The Real Organic Podcast, Episode Nine
JM Fortier: Feeding The World With Small Organic Farms
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This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Dave Chapman: My guest today is JM Fortier. And it’s a great pleasure always to talk to JM. Many people know JM as the author of the Market Gardner, a successful growers handbook for small organic farming. And with his wife, Maude-Helene, he runs two farms in Quebec [Les Jardins De La Grelinette and La Ferme des Quatre-Temps]. Welcome, JM.
JM Fortier: All right, hi everyone.
Dave Chapman: So, JM, how did you come to farming?
JM Fortier: [laughing] How many minutes do you want me to answer that question to you?
Dave Chapman: Oh, let’s take three minutes.
JM Fortier: Okay. So, the short version. So, you know, my parents are not from a farming background. I didn’t grow up on a farm and I knew nothing about farming really before I started farming. So I’m kind of a typical new agrarian. And I just graduated at McGill in environmental science. And I was an activist and I wanted to do something that would be positive for the future. And we just didn’t know what to do, my wife and I.
We wound up traveling to the States and Mexico and to New Mexico. And then we volunteered on a small organic farm. And that was when we just discovered farming, like small-scale farming, and the farming community, and going to farmer’s market and being outside.
And, you know, the farmer that we were interning with, he would spend his winters off in Mexico, and we just thought he was a great lifestyle. And we saw the benefits that it was bringing to the community and to ourselves. And that’s how we got hooked on farming. We just thought he was really positive.
And I always tell this story, Dave, but, you know, I didn’t know that farmers weren’t supposed to be making a lot of money. And I would go to farmer’s market and Richard [Bélanger] was the salad king of Santa Fe. He would bring the best salad mix, you know, by far. So there was lineups and he would make, you know, I was at the cash box and he would make two, three, $4,000 per Saturday morning.
And for me, it was like, it was a lot of money back then for me. I was young, you know, so I was like, okay, great. It’s fun, we’re outside, people like us, and we’re making a lot of cash. So I was like, boom, that’s it. And then I read Eliot Coleman’s book and that really kind of influenced me a lot.
Dave Chapman: Yeah, yeah. So was Richard organic? Or was Eliot your introduction to being, you know, specifically organic?
JM Fortier: No, Russia was organic and then soon enough we were doing farmer’s market at his booth. And there was a booth beside it, and it was a Montessori school; Greg and Patty and Camino. They had a farm and they would hire a farm manager to do… their campus was a farm. And then they had students there and then the guy that was there left in the middle of the summer. So they asked me and my wife if we wanted to be the managers and, you know, we had three months experience in farming.
And that’s where Eliot’s book came in handy, because it was the first advice that somebody gave me. And I still remember that! It was like 20 years ago. And I still remember it was a German guy that said “read Eliot Coleman’s book, it’s really good.” And then I read it about 30 times and I was, I was trying. Because we were the managers now and we were trying to figure out how to do this better. And I think, organic… you know, I’m an ecologist, so you know, they couldn’t be any other way for sure.
Dave Chapman: That’s great. You know, Eliot was one of my first great teachers also. Actually, before he wrote the books, I just had the good fortune of living close to him. And, you know, I spent a lot of hours in his library and a lot of hours talking with him and we would do little experiments with different potting soil blends. So, you know, it was great.
JM Fortier: Well, I can tell you that I remember from the first time that I started – I met him and we, you know, we keep seeing each other year after year and he’s always talked very highly of you and of your work. He said you’re the best tomato grower in all of the Northeast. So that’s what he said.
Dave Chapman: It’s very nice. So, what an exciting thing, you know, here you are in your first year of farming and you get to manage a farm and you’ve got a great guidebook with Eliot’s book. And what happened next? How did you end up in Quebec again?
JM Fortier: We did a year and a half there and, and then we got pregnant and we knew that we wanted to have our kid back home. Because we’re coming from Quebec, it’s kind of different from… you know, we speak French. So, you know, the home province, the hometown really is different than let’s say, you grew up in Florida and then you’re living in Texas. It’s different, but it’s still the same language and still the same cultural things.
