 20 years because freight costs just got too high. So it was easy for me to explain to growers the vision we had to create this company. Together, they decided to join and form Québec Parmentier.”
In 2012, Parmentier marketed about 3,500 acres of potatoes. That number has grown to nearly 8,000 in 2019—roughly half the province’s potato acreage.
“The new generation of customers wants something sexy, tasty, convenient,” says Chouinard. “Potatoes are sexy, and we want to set them up as a sexy product.”
About a 45-minute drive from the Parmentier office is the home of André Gagnon, who owns and operates Progest 2001, a research farm dedicated to improving the potato industry in Quebec and throughout Canada. Gagnon is small, energetic and, it seems, boundlessly excited about potatoes. With an infectious smile, he gives me the grand tour. A couple hundred yards from the banks of the St. Lawrence River, obscured from view of drivers on the nearby highway by dense forest, sits Gagnon’s greenhouse, where, he says, early-generation plantlets of over 100 potato varieties reside. Nearby fields house just as impressive an assortment of spuds, all being observed for their strengths and weaknesses in Quebec’s climate and soils.
Gagnon is a veteran in the potato industry and has rubbed shoulders with several of the preeminent names in North America’s potato academia. He has projects in the works for several entities, and he strongly believes that Quebec can continue to improve its already fairly strong position as a potato-supplying region for North American retailers and consumers.
I climb out of the car and shake hands with Kevin Rivard. Côté has already talked him up: “Kevin isn’t yet 30, he just got his MBA, he has a wife and three kids, a business that’s booming…” After apologizing for his poor grasp of English, Rivard proceeds to converse in English better than I—an alleged professional practitioner of said language—could ever hope to.
He tells me about his family’s farm: how his father and grandfather were among the first people to farm in Saint-Ambroise; how a majority of the now-arable land was cleared from forest and carefully prepared for growing potatoes; how in the last 20 years they have increased potato production from less than 100 acres to over 600.
As we climb into his pickup, he apologizes for the mess, and I assure him that it’s not a problem; after all, this is a farm truck.
“Yes,” Rivard replies with a grin, “but this is also my city truck.”
Interestingly, about half of Rivard’s potatoes are grown for seed and half for table stock. The farm is spread out and the climate cooperative enough that he’s able to keep the seed crop isolated and healthy.
“Our biggest goal is to produce the same amount of potatoes here on 10 percent fewer acres,” says Rivard. “With improvements in varieties, irrigation and management, I think we can do that in four or five years.”
Gaston Bouchard is not much of an English speaker, and, as already noted, my French vocabulary is derived primarily from children’s films. But with Côté acting as interpreter, the pride Gaston, his son Matieu, and Matieu’s 17-year-old daughter Ophélie have for their role in the region’s potato industry shines through. Gaston’s father settled in the area more than 80 years ago, and the farm has been in the family every since. Today, the Bouchards grow some 400 acres of high-quality seed potatoes of about 15 varieties.
The nearby Propur fresh-pack shed was Gaston’s brainchild in the early 1960s. He sold three other growers on investing in it, and even though the farm itself raises seed, the family still has an ownership stake in the packing plant. In fact, Matieu is the plant’s current president.
“The packing shed is right in our backyard,” says Matieu. “It’s home. We are the founding family of the project, and it’s still my heart and soul.”
As we bump along through their fields, Matieu and Gaston point out the window, ticking off the varieties flowering in the rich, sandy loam: “That’s an early yellow, smooth-skinned one called Obama. Over here is Chieftain, GoldRush, Superior, Kateri, Dark Red Chieftain, Frontier Russet, Envol, Andover…”
The Bouchards have made their name on two things: innovation and integrity. In the 1970s, they were the first growers in Quebec to employ pivot irrigation and cup planters. “We’re perfectionists,” says Matieu. “We’re people who, when we give our word, a handshake is a contract.”
And they intend to continue that tradition. It’s readily apparent that Ophelie is eager to learn and work, and that she feels comfortable and respected by her dad and grandfather on the farm.
Pierre-Luc Chouinard is a young guy with a huge grin and a booming voice. And his farm on the eastern shore of the St. Lawrence River—which is about 10 miles wide at this point—is in about the prettiest spot you can think of. Just outside the village of Saint-Arsène, the land gently rolls up from the river; there aren’t too many spots on the Chouinard place you can’t see the water.
In spite of that, though, Chouinard has struggled over the last couple years to keep his 800 acres—250 in seed potatoes—watered. Only about 40 percent of his farm is set up with irrigation. Usually a wet environment, Quebec has seen two consecutive years as dry as anyone can remember.
“The season is not easy here,” he says. “We have a really short season, and when we don’t get rain, it can be really difficult.
“But I love to grow potatoes,” Chouinard continues with that enormous grin. “I like to work in the field. I like working with our team. I like being the one making decisions. I really enjoy managing the fields, the crops, the people all together.”
It’s been a pretty good trip. And you know, I like those guys in Quebec. They know how to treat a guy well, they live in a beautiful place, and they sure as heck have figured out how to grow potatoes. I think I’ll come back someday.