Some people fear change. The Alary family laughs about it.
“When we sit down to talk about the business, we talk about today but also about the future – we talk about the farm but also about our lives,” says Frédérick Alary. “We talk about everything and we listen to each other, but always there is a lot of laughter.”
The Alary family has been doing this sort of thing for decades and everyone understands that some of the ideas first tossed out during these light-hearted discussions will – sooner or later – be adopted and, once again, Ferme Raymond Alary et Fils will undergo profound change. A quarter of a century ago, they joked about going organic. Then they did it. There were more smiles and banter when the idea of making cheese first came up. Then they did it. Today, winemaking, meat processing, and agri-tourism are getting the same treatment – and if one of those ideas is not adopted, something else will be.
“When I was at university, our teacher always told us, ‘When you go back to the farm, don’t be shy about pushing your father and family to try new things,’” says Frédérick, 32.
“I would tell my teacher, On our farm, it’s the opposite. Sometimes we have to hold them back because they want to go too fast and to try too many new things.’”
The Alary family has been farming in Sainte-Sophie-des-Laurentides area (about 40 kilometres northwest of Montréal) since 1922 but Frédérick says the entrepreurial spirit stems from his grandfather Raymond, who took over the operation in 1950. Raymond started a dairy operation, quickly moving into purebred Holsteins. Later, he would sell whole milk locally and start a school bus company, now run by one of Frédérick’s uncles.
“My grandfather had six children and five of them have, or had, their own business,” says Frédérick. “My grandfather was a farmer but he was also a businessman. He always had ideas – I won’t say crazy ideas, but he was always willing to consider an idea. This is something that our grandfather has given to us.”
Sons Serge and Ronald took over Ferme Raymond Alary et Fils in the 1980s, and the young brothers were also keen to try new things. This is why they agreed to be part of an ‘ecologic’ farming project created in 1989 by the UPA (Union des producteurs agricoles, Quebec’s farm organization) and McGill University. The idea was to increase organic matter in the soil and maybe improve the financial health of the farm by lessening its reliance on costly chemical inputs.
Frédérick was only 10 years old at the time and can’t recall if his father and Uncle Ronald actually made jokes about this unusual notion, but he knows they were skeptical.
“It was not our idea to become ecological or organic,” he says. “There were 15 producers in this project and we were probably the least confident about it.”
But there were several advantages to participating. The UPA/McGill project gave the farm access to a collection of experts, some funding assistance, and a chance to network with 14 other farmers who, by virtue of being in such an unconventional sort of project, were likely innovative and progressive. All three of those things would also be helpful as the brothers undertook an ambitious drainage project on their 500-acre farm.
Having jumped into the project, the brothers demonstrated another Alary family trait: caution. They collected and evaluated data from the project for many years and it was only in 1999 – a decade after the project began – that the farm became certified organic. Then the cycle began again: The family’s 70-cow herd was still in the process of becoming certified organic when Ronald started talking about how maybe the family should consider making cheese.
“At first it was a joke. No, that’s not the right word – but at first, it wasn’t serious,” says Frédérick. “My uncle would say, ‘Oh, one day we will make cheese’ but we weren’t making serious plans. But when my cousin went to school to study food processing, then we thought, ‘Here is an opportunity.’”
That condensed description doesn’t fully explain why ideas initially made half in jest are actually the starting point for something quite serious. Once an idea is put on the table, it can start to take on a life of its own. The person who makes a joke about someone’s wild idea may come back a few months later saying, ‘I met someone who is doing that and he told me …’ This happens frequently; as the Alary family knows a lot of people because they are very active in many organizations. Serge has long served with the UPA, Ronald worked with UPA Développement international and was a regional director of the farm management group Fédération des groupes conseils agricoles du Québec, and Frédérick, who became a FGCAQ regional director at age 21 is now vice-president of the provincial body. His sisters Caroline, 33, and Anne-Marie, 28, and cousin Gabriel, 32 – who all work on the farm – are also involved in many other groups.
“This is normal for us,” says Frédérick. “It is something that is good for the farm and good for us. I really like the management aspect of farming and with FGCAQ, I’m involved with something bigger than the farm.”
In essence, the family is continually researching ideas it may never pursue. Why? Because you never know what might happen next.
This occurred in the late 1990s when Gabriel decided to enroll in the food-processing program at L’Institut de technologie agroalimentaire in St-Hyacinthe, and also announced that one day he would like to return to the farm. Suddenly, cheese-making was a serious idea and, drawing on knowledge and contacts it had made, the family was able to immediately undertake a thorough study of the cheese-making business – learning about the licensing regulations and health standards; evaluating and costing types of equipment; and considering what types of cheese to make and how to market them. Once again an idea tossed playfully into family discussions years before was now under serious investigation.
“We like change but we measure everything – or try to measure everything – before we actually make it,” says Frédérick.
It was a marketing consultant who came up with the name for the enterprise, Les Fromagiers de la Table Ronde (fromagiersdelatableronde.com), after spending time with the family and observing their free-flowing conversation about farming, cheese-making, individual dreams and family goals. And, of course, the neverending stream of new ideas.
“The building of the fromagerie wasn’t finished and we were joking about making wine,” Frédérick says with a laugh. “You know they say when you make cheese, the next step is wine.
“I don’t know. My sister is a chef and there is an old house on that farm that is more than 200 years old. So we might make a gite a la ferme (bed and breakfast) or table champêtre (a country-style dining establishment) so people can come to the farm, sleep and eat. Or we might buy some more land and go into a different type of production, such as vegetables.
“I’m thinking maybe meat processing, so we could have a gite a la ferme and people could come and stay and see how food is produced. There are a lot of ideas. But the fromagerie is still young and my sisters and cousin and I are still young – so I don’t think we will do anything before five or six years.”
The only certainty, says Frédérick, is that there will be another big change at Ferme Alary. He hastens to add that the family is very happy with the way things are going. It is important, he says, that change not be driven by dissatisfaction – otherwise you run the risk of trading one set of problems for another.
“We want to try new things so that we can go forward,” says Frédérick. “We believe that in agriculture, if you don’t make changes, then you regress.”