But coming from Quebec, it’s very different in many ways. So, we liked it there. I loved living in Santa Fe and the community there and just, like it was so, so amazing how people were progressive. And it was like 20 years ahead of everything that I’ve been part of that time. But coming back to Quebec because of the kid, because of her family that’s when we decided that we wanted to farm here. And we wanted to farm like we had seen in New Mexico.
There’s not a lot of big farms there. The fields are all kind of scattered and broken. There’s a lot of hills. So it’s pretty rare to have a 600 or 800 member CSA; just like, people don’t have the land there to do that. So it’s mostly smaller farms, farmer’s market salad mix. And, and that’s really what we copy cat when we came back to Quebec.
And I remember that, you know, I was disappointed, because the community really wasn’t happening like it was in New Mexico. And we kind of felt it upon us to bring this back here and to create this energy, this vibe, this community. And we did that, Dave. And now, you know, this place is rocking with a lot of farmers and it’s really awesome. So I’m really proud about that part of my story.
Dave Chapman: Well, of course I’ve been to your farm and I felt the energy. It’s great, you know, a wonderful community gathering around it clearly and spreading. So you know, people, when they get into farming especially first generation people, they have two enormous learning challenges. And one is learning the techniques of farming. Like, how do I do this? How do I care for the soil? How do I grow crops? You know how do I extend the season, all these things.
And then the other thing is how do I make a living? And that’s a very different skill set actually. And we see a lot of people who actually maybe are second or third or fifth generation farmers, and they often are very good at the first skill set, but not so good at the second skill set. I think that one of the things that you did, was you created a model for how to make a living.
And and I think, with real generosity, you shared that model. You know, your book is, I think explicit in making sure that people get both sides of that. So could you talk about.. how did you learn that? You know, you came into this, you’re not a farm kid and you’re not a business person. So how did you put those two sides together?
JM Fortier: That’s a really great question. And looking back, I think there’s a few elements of..of kind of being at the right place at the right time. There’s a few things that went really right for us. When we started farming, the first one was that we were land constrained. So we had, two acres of prairie and that was it.
And still today, you know, we don’t have more because we’re locked. There’s a vineyard next door and then the other neighbor is growing hay and he just never wants to sell or anything. So we were landlocked and we had to figure that out.
Also, when we started farming, there’s a few really good growers that were in our community of growers. And we would meet twice a year and troubleshoot our problems and do a hit and miss. And that, I think in my very early, early years really got me to learn a lot because we were learning how to solve problems with other farmers telling us how they did it. The solutions were always kind of practical and they would work.
And for the business aspect of our farm. I think even though I was never kind of trained in business now, I really have this sense of how to make things work. And I’m a really, I’m a systems person. Like I designed things. And for me, I kind of knew that the money we were making, because a lot of it was cash, was a lot in the end. And my father had an MBA and he helped me with my business plan, because when we moved to Quebec, we started on rented land for two years, living in a teepee.
And then, because I was too cold in the winter, we moved into a rabbit barn that we bought. And to buy this piece of land, we needed the business plan. And that’s where I learned a lot from my father, from the business side. And from then on, it was just kind of applying the model and then, you know, developing from within. And I went to Europe a lot and I visited a lot of farms and picked up tricks.
And, you know, the fact that I think that we speak French and English, I was picking up tricks from people in America and Canada and people in Quebec that are very much influenced by the French. So I was kind of nitpicking in both worlds to get the best advice on how to grow crops. And I don’t know…that’s my answer!
Dave Chapman: Yeah, it’s interesting. When I started learning about market gardening from Eliot, he was very connected to the European community and he had been over there a bunch and had good friends in England and in France. And I went once with him and we went to.. Holland was our first stop and then France. And he went on to Germany.
So I loved the model of.. just tremendous care. That was the tradition in Europe, which is that they don’t take land for granted at all. America kind of grew out of this thing about, well, if it’s too crowded, you go West. And they’d gone West a long time ago over there. And there was no place to go. So, you know, there was this level of care of the land that was a different ethic, I think. Not that there aren’t many Americans and, you know, North Americans, Canadian who care for the land – there are. But I don’t know. There was just something about it that was different.
