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Picking a new way to produce berries

Ferme Onésime Pouliot balances tradition and innovation to grow a better future for the business.

May 14, 2024  By Rosalie Tennison

Guy Pouliot works hard on and off the farm to improve Canadian agriculture. Photo courtesy of donna pardy.

On the picturesque and historic Île d’Orléans, near Quebec City, an area known for its artists and agriculture, one family has deep roots in both the culture and the land. For more than 10 generations, the Pouliot family has farmed the island’s soil. The most recent seven generations have stayed on the same piece of property, supporting many family members and using innovation to grow the business.

Known as the “Garden of Quebec,”  Île d’Orléans farmers produce most of the strawberries found on the province’s tables. In fact, 80 per cent of Ferme Onésime Pouliot’s production can be found in the province’s supermarkets. The remaining 20 per cent find their way to tables in the northeastern United States and, occasionally, shoppers in Ontario are treated to the farm’s excess production. But the Pouliot family’s main crops are not the farm’s only business. When brothers Guy and Daniel took over Ferme Onésime Pouliot from their father Onésime in 2001, they looked for ways to diversify and improve the operation and grow it for their children.

A berry operation is labourious but not nearly as backbreaking as it was in Onésime’s day thanks to innovations the brothers have introduced. The sight of workers crawling on their knees through sprawling fields of strawberries picking into boxes or baskets is almost a historic view at Ferme Onésime Pouliot. Instead, the farm is in transition from strawberries grown in fields to strawberry plants grown in substrate on tables. This production model allows the workers to walk beside the tables picking berries at waist-to-shoulder height. About four acres of strawberry plants are grown on the table top, which helps fill the production gap until mid-July when the field berries are ready. 


“Workers can pick 1.3 times faster when the strawberries are chest high,” Guy says. “We hope to get better in the future just like we did with raspberries.”

Instead of fields of raspberry canes at Ferme Onésime Pouliot, the plants are grown in pots with two plants per pot. Each year, new plants are started in a greenhouse and then transferred to a plastic-covered structure or “tunnel” shielding them from the rain. The several-acre “umbrella” allows for careful timing of production. The plants are renewed each year and the previous year’s plants are sent to compost along with the substrate-grown strawberry plants.

Initially, 10 acres of raspberry plants are transferred with an expected late-July maturity. Another 10 acres of plants are added a few weeks later, allowing for picking to continue until October. Fertilizer and water are delivered by an irrigation system that can be adjusted as needed. Plants are transferred earlier or later so production can begin sooner or continue well past the time when field berries are no longer available.

The farm’s raspberry production system was an investment, but necessary to compete with other berry-growing countries.

“With this system, we can produce 1.3 kilos of berries per raspberry cane,” Guy explains. “A decade ago, we would get one kilo of berries per cane when we were growing them in a field.” He says the investment for the structure and tables and the technology will take 10 years to recoup but it was necessary in order for the farm to compete with other berry-growing countries, where labour is cheaper and regulations might not be as stringent.

“We are pioneers in this new technique,” says Guy. “Ferme Onésime Pouliot was one of only two or three farms producing raspberries this way when we started in 2008. This system uses less land, but not resources.” Guy is very aware of consumer preferences and says the farm produces raspberries that have a clear red colour because that is what attracts shoppers. He says there are berries with better taste, but they aren’t what catches consumers’ eyes.

The Ferme Onésime Pouliot nursery, which produces the plants for the farm, was spun off into a separate company, Onésime Pouliot Agriplant, in 2014. It also provides “plugs” to other berry producers.

A research division keeps the farm on the cutting edge of technology and constantly improving how it manages production.

“We usually have about nine projects of our own every year that are managed by our research department, composed of three employees holding masters degrees in plant biology,” Guy explains. In addition, the farm participates in research run through a university program. The university provides the plants and does much of the work developing techniques and plants suitable for the island’s climate.

Another part of the farm’s diversification, “Onésime Pouliot Solutions,” launched in 2019. It’s an agency to facilitate the hiring of temporary foreign workers (TFWs) for Ferme Onésime Pouliot and other Quebec growers. The company fills about 1,000 vacancies – mostly in agriculture but a few are arranged for other sectors as well. Guy is adamant that, without the TFWs, farmers would struggle to produce the bounty Quebec shoppers have grown to expect.

At Ferme Onésime Pouliot, 300 TFWs from Honduras, Mexico and Guatemala sow plants and pick berries throughout the season. In early 2024, as he is preparing for the farm’s next berry crops, Guy is lobbying governments to ensure the TFW system is fair to all.

Table-top strawberries help the farm fill the production gap until the field berries are ready.

“These people come here and work really hard for six months,” Guy explains, adding then they go home to their country with the equivalent of three and half years’ salary. They use the money to improve the lives of their families by buying land or houses.

Ferme Onésime Pouliot is also attuned to the requirements of food management. The farm can track a container of strawberries back to the section of the table it came from and who picked it. He says the big chain supermarkets are demanding this type of traceability. 

“We have so much paperwork,” sighs Guy. “We have thousands of forms to complete and every year there is something new we have to do. My father Onésime would not recognize what we are doing now compared to what he did when he took over the farm from his father.”

Continuous innovation keeps the operation competitive. Guy says the farm is producing more on less land. The farm harvests up to eight times more raspberries with the canes in pots in the plastic tunnel than it did when the canes were grown in field rows.

“I have more plants per acre and I’ve almost doubled my production per acre with more yield per plant,” Guy explains. “We fertilize the substrate the strawberry plants are in and, for raspberries, we irrigate 20 to 25 times per day.”

Always looking for ways to diversify, Guy and Daniel started selling their second-class raspberries in 2023 to be used for production of an alcoholic beverage. It’s another revenue stream that could keep their less-than-perfect berries out of the compost system and meets the brothers’ commitment to growing the farm for another generation.

Certainly the farming tradition is continuing as one of Guy’s daughters is active in the farm’s operation. Daniel’s children are too young to take an interest in the business side of the enterprise, but two of his three children work on the farm during the season. However many descendants follow in their footsteps, the brothers plan to hand over a business that uses up-to-date technology and is supported by research and hard work.

Guy says, “We want to pass a better farm to the next generation.”

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