Quebec strawberry farm tasting sweet success despite minimum wage hike

The minimum wage in Quebec went up to $12 per hour on May 1, forcing many farmers to consider cutting production. But a strawberry farmer in Pierreville says he's adapted his business to meet the new pressures.

Pierreville farm owner focuses on agro-tourism to soften the impact of a minimum wage increase

Michel Deschênes tends his strawberry fields. (Rebecca Martel/CBC)

While some farmers in the province may be concerned about the impact of increases to minimum wage to their bottom lines, the owner of one strawberry farm says adaptability has kept his business blooming.

"That's the hardest thing in agriculture, you have to stay on the edge, you have to keep thinking of how you're going to surprise your customer, how you're going to navigate with the new costs," said Michel Deschênes, co-owner of La Ferme des Ormes in Pierreville, about 110 kilometres northeast of downtown Montreal.

He stopped paying his employees for the weight of what they picked about 15 years ago and switched to paying them the minimum wage.

But as the minimum wage increases, so does the pressure on him to adjust. The minimum wage went up to $12 an hour on May 1, so it now costs more for his farm to cultivate the crops.

"We can't absorb this all the time, the increase," he added. "All businesses are going to be shuffling this to the customer and they're going to choose if it's possible or not to continue to encourage local business."

Deschênes said going to the customer and selling 80 per cent of the product directly to them has increased his profit margin.

Strawberries for sale at the Ferme des Ormes in Pierreville. (Rebecca Martel/CBC)

The province announced plans last January to make four wage increases over the next four years, bringing the minimum wage up to $12.45 per hour by 2020.

Adapting to stay alive and thrive

While having to pay staff more cuts into profit, Deschênes said it's a balance of figuring out where to cut costs and where businesses have to pass costs on to the consumer.

He emphasized, however, that people don't mind paying more for quality strawberries and a fun experience. 

"It's easy to grow," he said. "You have to sell them. When the market is filled with over production, many people are selling at a loss and only those who are keeping march can survive."

Michel Deschênes says products such as jams and pies help diversify their revenue. (Rebecca Martel/CBC)

Deschênes, along with the other four owners of the farm, started using the strawberries to make pies and jams, which he says gives them greater control of their product and profit.

He added that although strawberries from California can sometimes be a third of the price of Quebec strawberries, for "people who like strawberries and understand quality, it doesn't matter."

"I think when they go back to their houses with our products, they don't remember what they paid but they remember it was really tasty, they had a super experience with our personnel, and they remember they want to come back another time," he said.
Strawberries on display at Ferme des Ormes. (Rebecca Martel/CBC)

La Ferme des Ormes — founded in 1860 and nestled along the Tardif Channel, a branch of the Saint François River — has also adapted in other ways.

The owners have emphasized agro-tourism at the farm. They have public washrooms, picnic tables so people can eat, and are hoping to have coffee and bread for purchase sometime down the road.

"People are looking for that, for a connection from the heart to the table," Deschênes said.  

With files from Quebec AM