For centuries, agriculture has been a major contributor to the economic engine of Quebec and to the vitality of its rural regions. In 2016, the GDP of Quebec’s bio-food industry was 7.4 per cent, totalled $23.4 billion, and created 12 per cent of jobs in the province. From 2013 to 2016, the GDP of the bio-food industry rose by 9.0 per cent, a higher growth rate than that of the Quebec economy as a whole (+4.2 per cent).
Early in the 20th century, Quebec began its transition from an agricultural society based on the constrictive seigneurial system to an urban industrialized one. The 1950s saw Quebec’s first “plan conjoint” (joint marketing plan) as well as the introduction of field drainage to improve the land’s productivity. During Quebec’s Quiet Revolution of the 1960s, the province shifted again as society began to pull away from the Catholic Church’s conservative influence over all aspects of society and sought to modernize its approach to a number of societal and economic issues, including agricultural production.
Exponential growth in the agriculture industry has been happening ever since, relying on a system of supports and policies that help Quebec’s farmers leverage the power of modern technology and innovation to grow their businesses and the economy as well.
However, it’s not all roses and rainbows.
For better or worse, regulation has traditionally been the weapon of choice used by the Quebec government, particularly on environmental protection issues. Moratoriums and municipal land management measures have been instituted to deal with manure surpluses, and legislation has been enacted to handle pesticide management and farmland protection, planning and development.
An important factor in the success of these measures has been cross-compliance, that is, linking financial support programs with compliance to minimum environmental standards.
“Accompanying measures” is another popular tool used in Quebec agricultural policy, a combination of initiatives designed to increase awareness among producers and growers about environmental issues (e.g. soil degradation inventories, agri-environmental profiles) and financial support programs (includes education, training, and technology transfer).
Larger programs like Prime Vert (a subsidy that covered 70 to 90 per cent of the cost of building manure storage structures) have provided financial assistance to help farmers achieve regulatory compliance. Between 1999 and 2001, public spending on agri-environmental interventions averaged almost $30 per hectare, several times greater than amounts in other provinces.
There have been, and continue to be, many unique measures designed to grow the Quebec ag industry. In 1978, the Quebec government passed a zoning law (Loi sur la protection des terres agricoles, or Law for the Protection of Agricultural Lands) and created the Commission de protection du territoire agricole du Québec (the Commission for the Protection of Agricultural Lands in Quebec or CPTAQ) which still plays a key role in the province’s agricultural development policies. British Columbia is the only other province with a similar commission.
As environmental awareness increased significantly in the 1990s, Quebec implemented agri-environmental clubs to help farmers adopt integrated pest management techniques and plant windbreaks to protect waterways. Many clubs have since been privatized but are partly funded through cost-sharing programs under current ag policy frameworks.
Also in the 1990s, the government supported the creation of 17 agri-food roundtables, which were mandated to bring together all actors in the food industry within a specific region. The current model, les tables filières sectorielles (industry/sector tables and/or networks) allows the various stakeholders that make up the agri-food sector to exchange ideas and establish dynamic strategies with the goal of developing and strengthening their position within current and new markets. These tables have prompted a great deal of interest from other provinces and countries who would like to replicate the model.
In terms of the up-and-coming organic sector, Quebec has been at the forefront of the organic scene for several years. The 2004 report “How governments in other jurisdictions successfully support the development of organic food and farming” by Rod Macrae and others noted that Quebec was the first province to adopt a full strategic plan in the organic food and farming sector that “rival plans in Europe.”
The plan’s success hinges on its multifunctionality: it combines policies from an agri-environmental perspective, financial support for farms transitioning from conventional to organic, extension services, and lots of R&D.
Since 2010, the Centre d’expertise et de transfert en agriculture biologique et de proximité (the Centre for expertise and technology transfer in local organic agriculture or CETAB+), has conducted extensive research on organic plant production. They also provide consulting services for technical aspects, management, and marketing. CETAB+ is part of the Institut national d’agriculture biologique (National Institute of Organic Agriculture or INAB) which teaches, conducts research projects and technology transfer, and acts as an agricultural incubator for organic farming. INAB is Canada’s largest organic agriculture training and research centre.
