I spend a lot of time in Quebec and find the culture and the history of the province fascinating. It is in many regards, Canada’s little bit of Europe and the feel in the country is cosy.
What most folks don’t see as they travel the countryside past long narrow tracks of land, vineyards and orchards dotted with steep-roofed houses and old barns is the massive agriculture and agri-food industry that is the economic foundation of Quebec.
A large and heavily wooded province, most of the intense agricultural production is in the south. While the West often thinks of maple syrup when it thinks of Quebec, it is only four per cent of farm cash receipts. Dairy and cash crops equally account for 58 per cent followed by hogs (16 per cent), poultry (11 per cent), and beef (seven per cent). Collectively Quebec production agriculture generated $8.3 billion in cash receipts in 2013.
The number of farms is also declining in Quebec and they are getting larger, growing soybeans, corn and horticulture crops. Family-owned farms continue to dominate. Even large companies such as Veg Pro — 1,400 acres of iceberg lettuce, 428 acres of romaine, 385 acres of carrots and 4,500 acres of baby leaf (also onions, red and green leaf, celery and napa) — are co-operatives that are family owned and operated.
These farms employ the latest in technology and science and massive workforces (750 persons for Veg Pro alone). To ensure quality product from start to finish, Veg Pro, like others in Quebec choose to process at the source and market their own products. One of the first to adopt the square salad package (called a clamshell) with a complete salad in the box, they now distribute in Eastern Canada and the U.S. selling $150 million worth of packaged product.
And that is what makes Quebec so unique. Ontario and Quebec dominate food processing in Canada with Quebec home to 24.5 per cent of all food processing in the nation. It is the largest contributor to the province’s GDP. Nationally, agri-food processing is the largest contributor to GDP in manufacturing — ahead of traditional industries such as auto manufacturing.
Canada is about food and Quebec is about processing — employing 475,189 persons in 2,100 facilities that are largely co-operatively owned. Forty per cent is from supply-managed business such as dairy, but the processing profile includes meat, ready-to-eat food, vegetables, fruit, dairy, cheese, bakery, flour, and packaging and storage. This supports the whole of the industry beyond the producer in such areas as research, food mills, crop inputs, service providers and equipment dealers.
Who lives here? Dare, Leclerc, Ronzoni, Coca-Cola, Molson, Labatt, Agropur, Danone, Kraft, Parmalat, Saputo, Baxter, Maple Leaf, Olymel, Callebaut (North America’s largest chocolate-processing plant), Nutriart, Frito-Lay and hundreds of others dominate the processing scene. Québec’s Coop fédérée expertly delivers inputs to farmers and supplies support services.
But that is not all that there is to Quebec. Hundreds of orchards produce secondary products, including apple cider, while vineyards create wines of international recognition. Microbreweries are everywhere and they are experts at telling the story behind their favourite brew. Farms make cheese in small fromageries.
We often spend a day driving from one farm to the next to gather for a roadside picnic. Cheese, bread, jam, fruit, wine and maple treats (to name but a few) all bought direct from farms make for a gastronomic experience.
This two-layered approach to food and food processing allows Quebec to compete on the world stage with $6 billion in agri-food exports in 2012, and still maintain its rural charm. In open food markets such as the famous Atwater Market, which I visit often, the selection is stunning from commodity to complete value added on farm. In grocery stores, the next step is evident as Quebec product takes centre stage and is labelled clearly as “Product of Quebec.”
The variety on Quebec shelves makes western Canadian grocery shopping a literal downer as we sort through food that is loaded with food miles, fingertips and a severe lack of nutritional quality.
Landlocked, western Canadian provinces lack the infrastructure that ports provide and it shows in our food-processing profile. While Atlantic Canada and British Columbia own 16 per cent and 11.9 per cent of the food-processing industry in Canada, Alberta has 7.7 per cent share, Manitoba at 3.7 per cent and Saskatchewan at 3.1 per cent.
In addition to understanding the importance of infrastructure what can the agriculture and agri-food industry in Quebec teach us?
The lesson is twofold. You can have robust economic prosperity based on a value-added food industry and still maintain your sense of local identity.