JM Fortier: It seems like over there land is very much limited and it’s very expensive and it’s just, you don’t have big chunks, you know? So if you have two, three acres, in many places that’s just a lot of land. And those that have big, big fields, they don’t share it because they’re growing something on it. So land is used a lot more than here.
But you know, Dave, to tell you the truth, when we started, everybody was also talking about how to scale up. And it was really the times where growers were invited to be mechanized more. And, you know, I was reading, Growing for Market and I was going to conferences and it was always about growers that were expanding. You know, we started with two acres, but that’s not where you want to end up, you want to move to five and ten – and that’s where you make the money and that’s how you make it happen.
And I was just seeing things so differently. It was like… I think that you grow less and you make more. And I was really kind of in that mindset. And I’m not sure today if one is better than the other, but in my mind, it’s definitely easier to get going fast on very small acreage. And then, you know, scaling up? It’s just a lot of investment.
And in the end, I was wondering if the growers were making more money after all these investments? You know, if are you making 40 grand a year net, are you still making 20? You know, and I was always kind of, the bottom line for me has always been very, very important in my farming. Like, I want to know ahead of time how much money I’m going to make, and if it’s not enough, I need to figure out how to make this balance more, you know?
Dave Chapman: Yeah. So do you think that there’s a a way of thinking, a way of looking at challenges – and I’ll choose to call them challenges instead of problems – but is there a way that is important for you and how you approach things so that you get to solutions?
JM Fortier: Yeah, definitely. I think that, you know, farming challenges will always be there. The people you ask your questions of, …like, I use my networks. I’m somebody that surrounds myself with experts as much as I can, on as many things as I can. I read a lot and read and read. I’m trying to read how experts are talking about certain things.
And so I think that if you have a problem, the person that you’re asking for a solution, you need to make sure that that’s the right person to ask, because you know, on YouTube, there’s a million ways to do what we do. But in my mind, there’s always been better ways; you know, there are ways that are more optimal, that are more economical, that are, you know, just more clever. And so, I don’t know, that’s.. that’s part of the answer, I think.
Dave Chapman: Yeah, you know, I was on I was on Farmer to Farmer once and, and I, I said, well, I’d like to talk about the Real Organic Project. And he said, well, I’d really like you to talk about your farm. So we agreed we’d split it 50 50. But a lot of what I talked about the farm was about how I think about problems and how I solve them, because I thought that was the thing that was critically important for any farmer. Whereas, knowing how to graft a tomato is something that’s important to a small number of people who are growing tomatoes, but I think everybody needs to reflect on how do you think about a problem? How do you figure out what’s the actual bottleneck in reaching what your actual goal is? It sounds so simple, but it’s not. And I think it’s valuable.
JM Fortier: I have, you know, the farm that you visited, is the new farm project that I started in 2015. And again, that was also Eliot bringing me back on his, you know, there’s been a lot of what I do that is heavily influenced by Eliot and his work. And then he introduced me to this very wealthy businessman from Canada. And we started this farm together and he was really involved.
And after a couple of years of being around me and seeing me work – you know, it’s a crew of 10 and we manage 50 crops and we’re at farmer’s market and sell to restaurants- and he invited me over. He said “JM, I want to have dinner with you because I have something that I want to tell you.” And he made it very formal. And he said, “you know, I’ve been observing you for the last three years. And I don’t think any of my CEOs are dealing with more complexity every hour than you. Like, I think I’ve never seen somebody deal with as much complexity as you do.”
And he was like, it’s amazing. And I was like, “yeah, I think farmers, you know, small scale vegetable growers with all the different things that are happening at once and all the problems and troubleshooting are… there’s just, there’s a lot going on. And so I think, problem solving is a big part of our success, for sure.”
Dave Chapman: Yeah. One of the soil scientists, I can’t remember – it might’ve been Kris Nichols. Somebody said to me, “You know, dealing with healthy soil is not rocket science. It’s a lot more complicated.”
JM Fortier: I love it. I love this. I’ve never heard that one. That’s great!
