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Tumult in Pierreville and within a Centre-du-Québec minute, I become an organic cattle farmer in Sainte-Monique August 5, 2006

Posted by Nima in Uncategorized.

Greetings folks, 

Last we spoke I was beginning to settle in to my Pierreville nook, my renovation gig with Marie Joceline, and looking forward to opening the first chapter of my fan club in the St. François region.  

Man alive, a lot can change in a few weeks.

It has been the most tumultuous yet intriguing time in my Québec experience and while it was entirely unexpected, I’m glad I’m facing new challenges and getting to know a way of life which is even further removed from anything I’ve ever lived.

But first to explain what happened: As devoted readers of this space will recall, me and Ahmadou have been preparing Marie Joceline’s property for the demolition of a cabin-like structure attached to her house. While for several weeks we were emptying the cabin of various forms of eclectic potpourri (by the way, the kittens just moved to a crawl space under the house where we couldn’t get them) eventually it came time to begin the demolition process.  But in the lead up to us taking up mallets, there was a mounting amount of tension between us and Marie Joceline; while she was a remarkably kind hearted and good humoured woman most of the time, she hadn’t ever done this type of work before and wasn’t the person to guide a relatively complicated and potentially dangerous work site.  As we began to question the logic of climbing up unto a roof to smash porous wood while wearing gardening gloves and a fishing hat, the divisions began to mount. While she was never hostile, it was clear our viewpoints on the work project diverged significantly and that her level of disorganization which was cute when were planting tomatoes, became less so when we realized we didn’t have a ladder for the demolition and she suggested making our own out of old wood planks. Really.  

Sensing that all was not well in Pierreville, our supervisor Martin suggested that perhaps it would be best for us and for Marie Joceline if we considered changing families; At first Ahmadou and I were surprised by the suggestion and dismissed it, but after several days of contemplation and precarious dangling from a semi-demolished cabin, we eventually realized that a change of scenery would be the best option for all involved: We’d get to experience an agricultural lifestyle and also try to find Marie Jo an expert on construction and renovation who could actually help her with her work. 

When she heard the news, Marie Joceline was remarkably calm and matter of fact, as if she wasn’t terribly surprised; but the morning of our last day with her, she was quite emotional, and very sad to see us go. This was remarkably difficult to see, and made us feel guilty about our decision, although we knew it was the right one. Our final night was nonetheless quite cheerful as we had a surprise birthday party for her 9 year-old grandson Willy, exchanged gifts and cards and generally left on very good terms.  

She’s truly a remarkable woman and I’ve very glad we got to know her. I’ve never met anyone like her nor can I imagine ever meeting anyone like her again. 

And so, who is our new family you ask? We were fortunate to be placed with the Bucheli family of Sainte-Monique: The family of Germanic Swiss background have been producing organic pork and beef at their Ferme Rheintal since 1980.  

There’s Hans, the father and current owner of the farm, a burly yet very friendly and patient man with a giant blonde beard and thick German accent. (It’s been very hard to resist making yodelling jokes) His daughter Guylaine, who’s in her late 20`s or so, is very interested in the world and has travelled somewhat in Europe and South East Asia and was actually at the Amadou et  Mariam concert. Sebastien, her boyfriend (which in other parts of the country we’d refer to as ‘husband) is an agronomist and works as a consultant for various organic farms in the region; he and Guylaine hope to eventually take over the farm from Hans.  

They are a fascinating family, in particular because of their strict organic philosophy; They were one of the organic farming pioneers in Quebec, back when nobody knew what organic meant and consumers weren’t ready to pay for its higher cost. And they eat nothing but organic food, and I mean nothing but; every single element in their fridge and pantry down to salad dressing and tiny packs of raisins and even shampoo is organic. While during the day the farm is a busy place, Hans the only occupant of the very nice farm house where we live has started spending his nights with his new girlfriend, which means we basically have the entire house to ourselves. (You know what that means: giant pig party, every night) 

We live officially in the village of Sainte-Monique, which is a bare bones village of 500, but in actuality we live on the route between Sainte Monique and Nicolet, with nothing but massive fields of light and bright yellow and green surrounding us on all sides; silos replacing condos and skyscrapers as signs of civilization. I don’t even know where our closest neighbour lives, but I imagine I won’t be borrowing their sugar anytime soon. 

