The Family Business

Hope you had a great weekend and got out to enjoy some beautiful weather and perhaps some time in the countryside.  Things are marching along here – we have some of the most advanced crops for this calendar date that we’ve ever seen.   The strawberries are beginning to turn and we’ll even have some greens at the stand this weekend… best of all, we will have Suzanne back at the stand too!

Applying some horticultural black magic, here is some zucchini transplanted on May 12…

Coming soon!

I didn’t have the chance to do a detailed email last week because I was a bit tied up catching up on things around the farm after being away at one of the most interesting experiences I’ve ever had.

Last year Morgan and I started working as sales reps for a Quebec maple syrup equipment company, L.S. Bilodeau.  After a two year hiatus, they resumed their traditional Victoria Day weekend Open House and as a dealer, I was invited/expected to attend.  I had no idea what I was getting into.

With cereal box levels of French literacy and absolutely no conversational skills, I apprehensively headed deep into the maple heartland of Quebec: The Beauce.  Near the Maine border and essentially in the Appalachians, The Beauce is a beautiful and extremely productive part of La Belle Province.   Outside of orderly farms and well maintained sugar bushes and woodlots, the landscape is also dotted with small manufacturing plants.  The people of The Beauce are known for being an industrious and entrepreneurial type and you can see evidence of it everywhere.

Getting into this trip I did not realize these open houses were an industry-wide “thing”.  All of the maple equipment companies are based in southern Quebec, and all hold these events on the same weekend as a massive sales promotion with a deep 20% discount.   Quebec sugarmakers have just gotten their first cheques for the 2022 crop from the producers federation, and they are hot to buy next year’s equipment: going in clans from manufacturer to manufacturer getting the best prices they can on the improvements they want to make for their operations.

Seeing the massive crowds and the scale of their purchases it was really impressed upon me what an Industry maple is in Quebec.  I mean we all know they make a lot of syrup in Quebec – they make 94% of Canada’s output and 77% of global supply – and we’ve all even heard of the Great Syrup Heist.  But what marks the Quebecois dominance of the maple industry is not the trees: it’s 400 years of tradition and culture.

We actually have many more potential taps in Ontario than in Quebec (where they have essentially tapped everything), yet our approach to the resource is as a quaint hobby or small seasonal business.   The reality is that maple syrup is a highly sought after product, in demand all over the world, and there is really no reason we could not be generating the same kind of economic activity (not to mention incredible land stewardship) here in Ontario.   So why don’t we?

It really stood out to me at the L.S. Bilodeau Open House that they had made room for the local school board to set up a small display kiosk advertising a high school co-op program:  50% classroom / 50% on site for the following careers: livestock husbandry, forestry, and maple syrup production.  

Now, could you imagine the Limestone District Schoolboard asking parents: “Hey, have you considered training your child to be… a logger???”  It’s unthinkable – but look around Kingston: so much horribly managed scrub, producing nothing, and often quite hard on the eyes.   You would think when a 2×4 is worth almost $10 someone would put two and two together, but we have apparently resolved that these jobs are beneath our children, and that these industries belong somewhere else.  

I attended high school in Belleville, and before I came of age to go there, the school (Nicholson Catholic) had completely gutted all of their trades programs and decided to focus on “Technology” (because being able to do spreadsheets is “technology” and being able to plumb and wire a house is not).  So when I dropped out of school at the start of OAC, I was very good at video editing, but very unprepared for when I got my first flat tire.  We are generating a population of helpless people, not to mention missing out on innumerable economic opportunities.  

This failure to capitalize on these opportunities becomes quite stark when you look at the agricultural sector.  Agriculture in Quebec is dominated by livestock husbandry.  At no point while in The Beauce did I not smell animal manure on the wind.  It has become an uncommon odour in southern Ontario, where for the past several years, soybeans have become the province’s #1 crop.  More of an industrial commodity than actual food, soybeans are largely exported abroad (China being our largest customer).  Beans produce little in terms of secondary jobs or industries and despite fixing some nitrogen, are considered rather hard on the ground:  a net negative for fertility, organic matter and soil structure – the good of the land winding up on another continent – but at least we don’t have to smell manure!  Livestock husbandry, on the other hand, not only retains fertility and builds soil, it also adds value to the farmer’s crops: generating greater revenues at the farmgate as well as associated economic activity in the community.

The problem with all of these missed opportunities is that they require human beings who like to work.  With modern technology, growing soybeans for export doesn’t really take a lot of people.  Creating a purposeful rural economy that stewards and maximizes natural resources does, however.  And the primary unit for us people of course, is the family.  Now we can all easily envision families running farms, restaurants, construction companies or even crime syndicates.  But have you ever heard of a “Family Factory”?  Whelp, that’s just what you see at L.S. (Linda and Sylvain) Bilodeau.  I’d suggest watching this little, rather moving video (to me at least) about the company’s first thirty years: it’s quite remarkable to see a man with skills and a vision apply himself and inspire his family to enthusiastically participate in it (see little Vincent and Marie-Christine running the big metal brake!).  Particularly interesting about their business is the passion to produce extremely practical, high quality goods that last lifetimes, and are designed to utilize the abundance of nature, whether maple sap, firewood, or milk.  When asked during my initial interview with the business what I liked about the company, I told them I appreciated how they saw forests as a sustainable resource and firewood as a viable source of fuel.  Vincent’s eyes lit up, (Quebecios accent): “You know… eet ees like zee forest ees a waterfall…. a waterfall of gazoline, right in your backyard- would you not collect eet? and use eet? and put eet in your car?”  I still smile when I recall this.  Not because it’s silly, but because the truth sounds silly; I too look at the landscape around us and see nothing but opportunities.

We have this huge ancient map of “Canada West: The United Counties of Leeds and Grenville” hanging on our wall at home.  Printed in 1867 (when this was “western” Canada), remarkable for not only its age and incredible accuracy, it details all of the businesses and manufacturers operating in all of the towns of the counties.  When you take the time to read the fine print, you begin to see that not only were we capable of making nearly everything we needed within our own communities – turning clay into bricks, ore into machinery, and timber into ships and carriages – but it was families that took on this risk and responsibility and reaped the rewards of it as well.

Since 1867, a lot has changed.  Little companies get bought by big companies.  Businesses now generally operate based on maximizing shareholder returns and not the concerns of some little family or the community they were founded in.  Economies of scale, global transportation and the disparate cost of doing business have resulted in the offshoring of nearly all of our essential industries: whether pharmaceuticals, metallurgy, electronics, even food processing (try to find fish in the grocery store that weren’t frozen on the other side of the Pacific).  The past two years have highlighted the shortcomings of these “efficiencies” and it’s rather startling for those of us without a stock portfolio of the companies that have generated this situation.

It feels daunting when you start to look at the prospects of bringing industries back to North America.  There are large scale examples of this, like the Intel semiconductor plant being built in Ohio to address the “chip shortage” – fantastic news.  But it’s people like Sylvain and Linda – who can make something from nothing – that actually make me realize that everything is going to be “ok”.   The strength and resilience of the family, where talents and inspiration are nurtured – and literally generated – is going to prove more powerful than any trade agreements or market forces.  But in the meantime, we’re going to have to get our hands dirty, and unless we’re willing to do so we are going to be at the mercy of those who will.  Thanks very much for working with our family, we appreciate serving yours.  

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