Dave Chapman: I think it’s true. So let’s dive in a little. What does organic mean to you? People talk about organic and, and we have to say, I think the reason the Real Organic Project exists is because there are a lot of people who are using that word to represent a lot of different things. So what does that word represent to you?
JM Fortier: For me, it really boils down to soil ecology and the health of the soil. But, you know, seeing the health of the soil really means nothing, but for me, what it means is that we’re really doing all the things that we can to make sure that the soil is really thriving and alive. And there’s a lot of microbial life in it. And it’s just like, all of the soil web is really kicking for me. That’s what real healthy soils are.
And I see the connection between that and the health of the produce that we’re growing; the vitamins, the micronutrients that are in these veggies. So in my mind, I’m thinking about healthy foods, healthy veggies, healthy soils – healthy soils that are alive. And then, because we’ve paid attention to soil ecology, you know, we’re minimally disturbing soil structure.
We’re not compacting. We’re inoculating in many ways with compost or with whatever we’re doing; deep rooting green manures, we’re doing all of this so that the soils are really as alive as possible. And that translates in the veggies. And so for me, that’s, that’s number one.
And then we can go to “yes, we’re not using synthetic pesticides and we’re not using heavy fungicides” but that comes kind of second in my mind. I read Eliot once said, you know, he called it “deep organic” and that’s what it symbolizes for me. And that’s how I’m so interested in the crusade that you’re a part of when we’re talking about hydroponics.
And I don’t want to burn the bridges here or go too fast, but just like, if we’re thinking about doing systems without soil, for me, it just doesn’t make any sense at all. Because that’s where all the.. that’s like the gravy, that’s like the sweet spot. That’s the treasure, that’s the gold mine, that’s everything. And so to think about how to develop systems to bypass, this is just, it’s..it loses the point completely in my mind.
Dave Chapman: Yeah, that’s great. So no, not even long enough yet. We’re going to go deeper. When you talk about the soil web or the soil food web and you talk about the soils gotta be alive, most civilians, most people who are not farmers and who are not soil scientists don’t know what that means. It all sounds nice, but what does that mean? So what does it mean for a soil to be alive? What does it mean for it to have an ecosystem? How does that work for you? Can you explain that to me as if I didn’t know?
JM Fortier: Yeah. When I play in the soil, I’m opening it up with a broad fork or pulling out roots from it – you know, old plants that are broccolis or whatever. And I see earthworms and lots of them. And just, as you open up the soil and you see things moving there? That’s enough for me to say, “this is alive, this is happening.” So that’s one simple example.
I have others. We farm with black tarps. And, you know, when we take those tarps out and I see all the little creatures that I don’t know their names, but they’re just, everything is moving and it’s alive. That for me is another way that I can appreciate that. And I would also say, when I bury a green manure or a crop, and then I come back two weeks later and I try to look for the material, it’s not there anymore. It’s been chewed up. So my soil is digesting what I’m growing. And so for me, that’s all what I see with my eyes of what I’ve learned, reading the books, you know? And so that’s how I make that connection.
Dave Chapman: Yeah. So, it’s interesting because of course in conventional agriculture, the focus is on the farmer, who works for the chemical company. “I put the fertilizer in that provides the nutrients that I believe the plant needs.” And so they’re kind of bypassing this whole living system that’s digesting organic matter and teeming with life.
And it seems like the outcome of bypassing it and just adding fertilizer is that there are problems, which then means they have to add some biocides and the soil gets less and less alive. Can you tell me about the transformation of the soil on your place? Since the time you have been there farming?
JM Fortier: Yeah. You know, we work on permanent beds and when I started farming, I didn’t know anyone that was working on permanent bed systems. So I’m not taking credit here, but I had read that in a lot of gardening books and we just kind of went with that because we didn’t have a tractor and it just made a lot of sense.
But for me, non-disturbance is kind of one of the first keys of healthy soils. And then having them covered as much as possible. So that’s why we use tarps, but also the close spacings that we have – you know, the crops create a canopy. And it’s just like, we want to have the soil as covered as possible. And for me, these are all things that when we can relate to forests and how nature operates.