And so, there are plenty of animals here which is quite frequently the norm with cattle farms. I went from an entirely animal free environment (save the occasional rabid farm dog chasing me off its owner’s property) to Animal Central. In total the farm owns about 200 cows and about 100 pigs, but the cows are spread out over several properties which they rent for various stages of the grazing cycle (or something along those lines; I can’t imagine too many people I know are going to correct me on my harvest terminology). They also grow their own organic soya, corn, oats and other crops which are mainly converted into animal feed. In all they own about 200 hectares of land (I wish I knew how many football fields this is) which ranks them among the largest organic producers in Quebec.  

But farming in Canada, even chic organic farming, is quite a rough proposition these days. With rising fuel and machinery costs, mad cow disease keeping the American border shut and domestic competition ferocious, and distributors squeezing margins, earning a living is remarkably challenging. The only way the Ferme Rheintal stays open is by selling to consumers directly through household delivery and at various markets as far away as Québec City and Montreal.  

And my comfort level is coming along with the animals; At times in the middle of shovelling hay in the animal quarters, surrounded by squeaking pigs and trotting cows devouring grains and hay, I stop, look around and think ‘Wow. Where am I?’ and it’s a very soothing feeling to think how far away I am from Toronto, Schulich and the predictable world.  

I’m generally quite comforted by the fact that cows and pigs both will run away from you when you flail your arms and yell ‘Hey!’ What I’m not so comforted by is that cows occasionally start running at very high speeds for no apparent reason and well, they do happen to weigh about a thousand pounds or so and I may not always have enough time to get off a decent ‘Hey!’, but we’ll deal with potential stampedes as they arise.  We also have our very own rooster which wakes us at 5:30 every morning, and then it’s natural snooze alarm sounds every 10 minutes thereafter just in case we didn’t hear him the first time. We’ve been warned that this rooster is remarkably aggressive and has attacked Hans on multiple occasions, so I can’t envision us spending too much quality time with him. (although I am looking to enter him into local cock fighting competitions as a source of supplementary income) 

And tomorrow happens to be the day the entire group is attending a giant `Pig Festival’, which includes the renowned ‘chase the greased pig’ contest. And get this: one of our Malians has been entered into the ‘International Competition’, but he’s never touched a pig in his life…I’ve already been laughing for a week in anticipation, so stay tuned for details to come.




1. Daniel - August 6, 2006

Get pictures of the contest, Nima.

Happy to hear that the unexpected change has worked out for you.

2. Adrienne - August 7, 2006

Thanks for the message! It was an unexpected and very pleasant surprise.

Stay safe, eh? I don’t want to hear about you being pancaked by a cow.


3. Daniel - August 8, 2006

There was a Canada World Youth commercial during a Jays game this week.


4. Snarf - August 11, 2006

Sounds awesome…but to be honest, i am a little disappointed that you are not in the greased pig contest. i dno’t know why, but i think that is a place where you would excel.

5. jess - August 18, 2006

roosters are the most annoying creatures ever invented.
t.v. makes us believe that they crow when the sun comes up and that’s the end of that, but noooo, the crow all. day. long.
“just in case you forgot, the sun is still out.” (that’s a quote from a rooster)
i feel like there will be lots of roosters in mali, so it’s a good thing you’re getting used to them now.
take care!

6. Sarah - August 23, 2006

Hello… Wow, this is an excellent blog. Very well-written, I found myself looking over my shoulder to make sure there weren’t any cows nearby waiting to run me over… Definitely heightened my excitement to leave for CWY next week, hope you have a good time in Mali I’ll be checking back to see how it goes! 🙂

7. Blake - August 24, 2006

Thanks for stopping by my blog. I’m leaving to start CWY tomorrow and obviously I’m incredibly excited. I’ve read some of your posts and it seems wonderful. I hope that you have a great time in Mali.

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