(Saint-Fulgence) To grow their organic vegetables, the farmers of Saint-Fulgence have a well-kept secret: a microclimate, which warms the north shore of the Saguenay.
We discover Les Jardins de Sophie like a treasure in a jewel case, at the end of Chemin de l’Anse-à-Pelletier. A vegetable farm in the middle of the forest, nestled in the hollow of the hills that undulate and plunge into the blue waters of the Saguenay Fjord.
The beauty of the landscape is breathtaking. It wasn’t always like this. This landscape, it was shaped. Patiently. Valiantly. “When we arrived, it was like Émilie Bordeleau in the woods,” says François Tremblay.
It was necessary to clear, destump, drain. Do it all, from scratch. Arm juice and elbow grease.
That was over two decades ago. Sophie Gagnon was 24 years old. She had just finished her studies in adventure tourism at the University of Quebec in Chicoutimi (UQAC). “I wanted to be a globetrotter, travel the world, marry a foreigner…”
Instead, she set her sights on the best skater in Chicoutimi: François Tremblay, 23, a graduate in forestry. Together they spent a summer harvesting vegetables on a farm in Saskatchewan.
On their return, it was decided: they would become market gardeners. One day, they came across this wooded lot in Anse-à-Pelletier, in the municipality of Saint-Fulgence, on the north shore of the Saguenay. A virgin land, between sea and mountain. Far, far away from the prairies of Western Canada and the flat fields that line Highway 20.
However, more and more of them are plowing the fertile land of Saint-Fulgence to provide Saguenéens with fresh vegetables bursting with flavor.
To grow their tomatoes, lettuces, carrots, garlic cloves, beans, peppers, beets, pumpkins and other vegetables, they have a well-kept secret: three suns.
The geographer Majella-J. Gauthier suspected for a long time that the municipality of 2000 inhabitants benefited from a microclimate favorable to market gardening.
“I was maybe 10 years old when my father brought me to Saint-Fulgence and I saw cherries for the first time. It stuck in my mind. »
After retiring from UQAC, where he taught rural geography, Majella-J. Gauthier decided to test his hypothesis. He put together a team. Spent a whole summer in the field. And discovered, yes, a microclimate.
“We are due south and the two beautiful mountains behind protect us from the north winds,” explains Sophie Gagnon. The land slopes towards the Saguenay, which captures the heat and radiates it. Sometimes it snows a little higher up while here it rains. It makes a big difference in production. »
The geographer Majella-J. Gauthier estimates that 810 hectares of land could benefit from a microclimate favorable to agriculture, on the north shore of the Saguenay.
Of the 810 hectares identified by the researcher, 621 hectares should, however, be converted into agricultural land to make Saint-Fulgence “the Île d’Orléans of Saguenay”.
“We even make artichokes,” adds François Tremblay. Not many people in Saguenay make artichokes. »
Majella-J. Gauthier targeted an 810-hectare strip of fertile land suitable for agriculture along the north shore of the Saguenay. The equivalent of four times Mount Royal. Of this, 621 hectares are not used for agricultural purposes.
In short, there is potential. And so much hope.
Antoine Trudeau and Myriam Pilon-Domenack are 24 years old. As Sophie and François had done at their age, they plunged into the void when they embarked on the agricultural adventure. They start from scratch. They do everything, tinker with everything. Their little farm is called La Bricole, precisely.
Antoine Trudeau was a post-production editor. Myriam Pilon-Domenack is a graphic designer. They shared a poorly lit three and a half in the Plateau Mont-Royal.
And then the pandemic hit. “I had the call of nature,” says Antoine Trudeau. My parents had a farmhouse in Mirabel. I was going to help in their garden. That’s where I felt good. »
A neighbor lent them a wasteland. Antoine and Myriam grew vegetables there, which they then distributed to their Montreal friends who were hard hit by the pandemic. “The contribution was voluntary. We didn’t make a penny with that, ”says Myriam Pilon-Domenack.
It couldn’t have lasted forever, she admits. “This land was not ours, it was loaned to us. Around Mirabel, prices are really high. We made calculations, it was impossible to buy land and a house. »
But in Saguenay, it was possible.