An increasing number of Quebec’s maple syrup producers are using the “bio” (organic) logo on their syrup: more than a third (37 per cent) are currently classified as organic producers. And just announced in April, Quebec’s maple syrup producers have set an ambitious goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions related to syrup production by 26 per cent by 2030.
Additionally, the Union des producteurs agricoles (Agricultural Producers’ Union or UPA) created the Table de développement de la production biologique (Organic Production Development Table or TDPB) in 2014. The mission of the TDPB is to guide organic famers in meeting the demand of this important and growing market. There is a complementary website (www.virage-bio.craaq.qc.ca) which offers a vast repository of organic farming information and resources.
Quebec is the only province that provides startup and establishment grants to farmers through its government-backed agricultural lending institution, the Financière agricole du Québec. Between 2006 and 2011, Quebec had the largest increase in organic farms, and would-be ecologically minded farmers continue to establish operations here in large part because of the financial and regulatory support.
Another exception to the rule is Quebec’s Fonds d’Investissement pour la relève agricole (Investment Fund for Agricultural Succession or FIRA) which, along with the New Land Purchase Program in New Brunswick, is one of the only two provinces offering land-access supports to new farmers to address the challenges of purchasing farm property. Quebec’s Banque de terres, a land-linking initiative, is the only program of its kind across the country that receives direct provincial financial support from the Ministère de l’Agriculture, des Pêcheries et de l’Alimentation du Québec (agriculture ministry or MAPAQ).
In 2006, faced with numerous public perception and pollution issues as well as declining revenues, the government of Quebec mandated the Commission sur l’avenir de l’agriculture du Québec (the Commission for the Future of Agriculture in Quebec) to assess the state and challenges of agriculture in the province, analyse the effectiveness of existing public interventions, and make recommendations based on the needs for agricultural competitiveness, social needs, and the valorization of Quebec’s regions.
In 2017, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) said that Quebec’s National Rural Policy (NRP) was “one of the most advanced policy approaches to promoting rural development in the OECD area.” An important part of the NRP was its labelling schemes, designed to highlight the various “terroirs” (regions) and their respective products (e.g. Charlevoix lamb, Montérégie and Canton de l’est wine). While the NRP has not been renewed, Hugo Martorell and Elisabeth Abergel, from the Université du Québec à Montréal noted in their paper titled “Building joined-up agricultural policies: Lessons from Quebec,” that it was innovative in terms of how it connected policy networks outside of government, most notably civil society actors.
The goal of one of Quebec’s latest agricultural policies, “Alimenter notre monde” (Feed Our People) is to promote Quebec food production and food processing industries. However, it encompasses more than just food; it also considers labour shortage trends, training, certification, best practices, and health in relation to Quebec products. Seven targets will be addressed between 2018 and 2025, key among them an investment of $15 billion in agriculture, aquaculture, fisheries and food processing; an increase in the proportion of businesses in agricultural and food processing businesses using responsible practices; doubling the surface area of farmland in Quebec; and increasing international exports of Quebec food by $6 billion.
Quebec’s firm handle on workforce development in the ag sector has led to phase two of the FermEmploi program which provides $800,000 to the dairy, poultry, pork, and greenhouse sectors so they can recruit trainees for a 24-week period. Nearly 80 per cent of phase-one participants were still employed full time on farms where they completed their internships.
Perhaps the most puzzling aspect to other provinces looking in is the fact that Quebec has only one organization to represent its agricultural producers. The UPA represents roughly 42,000 Quebec farmers, all forestry producers, and gathers 90 locals, 12 regional federations, 130 unions, and 26 specialized groups under its umbrella. It is the only official body that speaks on behalf of all Quebec farm and forestry producers in order to act collectively in solidarity to “promote, defend, and further the professional, economic, social, and moral interests of Quebec’s farm and forestry producers.”
