Jean-Guy Cote had been awake and working for more than 24 hours by Saturday afternoon, but you wouldn’t have known it by the smile on his face at the St. Norbert Farmers’ Market.
The 31-year-old traded the office in for open fields and greenhouses three years ago, after buying his grandfather’s farm near Ste. Agathe. Now Jean-Guy and his wife Ainsley Cote, 28, are the fifth generation since the operation began, working to get fresh, pesticide-free produce to their customers every week, including those at the St. Norbert Farmers’ Market.
The owners of John Boy Farms acknowledged that they aren’t typical of their generation, moving back to the land when so many youth are migrating to the city.
“I always found it kind of sad, how the rural culture and the rural society has gotten smaller… this used to be such a community,” he added.
Jean-Guy noted his own parents didn’t take up farming, although they have now become very active in John Boy Farms. Much of his inspiration and practical tips have come from his grandfather.
“It’s amazing what he knows, it’s knowledge from 100 years ago, the things he learned from his parents and his grandfather,” he said.
That knowledge was especially helpful as they converted the farm from a traditional grain operation, into a small-scale vegetable and livestock operation using sustainable farming practices. Although they had considered going into grain farming, Jean-Guy said setting up that type of operation was cost prohibitive for someone starting out.
Many of the farm’s most productive areas had been overtaken by prairie grasses and once again had to be cleared. But on five acres, John Boy Farms now produces 30 kinds of vegetables, in addition to pasture-finished beef raised on an additional 25 acres.
Sustainability is practised at the farm through the use of legume cover crops, crop rotations, row covers, composted manure, healthy seeds and organic pest controls. But a fine balance between ideals, practicality and cost is also focused on ensuring the operation’s viability.
“You can’t live on ideals alone,” he said. “The reality is, if we want to survive, we will have to expand.”
Three floods in three years have also presented certain difficulties for John Boy Farms, but the couple believes if the farm has survived so far, it is off to a strong start. Jean-Guy’s grandfather Jean-Leon Cote weathered the flood of 1950 and has offered advice for water management as well.
But they aren’t just looking to the past, they also have their sights set on the future, Ainsley said. John Boy Farms is making use of social media like Facebook and Twitter to promote itself along with an in-depth website.
“It’s about making a connection; with an operation this size, you need to know your customers and have a relationship,” she said.
“And I think we’ve made a lot of friends along the way too,” added Jean-Guy.
Much of the pair’s interaction comes in the form of community- supported agriculture, where customers pay a set amount over the growing season to receive weekly baskets of fresh produce.
“The key is when people realize that the food is fresh, and local, and they know exactly where it is coming from… then you have their interest,” she said.