During the summer, Daniel Gosselin’s and Suzanne Dufresne’s cows graze on pastures seeded to more than a dozen carefully chosen flowering plants. In winter, they move back indoors to a warm, spacious barn and switch over to a diet of dried fodder.
The cows’ seasonal diet is the secret ingredient imparting the distinctive flavours of fine cheeses this Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Que. couple makes with the rich milk their certified organic small herd of Brown Swiss produce.
Their farm, Ferme des Belles Prairies, has been in the Gosselin family since 1950 and certified organic for more than 20 years.
Gosselin and Dufresne became cheese makers and started their on-farm cheese company Au Gré des Champs Fromagerie. Today they sell a variety of high-end speciality cheese, branding and marketing lines as ’summer’ and ’winter’ cheeses to customers who love both the darker yellow-orange cheese they produce while the cows graze the fields, and the much whiter cheese they produce in winter.
Being a cheese maker or certified organic dairy producer isn’t unusual in Quebec, of course. The provincial directory of certified organic products for Quebec currently lists 111 organic milk producers, certified by either Ecocert or Organisme de certification Québec-Vrai.
What distinguishes Gosselin and Dufresne’s farm business is that they’re still one of the relatively few cheese makers in Quebec who remain in the highly regulated business of producing raw milk cheese.
Quebec is the only province in Canada where raw milk cheeses aged fewer than 60 days can be sold, so long as all the required standards related to hygiene, monitoring and inspections are maintained.
Going this route was all part of a move to diversify their dairy farm and at the same time creating a product that would help maintain a precarious agricultural heritage in Quebec, said Gosselin, speaking through a translator.
“They were looking at ways to improve the profitability of the farm. Instead of expanding and having more cows they decided to go for cheese making,” said Francois Labelle, organic dairy production expert with Valacta, Centre d’expertise en production laitiere Quebec-Atlantique, who also served as translator for non-French-speaking visitors to the farm during the Canadian Organic Science Conference earlier this year.
To say that Gosselin and Dufresne have been successful is an understatement. They have produced award-winning cheeses and today employ nine persons, including their daughter Marie-Pier. They utilize all the milk their small herd of 30 produces and their organic management methods for their land have enabled their 65-hectare farm to be almost entirely self-sufficient in feed.
Au Gres des Champs today includes an elegant storefront retail site where other gourmet made-in-Quebec food products are sold and they are a popular destination for tours and product tastings.
Their farm business is an outstanding example of the astonishing variety of organic producers doing value-added production in a part of Canada where there has been significant adoption of organic farming methods by farmers who see this mode of production not only as a way to contribute to a healthier bottom line for their farm, but to foster a more sustainable environment and robust rural culture.
In 2015 of 39,000 farmers in Quebec nearly 1,040 were specializing in organic agriculture, with dairy products, including milk, cheese and yogurt notably producers’ top offerings.
That’s a small fraction but still signalling significant gains by the sector here.
“The latest data we have from 2012 shows that we have 3.6 per cent of (provincial) farmers who are certified organic, but that’s data from 2012,” says Caroline Halde, an assistant organic agriculture professor at Université Laval and the September conference’s co-chair. Quebec’s considerable uptake of organic farming is attributable to several factors, including very good incentives offered by the provincial ministry, she said.
MAPAQ (Ministere de l’Agriculture, des Pecheries et de l’Alimentation du Quebec) has fostered a policy environment and invested millions in biological agriculture, or organic farming, including funding to help farmers make the transition.
This is a province where there is very well-managed certification services and distribution models such as Équiterre that link farmers with consumers of organic and local food.
Farm organizations themselves are a key driving force behind this province’s organic growth, Halde said.
“They’re just very well organized,” she said noting organic farmers in Quebec hosted conferences and field events dating back at least 40 years.
“That has really helped with the knowledge transfer to farmers,” she said.