It might seem counterintuitive that one body speaks on behalf of so many different sectors. In fact, Jérémie Letellier, first vice-president of the Montérégie UPA, says that it actually contributes to Quebec’s model of agricultural innovation and success precisely for that reason: “The fact that we speak for everyone gives us a certain credibility and legitimacy with our government counterparts,” says Letellier. “It’s much easier to work with government when an issue has already been hashed, rehashed, and compromised on before it gets to them. It’s a more cohesive, efficient process and makes the end objectives clearer.”
Importantly, the UPA stresses the importance of agriculture’s economic role in the province and its integration with other goals of society as a whole. Their website states that “By staying in tune with Quebec society as a whole, the UPA also helps improve social, economic, and cultural life in rural communities.”
Letellier add, “Agriculture is an important economic force in the regions. The vitality of those regions can be ensured by the vitality of the ag sector through niche markets, farm competitiveness, and by providing jobs, particularly where other industries have shut down.”
The UPA is also currently working on a “plan vert” (green plan) that encourages the government to significantly increase budgets allocated to agri-environmental portfolios. The $100 million investment proposed by the UPA would be allocated to promoting and supporting organic production, research centres to build knowledge around tools and methods to fight crop pests, offer training to growers, and remunerate producers for the environmental goods and services they provide to society.
Additionally, Quebec has had a carbon cap-and-trade system which has passed the $3 billion mark in total revenues since it began in 2014. This system allows Quebec to buy and sell emission credits with California, helping ensure that supply doesn’t outstrip demand. To complete the cycle, Quebec invests the revenues from the market into a fund that finances low-carbon infrastructure projects in an effort to not only reduce emissions but grow its economy at the same time.
In 2018, Martorell and Abergel explored Quebec’s unique approach to food policy and how it might provide lessons in a Canadian context to build more integrated approaches to agriculture and rural policies. They remarked that “Agricultural policy in Quebec is distinct in relation to other provinces… it is the only province that has not hesitated to use intrusive and comprehensive command-and-control regulation and financial incentives.”
This, however, can prove to be too much for many growers and producers. The “paperasse” (paperwork) associated with regulations is a heavy burden particularly for the small farms the government publicly purports to support. One producer in St-Placide, Que., said, “There’s an overabundance of paperwork — and all of it required simply for the pleasure of being in an occupation that doesn’t remunerate in relation to the amount of work and responsibility invested. That said, if it was so easy to work in agriculture, this wonderful occupation wouldn’t be in such decline.”
Several other growers and producers I surveyed — from the southwest of the province to the eastern reach of the Gaspé peninsula — agree. Add to the burden of paperwork the language component of Bill 101: there are 1,250 English farms among the 28,150 producers across the province and they struggle to get support program information in English. Albeit a small percentage (4.44 per cent), they contribute to the industry and economy on par with their Francophone counterparts, so it can be frustrating to say the least to not have adequate access to the same business-building tools and resources.
Richard and Alicia Archer, from British Columbia and Saskatchewan, respectively, moved to Quebec’s Eastern Townships (a bilingual pocket in the province along the Vermont border that was settled by United Empire Loyalists) with their herd of 80 water buffalo three years ago. This unique sector depends on consistent processor contracts, something they couldn’t get back home, but which was guaranteed in Quebec. While they appreciate the number of programs available to farmers in the province, as unilingual English speakers it’s difficult to run an innovative and successful business when there are extreme limits to the amount of information they can receive in English from government agencies.
Quebec’s ag industry is a leader in organic production methods and support, has agri-environmental policies with a long-term focus tied to society’s concerns and farmers’ revenues, and had animal traceability and mental health awareness programs years before other provinces to name just a few approaches used to boost its agriculture sector and the provincial economy.
But despite a forward-thinking and innovative ag sector, Quebec’s regulatory framework can lead its farmers to think privately and express sometimes publicly: At what cost? “We agree with farmers that the cost in terms of the amount of paperwork can be prohibitive. However, the costs of programs and policies are minimal when compared to their impact not only on the ag sector, but on Quebec’s society as a whole,” says Letellier. “We’ve been able to evolve sustainably and innovatively because of the policies we have.”
What will the next few centuries hold for Quebec agriculture? If the past 100+ years are any indication, we can expect more innovation and leadership in a number of domains.