And so that’s why, again, like the connection between what I read and what’s explained by either science or by people that have really deep thoughts about these things, and what I’m applying in my fields and the results, is that the soil has been… You know, for 15 years, we’re double, triple cropping, and we’re never leaving fields fallow for a full year because we only have a small surface and, you know, we’re pumping veggies.
The veggies are nice and everything seems to be going really well. The organic matters, they went high in the first years, and then they’re stabilized. I would say that the only thing now, after 15 plus years, that I’m starting to wonder is about adding more of the rocks and the minerals in the soils. I’m kind of wondering about that. And I see that the soils here, in some instances, you know, if it was new ground, there would be some value that I’m not seeing here.
So I see this like a greenhouse. And the old, let’s say my acre and a half is like a greenhouse. And you’ve been growing tomatoes for 20 years. You know, tomatoes are still growing and it’s all good. But what could you add to, I don’t know, mineralize it more? That’s where I’m not certain about what the next steps are here.
Dave Chapman: Yeah, right. Well, we’re all learning all the time. That’s for sure. What I feel like is, well, I know what works, but I don’t have any idea of the massive amount that I don’t understand. You know, that part is huge. Well, this little path through the forest, tthat gets me where I’m going every time, but there’s so much of the forest to explore that we have no idea.
So let me ask you about insects and diseases. Cause typically farmers have problems, and typically the big problems are that they get insects that eat their crops, damage their crops and they get diseases. And that of course is what leads people to use different chemical poisons and people who are doing that on a big scale, say, “this is necessary. The world will starve without this.” What’s your experience?
JM Fortier: It’s exactly that because we rarely use – we use fungicides a few times a year for certain, for tomato crops that are outside field tomatoes. We use a lot of insect nets. So that kind of helps with the crucifers and different crops, but generally, you know, we’re not totally dependent on using a product to solve the problem, because we never really get to that situation.
And, you know, I was on many TV shows here in Quebec and maybe had a series for two years. I was running prime time and there’s a lot of growers that would visit the farm, because they were like “I don’t believe that what you’re saying is true. It’s not possible to grow lettuce without spraying them.” And I was like, what are you talking about? Like, I’ve been growing lettuce for 15 plus years and I’ve never sprayed.
You know, there’s no problem. And honest to God, they would not believe. And so they came, a bunch of them and they just, they couldn’t figure it out. And you know, they’re massive farmers. They grow in the black soils in Quebec, like those really deep, deep black soils. They’ll grow a hundred acres of lettuce and if they don’t spray every week, they get like 10% harvest max.
But they’re not paying attention to soil ecology; there’s no diversity in their fields. You know, there’s so many variables that I don’t know, but for me, it’s just like.. I don’t know what to tell these guys. Well, I think you need to do things completely differently to get another result. So, you know, there’s a spectrum for sure.
We do use some bio-pesticides in certain instances – and especially in the greenhouse, we’re happy to have those, but the whole system is not based on that. And I think that’s the big difference between the conventional and small scale organic when it’s well done. Yeah.
Dave Chapman: Yeah. So what do you believe the connections are between soil health, which we talked about as soil ecology that is thriving, and human health, human microbiome, human nutrition, leading to health? Can you talk about how that looks to you?
JM Fortier: Yeah, I’m not a hundred percent clear on that because I still have.. I like your forest analogy; like I’m in my trails and I kind of know that trail, but for me at this point, the connections I see are the health of the soils and the vitamins and the nutrients in the veggies that we’re eating. So I see that connection. I’m pretty sure about that, even though I can’t, you know, measure it or prove it.
And the other thing I’m very excited about, is that we’re creating spaces. And it’s the same in the soil as it is in these areas – where it’s filled with different microorganisms. So it’s not void, you know, we’re not sterilizing our fields. Like when you’re ripping your fields with a plow and disks and then adding fertilizers after you’re really ripping it open. I mean, my analogy is that it’s just like an open wound and then anybody can come and colonize.
Pathogens can come, disease, whatever – viruses. That’s very different from an ecology that’s very diverse and it’s not opened and it’s not wounded. There’s just not a lot of space for pathogens to come and just take up the space because it’s already filled. So that’s a pretty classic ecological principle. Diversity is the mother of all security and that’s how I see my farm, if that makes sense.
