Quebec fishing village grows economy with local produce

Many people lost their jobs when the fish processing plant in La Tabatière on Quebec's Lower North Shore closed in 2011. In order to bring back jobs, the community turned to agriculture, with promising results.

After La Tabatière's fish plant closed, residents diversified the local economy through gardening

Thousands of honeyberry plants are growing in La Tabatière, Que., as part of the village's AGRO Project. (Peter Tardif/CBC)

Standing in a field of thousands of honeyberry plants, Marie Galichon swats at the countless black flies buzzing around her face.

It's late in the afternoon on a warm July day in La Tabatière, a small village in the municipality of Gros-Mécatina, Que., roughly 1,800 kilometres northeast of Montreal on the province's Lower North Shore.

The tart berries look like long blueberries, or almost like blue jelly beans.

"I hate them," Galichon says of the bugs, not pronouncing the 'h' in hate, a practice that reflects the unique way of speaking English that's common to the region's coastal, and primarily anglophone, residents.

Inversely, people on the coast sometimes add the letter 'h' to the start of words; ice turns into hice, for example. That distinctive accent was shaped by the region's proximity to Newfoundland and moulded by hundreds of years of settlement by the French, British and Scots, among others.

Those same settlers made La Tabatière a hub for transforming fish products, and historically, the small town has relied on its fishing industry for jobs.

But that's changed of late. 

This year, the fields in La Tabatière yielded about 750 lb. of berries, twice as much as last year. (Peter Tardif/CBC)

After the local processing plant closed in 2011, people like Galichon found themselves without a job. So residents started throwing ideas around about how to create work and diversify the local economy.

"We were looking for a long-term project," Galichon explained.

The idea to grow honeyberries came up and, with the help of the province and private partners, the AGRO Project was born.

750 lbs. of berries

Galichon has been onboard since the beginning. "It sounded interesting. I needed an income," she said, with a laugh.

She helped clear the land and plant La Tabatière's roughly 6,000 honeyberry plants, all by hand.

Marie Galichon, left, is one of seven people working to grow honeyberries as part of La Tabatière's AGRO Project, and Juanita Jones, right, is the project manager. (Peter Tardif/CBC)

Now, roughly six years after the honeyberry project started, the fly bites and hard labour are paying off.

This season, the fields yielded some 750 lb. of berries, twice as much as last year.

Juanita Jones, the AGRO Project's manager, says the honeyberry fields could lead to big returns as the crops continue to grow.

The berries can be used in cooking, and potentially even wine, and Jones says she's looking to expand sales outside of town.

"We could grow and get more crops and then maybe we could supply other villages with fresh veggies," she said.

Project expanded to other crops

La Tabatière's AGRO Project may have its roots in honeyberries, but it has expanded over the years.

Francie Maurice is in charge of a greenhouse, as well as one indoor and several outdoor gardens.

Along with two other employees, Maurice tries to grow it all: peppers, onions, broccoli, radishes, cucumbers, turnips and beets, among other crops. 

It's hard because you have to put in a lot of volunteer hours.- Francie Maurice

Maurice says it's a challenge to grow food in a place where the ground can still be frozen in May, or even June.

"We have to start these crops in a building in town," she explained.

"It's hard because you have to put in a lot of volunteer hours."

This year, La Tabatière's greenhouse was equipped with a new 'spaghetti' watering system shown here. (Peter Tardif/CBC)

Finding the funding to keep the gardens going every year is also a struggle, despite some support from the province, the municipality and some private donors. It also often means a short growing season.

This year, planting officially started in July and the harvest was earlier this month.

Francie Maurice is one of three people growing a variety of vegetables in the greenhouse and gardens as part of the AGRO Project. (Peter Tardif/CBC)

But in a remote area where vegetables typically arrive once a week by ferry, she says all the hard work is worth it: fresh, locally grown produce has become a staple at dinner tables in the community, Maurice said.

This year, sales were up 50 per cent compared to last season.

Earlier this month, lots of people came out to buy fresh produce grown in La Tabatière. (AGRO Project)

'It's encouraging'

La Tabatière's AGRO Project also has a nursery of bakeapples, yellow- and orange-coloured fruit that grow in northern climates and are shaped like raspberries.

Kim Organ, left, and Ivy-Anne MacKinnon grow bakeapples in La Tabatière. (Peter Tardif/CBC)

Home to tens of thousands of seedlings, the nursery aims to test what conditions best allow the plants to flower and produce berries.

Today, the town's roughly 60,000 bakeapple plants are cloned from a variety of genome types.

"We are trying to see which ones are growing the best, which ones are the stronger plants," said Kim Organ, one of the initiative's three employees.

Organ said the project, spearheaded by a Baie-Comeau company, will hopefully yield plants that can grow in different environments.

It takes bakeapple plants from three to seven years to produce fruit.

This year, Organ and her team grew their very first berry. "It's encouraging," she said.

I'm proud of what we are doing — something that's different, something that we didn't know we can do.- Marie Galichon

Galichon, who works in the honeyberry fields, agrees.

"I'm proud of what we are doing — something that's different, something that we didn't know we can do," she said.

In total, La Tabatière's AGRO Project has created 15 seasonal jobs.

While that might not sound like much, Jones said it's huge for a municipality of about 450 people.

"And we hope to continue and we hope to grow," she said.

It takes from three to seven years for a bakeapple plant to flower and produce fruit. Bakeapples are yellow or orange and are shaped like raspberries. (Peter Tardif/CBC)