Pigeon Hill Community Organic Garlic Harvest
By Robert J. Galbraith Special to The Gazette
There was a time, in the so-called ‘good old days,’ when being a farmer was very different from what it is today. Back then, when a farmer needed a new barn built, or help with a crop, people from the community would gather and hold a barn raising bee, or help gather in the harvest.
Nowadays, this kind of community participation and volunteering in our farmlands is all but a memory. Now, many farms are owned by numbered companies that produce agricultural products on a huge industrial scale with harvesting done by behemoth machines.
But for the last four years, in the community of Pigeon Hill, 90 kilometres southeast of Montreal, a garlic farm has been functioning the old way.
On a hot summer July day, with the smell of garlic permeating the air like a fog, the past became the present on Christian Marcotte’s garlic farm. Eighty volunteers, including architects, film industry employees, graphic designers, office receptionists and accountants spent an entire day helping Marcotte harvest his crop of 68,000 garlic plants.
The reward for their labour was the simple satisfaction of helping a farmer who uses the old methods of farming and to have the opportunity to see how their food is produced as well as two superb meals.
“I had a dream for over 30 years to buy some land, and, in 2002, I bought this 50-acre farm. I loved gardening as a hobby, but didn’t know exactly what I was going to grow here when I bought it, or if I would raise animals,” explained the 58-year-old former Montrealer, who worked for most of his life in the Quebec film industry as a film and sound editor.
“At the start, I tended a small garlic garden of about 100 plants. My friends raved about the garlic I was growing.” He decided to try growing it on a larger scale and enlisted the help of friends and neighbours at harvest time. He knew he wanted to make a festive event of the harvest day, but was not sure how he could organize it on his own.
Then in 2006, Marcotte mentioned it to a friend, Bernard Delacour, a chef from Pigeon Hill. “Bernard volunteered to cook up a feast, and I offered to put out the word amongst our friends that we were looking for help harvesting the crop. That year, 30 volunteers showed up, and we picked 30,000 bulbs. Now, three years later, we have 80 volunteers to pick 68,000 bulbs. It has become a great success!”
It takes a lot of hands to pick and store the plant, and without the help, it would be difficult for Marcotte to make ends meet. Ninety-six per cent of his crop is sold at his farm doorstep, and the other four per cent goes to local restaurants. This way he avoids paying a middleman.
Picking garlic is not a complicated job and just about anybody can do it, including children. The knee-high plant grows in rows of loose soil and is easily extracted from the ground with a simple tug. The excess earth clinging to the bulbs has to be gently knocked off against the palm of your hand. The plants are then layered 5 deep in alternating rows onto a simple drying rack of a metre by 2 metres. There are approximately 200 bulbs to a rack. The racks are piled onto a wagon and driven to the nearby barn where they are stacked, with space between for air circulation. It takes 4-5 weeks for the garlic to cure and dry. Then they are cleaned of their leaves and roots and ready for sale.
Among the helping hands is Alain Auger, his wife and their two young children. Auger is a freelance music composer for film and animation as well as a songwriter, who lives in La Petite-Patrie in Montreal. He dusted off the fine earth from his hands while relating that, “a friend of mine in the film business told me about the harvest, and since I’m interested in knowing more about gardening, and my wife and I both love garlic, we wanted to see how it’s grown and harvested,” says the composer. “I also like the idea of coming out to the country to learn about where our food comes from and buying locally. The kids loved participating!”
It was a natural thing; the pickers showed up under a hot summer sky and seemed to know just what to do. Many had done this before and were happy to show newcomers the ropes, but it was basically all about picking and stacking. As they worked their way along the long narrow rows, a fine, brown dust covered the pickers from head to toe and stuck to their sweat as they diligently worked. There was a lot of happy chit-chat amongst them and they bonded over their tasks.
Claude Beique, a retired Government of Canada employee from the nearby village of Philipsburg enjoys helping with the harvest. “This is a good place to meet decent people and participate in a good activity,” he said while pausing to drink from a flask of spring water, pouring some down the back of his neck to keep cool. “It’s something we don’t do enough of anymore; the community spirit that used to exist when members of the village or farming community would gather to help raise a farmer’s barn, when he needed help. Nowadays we’ve lost that spirit – we’ve lost something of that community spirit.” He also came because Marcotte gives him tips on how to grow his own garlic patch. “I grew garlic in my garden this year so I wanted to learn more about when to pick it, where to plant it and when to harvest. Christian helps my garden by giving me tips,” he explained.
Although simple, the job is tiring and can be rather backbreaking, but there was an air of accomplishment and camaraderie amongst the pickers. It was a hot sunny day so frequent water breaks and sun hats were the standard of the day. A few people wore work gloves to protect their hands from the possibility of blisters but most found gloves unnecessary. Some were sunburned at the end of the day, but most were dressed appropriately and used sunscreen. At lunch break, a few beers and a couple of bottles of wine came out to heal any aches the pickers had.
Eve Lamont, of Montreal, is a film director and long-time friend of Marcotte, leaned against a tractor wagon that she had just piled with garlic plants as she explained, “I appreciate this small, mixed-farm type of operation and not the industrial, large-scale farming that has taken over everything agricultural. I appreciate the way he grows, without pesticides or insecticides, completely organic,” she explained. “People must become more aware of what we eat and where it comes from, and I believe more and more people feel this way.”
Marcotte knows he’s on to a good thing. “My timing was good. When I started, I really didn’t have a market plan. I just put a small sign up at the side of the road and friends would drop by and it spread by word of mouth from there.” But the film worker-turned-farmer would be the first to tell you that, “to do this type of work you have to be dedicated. What I want is to keep my farm small scale and make a comfortable living, but this isn’t the type of life for you if you want to become rich. Rich in friends, yes, but not rich financially.”