Agriculture in a pandemic: Micro-farmer Jean-Martin Fortier on the future of food

C2 Editorial Team
C2 Conversations – Live The Takeaways Society & Environment a conversation with Jean-Martin Fortier

If anything, this pandemic has given us plenty of food for thought.

Those who are housebound are cooking more than ever and homegrown plants are thriving. Retailers have reported incredible demand for local products and gardening equipment. All of a sudden, the world is playing online simulation games about farming. And it feels as though everyone has discovered the benefits of Doing It Yourself (here’s looking at you, sourdough).

Additionally, the pandemic has spurred heightened awareness around some of the dangers inherent in capitalism, globalization and excess, namely closed borders, shuttered markets and disrupted supply chains. Labour ethics surrounding seasonal agricultural workers, meatpacking plants and COVID-19 are under the spotlight. And we’ve witnessed an enormous volume of food waste as a result of industrial farming, from tens of thousands of pigs and poultry euthanized to milk dumping and unharvested crops being ploughed under.

To address this particular point in time and imagine the way forward, journalist Marie-Claude Lortie was joined by rockstar farmer Jean-Martin Fortier for a C2 Conversation about food sovereignty, the buy-local movement and post-pandemic food production. Here’s what was said…


Invert your economy

“It’s clear that we are living in an important moment in the history of agriculture,” said Jean-Martin, who runs La Ferme des Quatre Temps in southern Quebec. If citizens believe in eating and drinking locally, and are encouraging small producers by supporting their farms, it will ensure their region remains profitable and resilient, even in times of crisis.

This can help define society and become one of our fundamental values, he added. “It is the art of well-being… to eat in season, as locally as possible, and [to say] I am down with agriculture from my region.”

Using an “inverted” economic model — by seeking economies of scale in volume and making direct sales without intermediaries — Jean-Martin said “keeping production costs as low as possible to have a maximum margin on each product works.

“If we can keep it small, do B2B and make high-quality products, micro-farms can be profitable and also very productive,” he said. Other benefits include minimal production costs, zero waste and having a direct line to your consumers.

“A real farmer with dirty hands coming to talk to you at the market is foolproof [as far as marketing goes],” he added. “There’s a whole aspect of creating a real connection with your customers that small farmers, bakers and all artisans have. That is an edge the big ones don’t have.”

As an entrepreneur, author and teacher who developed a model of organic micro-farming now practiced around the world, Jean-Martin proposes (and proves) that being small-but-mighty is one way to change the system.

The answer is simple: strenght in numbers is the only weight we have to fight the giants. We need to outnumber them and have more heart! – Jean-Martin Fortier

“Agriculture can be a tool to develop territory, create more jobs and create a better society that is closer than ever in its values and way of functioning,” agreed Marie-Claude, who mused that it will be interesting to see which industries and economies will best survive this pandemic.

And as we feed ourselves in the meantime, she added, a point of entry has been opened.

Go small. “The fact of our collective richesse,” says Jean-Martin, “is that Quebec is home to artisans producing cheese, bread, vegetables, beer and wine. This idea of ‘terroir’ is so special.”

Become a micro-farmer… Did you know Jean-Martin developed an online farming course that has reached 160 countries and nearly 2,000 students? Check it out here. Or you can read his book, The Market Gardener: A Successful Grower’s Handbook for Small-Scale Organic Farming.

…or just dress like one. Jean-Martin’s latest venture is a line of farmwear called Growers & Co., which will be revealed shortly.


Start a garden

Make yourself a garden with soil and planters. It’s not difficult or complicated, and it’s really fun, said Jean-Martin. “Just do it!” Marie-Claude agreed, with this prediction: “Gardening is going to be the yoga of the 2020s.”

Jean-Martin suggested that new gardeners get started with L’académie potagère, an online course, or the book that he and Marie-Claude co-wrote, L’Avenir est dans le champ (The Future Is in the Field).

L'avenir est dans le champ, Jean-Martin Fortier et Marie-Claude Lortie


Sow the future you want

“Agriculture is a cool [career], it’s extraordinary,” Jean-Martin believes, joking that the world doesn’t need another lawyer. “We are in the business world, we’re creative, we are doing good, we eat well, we create jobs… And this is the question at the heart of it, that is important that everyone is thinking about: What’s next?

“Whether it’s what we eat, or what we do for a living or how we take care of elders in long-term care homes… If we want to be creative, it’s to live and age well. So these issues should always be at the heart of the evolution of society.”


Check out Jean-Martin’s full C2 Conversation


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Special thanks: Canada government, Québec government, City of Montréal