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They were everyday topics of conversation – feedback and words of encouragement, and sometimes a recommendation to contact this or that person. But they were key moments in the story of how a small, out-of-the-way farm grew to be Québec’s largest organic meat producer.
First were the neighbours who told a young Damien Girard his turkeys reminded them of the way poultry used to taste years ago. Later came the Montréal butcher who introduced him to an influential food writer; a fellow who connected him with a charcuterie-maker skilled in the European art of making preserved meats and sausages; and the network of fellow producers and chefs who became his sounding board.

Today, les Viandes Biologiques de Charlevoix processes 3,500 chickens, 60 pigs and 1,000 kilograms of charcuterie a week in a $2-million, 7,000-square-foot facility. Most goes to Montréal, although if you want to buy one of Girard’s prized dry-cured hams, you will have to make your way to Baie-Saint-Paul, 100 kilometres north of Québec City. Girard only makes about 400 a year and they sell very fast.

But that is now. The story begins when Girard was a child.

“I was six or seven years old and my mother said to me, ‘You are going to raise some turkeys,’” recalls the 44-year-old.

She offered him a good deal – she’d supply the feed and he would keep the money earned from the birds he raised, slaughtered and sold.

“Every year, I would raise 20 to 40 turkeys and sell them to neighbours at Christmas. And they would say to me, ‘Wow, your turkeys taste so good.’ So I learned young to get the feedback of the customers and later I would try to apply that on a larger scale.”

Later would be 1993. Girard had worked as an agrologist for a couple of years after graduating from university, but he and wife Natasha McNicoll wanted to farm. The family farm was an organic dairy operation — almost by default, as his father simply didn’t believe in the need for fertilizer and pesticides.

The cows and quota would be sold within a couple of years. But the couple had to self-finance their fledging enterprise (sometimes even using their credit cards) as lenders had trouble believing anyone would pay twice the supermarket price for organic chicken. Some local farmers were also skeptical “because I was doing agriculture the way their fathers had done it 30 years earlier,” says Girard.

“It was a fight. Everyone was just laughing at me, but the customers were with me. I had so much good feedback. They said, ‘Keep going, keep going.’”

However, there weren’t enough customers in small Baie-Saint-Paul – or Québec City – even though the couple was only marketing 50 chickens and four or five pigs a week. So Girard went to Montréal. The butchers and meat-shop owners were also impressed by their taste, which Girard attributes to terroir.

“We are feeding only the ingredients grown in the Charlevoix region – wheat, barley, oats, triticale, and peas,” Girard says. “This makes a big difference in the taste of our meat. It is the terroir of  Charlevoix. It is a taste unique to here and not something you can produce anywhere else on the planet.”

He insists even the weeds in his 2,500 acres of grain crops add to his meat’s unique flavour.

As always, Girard was happy to talk to his new customers about how he raised his livestock and like his customers in Baie-Saint-Paul, his Montréal clientele were very supportive – one especially so.

“One day in 2001, this butcher in Montréal said to me, ‘You should talk to Philippe Mollé.’”

The influential and popular French-born food critic agreed to taste Girard’s chicken, but warned he would be brutally honest in assessing its quality.

“Two days later, he called me and said, ‘I’ve never tasted chicken like this in Québec.’ Then he talked about our chicken on Radio-Canada. It was like a bomb. We went from 50 chickens a week to 200, then to 300, then to 500. We got a lot of media coverage after that. Demand kept growing and now we have a nice business.”

Except for one thing. The demand for pork was also rapidly growing but – as any pork producer knows – people like loins and chops, but not the cheaper cuts. The usual solution is to use those cuts to make sausages and other processed meats. But Girard wasn’t interested in run-of-the-mill deli meats. He wanted to produce handcrafted, gourmet charcuterie.

To learn the art of making charcuterie, Girard needed an Old World craftsman willing to share both the secrets of his trade and recipes handed down over generations. A friend, originally from Belgium, agreed to go overseas with him and they began their quest by visiting meat shops in that country.

“All the people were very friendly and one said, ‘I have a friend and he’s going to help you with that,’” recalls Girard.

“So I went there and spent a month. This was 2005. I went back the next two years and in 2007 began making my charcuterie.”

With 400 outlets across the province selling his products and more than 30 employees, Girard has a pretty busy schedule, but he still makes time for the simple exchanges that have proven to be so critical to his success.

“We have this organization called La table agrotouristique,” he says. “They are producers in the Charlevoix region who make cheese, duck and other products, and some chefs. We have suppers each month, drink some wine, and bring our new products to the table.

“We have a good relationship, and when a product is not okay or there might be a problem, such as shelf life, we are very honest. A producer who makes a product likes to think it is the best in the world, but you want to know the truth before you put it on the market.”

A person doesn’t have to be an expert to give you useful advice and feedback, says Girard, adding his customers have always been – and continue to be – his most important partners.

“If not for my customers and the feedback they gave me, I don’t know if I would be in business today,” he says. “Even now I get emails every week. They inspire you, make you forget about the problem on your desk, and make you want to go on.”