Dave Chapman: Yeah. How about taste?
JM Fortier: I don’t really compare a lot. Like, we don’t buy anything from the grocery store. And when I travel, to be honest, I’ll order at the airports or whatever but I always go without veggies. Like, don’t give me any veggies. I’m too fancy! Give me the pasta, give me your bad pasta, but no veggies.
But probably yes, because all our customers, that’s why they keep coming back and they’re very excited. And, you know, they swear by what we do and I don’t think it’s because they think we’re cute. I think it’s because they taste what we do and it really is different, you know?
Dave Chapman: Yeah. Fred Provenza, who I’ll be talking to next week, wonderful guy. And he’s done just a ton of research at the university of Utah. And he said that they’ve tracked the nutritional density and diversity of basic foodstuffs over the last 80 years and it has steadily declined in most measures.
And certainly when we started talking about, you know, phytonutrients it’s steadily declined. And he said that as a result, that the flavor has steadily declined in the basic food stuffs – and he’s including meat, milk, eggs, vegetables, berries. All don’t taste as good as they did for our grandparents and great-grandparents.
And he said that at the same time, there’s been this progression of processed foods, which are becoming more and more delicious because they’re getting very good at figuring out how to create flavorings and put them in. Yeah. And you know, it’s very addictive actually.
So I think it makes it a little confusing for people. First of all, I think that the food is genuinely less nutritious and that the taste is a reflection of that. And secondly, because we’re getting other stuff that tastes good – you know, it’d be more nutritious to eat the box. Our poor bodies are very confused about how to make an a wise choice.
JM Fortier: You know, I very much agree with all of this and I read this a lot. And you know, one of my favorite farming book is The Third Plate by Dan Barber. And he discusses that among others. And I’m just…I would like for this [idea] to be kind of firm in a way that becomes universal, where I don’t need to be the one kind of defending it. Because I’m not a scientist. I don’t have the capacity to, you know, vulgarize all these things and explain that this is true. When I’m telling the story that you’re telling to my customers, it’s a story, you know and I believe a lot. And I think that my health and the health of everyone around me is really dependent on a lot of these things. And taste is important.
That’s why I like to deal with chefs, because they do develop taste buds. And when they taste our produce and say, “this is it.” I’m like, okay, I believe you. But I am very much looking forward to these arguments being universal. If it was just like, “this is a fact, the World Health Organization is saying this, and it’s proven and this is it.” And I’m thinking, I’m sometimes wondering if it’s not already a fact? And the World Health Organization is not saying that already. Like, you know, why are we debating these things?
Dave Chapman: Yeah, well, I think we’re debating them because some organizations with a great deal of money are hiring a bunch of very clever people to confuse us. And you know, there’s a lot of money on the table here. And you know, a lot of profits are based on our confusion.
An interesting thing I’ve been learning, is that people are not persuaded by data. People are persuaded by stories. And I think that you understand this. That’s why you tell people the stories that persuade them – and then we can have the data. But if we just say “Look, look at what the World Health Organization said,” people glaze over and you know, they go, “that’s very nice. And I know what you’re saying is true, but I don’t actually believe it in my bones.” You know, you have to [show them]- just like when you had those farmers go out and look at how you grew the lettuce.
And they went “Oh my God, this is true. You’re actually growing lettuce and not spraying it every week. And you’re not losing 90% of your crop to insects.” So, you know, that’s what we have to get skillful at. And that’s what you’re doing.
So, JM, you spent a lot of years now educating people. You know, you’re a farmer, but you are also an educator and you’ve done it through a very successful book that I know many, many people who are in market gardening use, just the way you used Eliot’s books. They use Eliot’s book too, but they use your book as a real curriculum to help them to make good choices and to survive as a business.
And you’ve got a video series and TV shows. It’s wonderful. You’re doing a lot of speaking. So can you talk little bit about your reflections on having chosen that? Like, how do you feel about that? It’s a lot. I know you said when we last visited, that being on that TV show where they just kind of film you, and you go into Montreal and you see your picture on a bus that goes by it’s, it’s it’s a bit much, isn’t it? A little intense.