One day, they were told about an elderly lady who was thinking of parting with her land. In the village, she was called the market gardener. “It clicked with the lady,” says Myriam. We had the same vision. She recognized her couple in ours. »
The lady sold them 2.5 hectares. “We have space to build a house, raise ducks, do rotational cropping…” In the village, people welcomed them with open arms. They said to them, “Ah! You are the one who took over the land from the market gardener! »
Antoine Trudeau was a little apprehensive, despite the warm welcome. “I went to see my neighbor to introduce myself. He also grew vegetables. I was a bit worried that he would see us as competition. The first thing he said to me was, ‘Ah, yeah, we’re having pizza tonight with some friends, do you want to come over?’ »
This neighbor is Adrien Belkin, 30 years old. He didn’t believe in becoming a farmer either. Child of the maple spring, he first thought of getting into politics, to change the world.
After studying arts and letters at Cégep d’Alma, Adrien Belkin branched out into organic farming in Victoriaville. But it was at the Jardins de Sophie, where he worked for two seasons, that he learned the tricks of the trade.
In a sense, he says, occupying the territory, feeding the Saguenéens with fresh products from local agriculture, is also playing politics.
More than ever, Adrien Belkin feels he has an impact on his community. This is all the more true since he was elected municipal councilor of Saint-Fulgence. “I like to speak my mind, represent people and try to change things from the inside. »
In summer, two self-service fridges allow customers to come and stock up on vegetables. It works a little, a lot on honor. And it works.
It’s not just the microclimate that attracts neo-rurals to Saint-Fulgence. There are also flats, Canada geese and snow geese, the beach of the coastal spit, a geological formation that marks the beginning of the Saguenay Fjord, hikes at the foot of Parc national des Monts-Valin…
There are people, above all. “People like us, a little crazy and cranky who want the village to become something vibrant and dynamic,” says Antoine Trudeau. The word is happening. More and more people want to come and live in Saint-Fulgence. »
There is the Café des Marées, opened in the premises of the former credit union and intended to fight against social exclusion. There is the cooperative microbrewery Le Saint-Fût, whose beers are flavored with hand-picked local plants. There is the primary school, recently renovated. At the church, there are shows, wrestling galas, spinning… and mass, too, anyway.
“I remember on our first visit seeing the Pride flag displayed,” recalls Myriam. Often, we associate stereotypes with villages, but no, it’s a very open world. »
Majella-J. Gauthier admits: the three suns still don’t work miracles. Saint-Fulgence does not have the climate of Dunham or Saint-Hyacinthe. But in Saguenay, where the harvest season is three to four weeks shorter than in southern Quebec, this microclimate makes a real difference.
And then there is the issue of global warming. “A farm is a project for 70 years,” says Antoine Trudeau. We were beginning to feel periods of drought in Montreal. What will it be like, 70 years from now, when we leave our farm to our children? »
In Saint-Fulgence, the warming will be less problematic and could even be advantageous, underlines Majella-J. Gautier. “The average temperature of Saguenay–Lac-Saint-Jean has increased by 1.5 degrees over the past 50 years. In Washington, 1.5 degrees doesn’t make a big difference. But in the pre-northern regions, in agriculture, it is very important. We will gain days of heat, frost-free periods will lengthen, and so on. »
That does not mean that young farmers do not work. Strong. “But we try to set boundaries,” she said. “On hot days, we stop everything because it’s dangerous to work in the field,” says his neighbor, Adrien Belkin.
“The new generation of market gardeners like Adrien has a different approach,” notes Sophie Gagnon, 48. For them, there is work, but there is also leisure. Sometimes we see on Facebook that Adrien is at the beach at 4 p.m. and we say: ‘Come on, young man, what are you doing at the beach? »
A new pavilion now overlooks the magnificent land of Sophie Gagnon and François Tremblay. The couple intends to offer a country table there in the summer. Guests will be invited to visit the farm before sitting down to eat.
“The project started two or three years ago, but became official with the arrival of Jean-Paul Sabbagh, a young chef who graduated from the Institut de tourisme et d’hôtellerie du Québec,” explains François. They uprooted him from Montreal. »
Jean-Paul Sabbagh is not complaining. “I fell in love with Saint-Fulgence,” he says. It is one of the cutest villages I have seen. »
Its menu will change with the harvest. “People are going to come here not knowing what they are going to eat. They will discover the products that we will use. The primary goal is to maximize the vegetable. All fresh from the gardens, of course.
“At the beginning, it was a bit rough,” admits François. But here we are ready. Our goal is to have one of the finest tables in Quebec. »
He built the pavilion with his own hands. Like the house, the barn, the greenhouses and the vault, where the root vegetables are kept until May of the following year. “Farming isn’t that complicated,” he blurts out. It’s just being brave. »