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Finding fun in the uncertainty

Samuel Bourgeois rediscovered his passion for farming after a bit of tough love.

May 21, 2024  By J.P. Antonacci


Photo courtesy of GETTY IMAGES.

The best thing Samuel Bourgeois’ father ever did for him, professionally speaking, was to show him the door.

“In 2008, I was 18 or 19, and my dad fired me. He said, ‘You gotta get out of here and go somewhere else,’” says the younger Bourgeois, now the owner of Verger Belliveau Orchard in Memramcook, New Brunswick, whose apple orchards have been in his family for three generations.

Bourgeois had left his studies at Dalhousie Agricultural Campus that November without graduating “because I thought I could fall back on the farm and there was going to be no repercussions,” he says.

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He lasted the winter before Robert Bourgeois gave his son the boot.

“I didn’t speak to my dad for three months. Moved out of the house,” Bourgeois says. “It’s funny now. It wasn’t then.”

During his year off the farm, Bourgeois worked in apartment construction, operating heavy equipment.

“But always in my head, the passion was farming,” he says. 

Driven by that passion, Bourgeois did a year of business school at a college in Moncton, worked another summer in construction, and then went back to Dal AC, graduating in 2011 with a diploma in enterprise management (farming). 

He returned to Belliveau part-time once he re-enrolled in school “and the rest is history,” Bourgeois says.

Now that he oversees a workforce of local and offshore labourers who pick, store and pack fruit – along with welcoming thousands of tourists to the farm each weekend of harvest season – Bourgeois appreciates the lesson his father was trying to teach him.

“He didn’t do it to punish me. He just knew that the potential was there, but I had to wake up. At 18, we’re too smart,” he says.

“I think it’s a good lesson to go somewhere else and see something else. Because we take it for granted some days, when we’re young.”

Adding value
The clay loam soil where the Belliveau orchards sit has produced apples for over 90 years, and have been in the Bourgeois family since Louis Bourgeois – Samuel’s grandfather – purchased the farm in 1967.

Within 20 years, Robert Bourgeois introduced fresh-pressed sweet cider to the Maritimes, using waste apples – those that fall to the ground or are too misshapen or blemished to sell – that had previously been sent to a buyer in Quebec for “next to nothing.”  

“My dad’s motivation behind that was let’s take something that we call waste and transform it into something that’s worth a few dollars,” Bourgeois says.

“That’s where we started our value-add. Sweet cider was new in Atlantic Canada, so it took time to build sales. My dad did a lot of farmers’ markets and all that to promote the product.”

The family built a juice plant in 1987 and started making sparkling juice, hard cider and fruit wine a decade later, hiring a full-time winemaker who remains on staff today.

Turning the fruit farm into a cottage winery prompted other new ventures, including a farm market and café, and a pick-your-own experience from August to October.

Visitors buy a five, 10 or 20-pound bag, take a tractor ride out to the orchard, and fill their bag with juicy ripe apples before having a glass of wine or cider on the terrace overlooking the farm.

“We don’t charge to get in, and every year it’s been growing,” Bourgeois says, calling the U-pick operation a chance to show visitors – up to 5,000 on a busy weekend – the reality of apple farming up close.

“A lot of people who come in here are city people. So you hope they appreciate the countryside, the fresh air, and obviously the work that goes into growing that crop,” Bourgeois says.

Having farmers tell their own stories directly to consumers helps to avoid the spread of misinformation about agriculture. On the topic of pest management, for example, Bourgeois can explain how and why the farm sprays its trees.

“We only spray when we really need to,” he says. “It’s money gone every time the tractor goes out. It’s because it needs to be done to protect the crop at that time.”

Six years after graduating from Dalhousie Agricultural Campus, Bourgeois received the school’s young alumni achievement award for his agricultural advocacy.

“When you talk to the public, you’ve got to keep it simple,” he says. “So I try to keep it as simple as I can, because then you hope they understand it and they feel better.”

Growth stage for apple industry
On top of its agrotourism offerings, Belliveau runs a climate-controlled cold storage facility for the apples harvested from its nearly 100,000 trees, along with fruit picked at other farms.

Bourgeois is also kept busy as the only packer in the province and the board chair of the Apple Growers of New Brunswick (N.B. Apples), an industry association that lobbies governments for programs to aid farmers with growing and storing their crop.

N.B. Apples is not involved in marketing, and some growers opt to send their apples out of province to Nova Scotia, Ontario or Quebec to be packed and sold.

“At the end of the day, there shouldn’t be any borders. As growers, you sell where you feel the most comfortable and where your relationships are the best,” Bourgeois says.

Part of his job as board chair is telling the story of New Brunswick apples to consumers, media and the general public.

“The last five to seven years, we probably doubled in acreage. We’re probably close to double in volume,” he says. “But we were small. We might have gone from 300 to 600 acres, that kind of thing. Still small, but the industry’s growing.”

Sweet as Honeycrisp
One concern Bourgeois has is the province’s reliance on Honeycrisp, a commercially prized sweet apple that takes more effort to harvest.

“Honeycrisp brought the industry to where it is today. Really, it probably saved the industry in New Brunswick because there was money to be made,” he says. “Without Honeycrisp, I’m sure that there would be less acreage than there was 20 years ago. It brought back succession on farms that did not exist before.”

After lean years for the industry in the 1980s, some newer farms planted higher-priced Honeycrisp trees on 70 to 90 per cent of their land. While growers appreciate the extra revenue, the challenge for harvest and the labour needs are acute, as each apple’s stem must be snipped and each tree requires several passes because the fruit ripens in waves. 

Contrast this to harvesting a hardier apple like Gala or Empire, where the whole tree can be picked clean at the same time and apples can be plucked from the branches by hand.

The labour demands make Honeycrisp 20 to 30 per cent more expensive to pick than other apples, Bourgeois says. And when labour is hard to get – New Brunswick uses local and offshore workers – farmers can start to sweat.

“Some farms are struggling. It’s just the labour that’s become a pain,” Bourgeois says. “Other than that, the industry is benefitting from that growth.”

At Belliveau Orchards, Honeycrisp accounts for 40 to 50 per cent of the farm’s 100 acres, with 15 to 20 per cent dedicated to higher-quality McIntosh varieties popular in Atlantic Canada, and the balance in Jonagold, Idared, and some heritage varieties like Cox’s Orange Pippin and Russet that end up in the family’s small-batch artisanal hard cider sold under the SCOW Cider brand.

“We balanced our farm to spread the labour out,” Bourgeois says. “Yes, Honeycrisp is amazing, good returns, but we felt it was a bit too risky on our labour side just to focus on one variety.”

‘Every day is different’
With so many hats to wear, it’s no wonder Bourgeois sees the variety inherent to farming as a major draw.

“Our industry changes basically every day,” he says. “Sounds crazy to say it, but today if it’s sunny, we’ve got to do this, tomorrow if it’s rainy, we’ve got to do that. Every day is different.”

Being comfortable with change helps him weather the literal and economic storms that bring price fluctuations, unpredictable growing conditions, and changing consumer preferences.

“In the marketplace, nothing is consistent. It’s fun,” Bourgeois says. “Not when [the price] goes down, but it’s fun.” 

Hoping for the best but planning for the worst remains a sound strategy, he adds. 

“At the end of the day, you’ve got to make sure you can afford the lows,” Bourgeois says. 

“If you benchmark yourself against everyone else and you can do it as cheap if not cheaper than the rest, you’ll be in business.”


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