Through research, innovation and a successful business model, Green Barn Nursery near Montreal at Notre-Dame-de-l’Île-Perrot, Quebec helps people start profitable small farms in Quebec and elsewhere in Canada. For more than 30 years the green barn has been involved in the study of organic and cold weather farming on a 75 acre fruit and vegetable research and development farm specializing in cold hardy and disease resistant plants, trees and shrubs.
The Green Barn Nursery is a family owned and operated business. “My step-father Ken Taylor and my mother Lorraine started the business as an organic farm and farm market and was probably one of the first Community Shared Agriculture options in Montreal,” says Steve Leroux. “Through Ken’s research and development efforts, the farm now has over 100 varieties of fruit trees and shrubs that can successful be grown in colder climates, such as Asian pears, peaches, paw paws, kiwis, seedless grapes and walnuts.”
Leroux and his wife Robyn and family recently moved back to join the family farm. “We started as a family farm selling a wide range of products through a farm market before we were a nursery, which is what makes us different,” says Leroux. “We now use all of those experiences to help people start small profitable farms. We work with existing farmers interested in alternative crops and with people who are interested in starting small to medium sized farms, many who are looking for a way to transition from full time jobs in the city to developing a farm business.”
Once established, tree crops are much easier than vegetable growing and can be profitable. “We share techniques with growers we have used over the years that enabled us to make money,” says Leroux. “From a production standpoint, the most important thing is to start with the proper genetics, which improves success of an operation. We also follow a zero-interference strategy, which fits very well into an organic system. We use plasticulture to help with crop establishment and weed control for small fruits and berries, and never use pesticides or fungicides in our operations. Irrigation is only for establishment and then only when necessary under certain conditions. It is about survival of the fittest, and only the most productive and hardy trees are included in fruit production.”
The biggest barrier to entry for tree crops is the four-year wait until there is production for sale. Many people are used to a short-term investment and return, so to reduce risk a short-term strategy can be to use a three-phase type of planting that gets production into the market quicker. Start with annual vegetables, small fruit and fruit trees in the planting plan, which will provide for vegetable production in the first year, vegetable and small fruits in the second and by year 4, fruit production will begin.
“Just like an investment portfolio, we encourage farmers to develop a tree portfolio that is diversified to help reduce risk,” explains Leroux. “Growing at least 6 or 8 different varieties can help reduce the risk if one variety is hit with disease or weather conditions that impact harvest. Having a wider variety of products to market, especially at farmer’s markets is also an advantage.”
Leroux stresses that the key is to remember that farming is farming, it is not simple or easy. “It is not always rolling hills and sunny days, the reality is hard work, weather, diseases, pests, working long hours with your family and business challenges. However, for us it was worth it and much better than commuting to work to an office in the city.”
Skills and Business Management Strategies
To be successful at a farm business, there is a necessary skill set. “The most important skill is having a business head and treating the farm as a business,” explains Leroux. “The growing part is easier than the business part, but the business management side is critical. An accounting system should be established at the beginning. Marketing and looking professional is important and having a website right away is helpful.”
Leroux encourages people to ‘plan and plant’, which means determining their goals first, deciding how much income they need from the farm and then developing a plan. “Financial sustainability is more important than environmental sustainability, because if the farm can’t sustain the family then other options are probably a better idea,” says Leroux. “There is no magic formula, it’s figuring out what salary you want to make and working back from there to the estimated pounds per tree multiplied by the wholesale price to determine number of acres required. There are also the costs of establishment and the time lag before marketable production. Leroux encourages people to do their own research and access information such as Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Horticulture Market Information or Infohort, and other sources.
“We help people develop a planting plan and can provide a complete turnkey operation or a tree and shrub package they can establish themselves,” says Leroux. The initial investment for a turnkey operation installation will cost between $5700 and $8500 per acre for trees and labor, depending on the varieties installed. The cost for trees and shrubs without labor will be between $4000 and $5500/acre. Those acres should provide returns of $20,000 to $30,000 per acre at peak fruit production, depending on the sales model. Leroux works with customers throughout the entire process and the nursery offers a variety of workshops on tree crops, fruit production, urban farming and others.
“Although the initial investment, time, labor and management to get the orchard established is demanding, once established the business can be profitable and full time for many people, says Steve Leroux.”