JM Fortier: It’s fun. You know, I started that because I felt that we were lucky to be doing it well and to have it work for us. And I felt also that a lot of growers had shared stuff with me – Eliot, his book was big for me. And then at one point I just felt, okay, I want to be part of that cycle of sharing, of passing down. And so that’s how I started.
And then people were really excited about what I had to share, my knowledge and my experiences, and that motivated me to do more and to do more. And then I was also getting better at farming and learning a lot because I’m traveling. And then, because I was traveling so much and had the opportunity to visit so many farms, I felt that now every time I get something good, I feel like I need to share it with others.
Like that’s, that’s ingrained in who I am. Like anytime I feel fortunate, I feel that it’s my responsibility to share it or to give it back. And so that’s been a lot of why I kept doing this – the whole becoming famous and all of that. For me, it was part of my vision of changing agriculture, where, you know, we are wanting to have many small ecological farms replacing Big Ag.
And in my mind, that’s the only way. I don’t believe that politics will come in and solve this. I think we’re just going to go from the bottom up, kind of create a new system, or at least change part of the country. In different areas it’s already happening so much. And so for me to have a bigger stage to tell this narrative and to have more people influenced by that and believe in that.. I think you’re right about storytelling.
And I do believe a lot in storytelling. So that’s, that’s why I keep doing this. I’m very much inspired by a mission that is bigger than me. Like, I believe in what we’re all doing, yeah. And if I’m a good communicator and the stories are interesting, that’s great, but I never forget why. I’m not doing all of this for me; I’m doing this because I believe in what we’re all fighting for. And I want to be a leader as much as I can in my community, because I feel that I’ve been privileged and fortunate. And at a very young age, I’ve had all sorts of great opportunities – and working with a billionaire? That’s helping me, that’s another privilege.
And so it’s always been this kind of process where I’ve always thought that I need to give it back. So the TV show for me was a way to share all that we were doing that was really awesome with, you know, the broader community. And that’s been my cycle.
Dave Chapman: It’s an interesting thing about privilege, which is that mostly, most people are not aware of the ways in which they’re privileged. They’re often aware of the ways in which somebody else is privileged. And this is true of people from all different communities. We all have some kinds of privilege and we also have some kinds of burdens.
And so I think it’s really important to reflect on the privilege and figure out how we can express our gratitude to the universe for what we have been given, which you’re very much doing. And I appreciate it. Thank you. So, it’s important.
I wanted to say one thing about how we need to get some of the information out, which is of course, what the Symposium is about. And we all – Dan Barber is one of the people who’s going to be in the Symposium and, and Eliot, and Fred Provenza and Anne Biklé and David Montgomery.
So many, many people. I mean, I’d be here all day if I listed them all. It’s just wonderful, the responses that we’ve gotten from people who are willing to put their voice in. And I hope that other people will hear this and listen to these people who have something to say and come away with a much better understanding of what the organic movement is meant to be about and why it’s important still.
Also, about mission and about movement. I think an interesting thing is that you could have just made a very good living doing what you did, and it would be a righteous thing to do. It would be a wonderful life and something that you shared with somebody you love. And you do this great thing, and you feed people and that’s a good life.
But I think.. you know, I’ve been forced in recent years to think a lot about the need for us to create a movement because the problems that we face in the world around Climate Change and social justice are huge problems that require what will ultimately become systemic changes. And for that, we’ve got to build a movement. It doesn’t have to be about influencing government in the end. Government will follow when there’s enough people in the movement, but we do have to get people together and replicate.
JM Fortier: We can even talk about these things in a very agreeable way. Like being a maker is fun. You know, fun in the way that it’s a challenge. And there’s a lot of setbacks and there’s a lot of jealous people out there, and there’s a lot of naysayers and there’s a lot of drama, but in the end I prefer to be fighting for the positive things instead of being secluded and being on my own and being kind of fearful of everything.
There’s a lot of people in our community, especially around in my close circle that kind of decided to cut ties because they were discouraged too much. And they said, “Okay, I’m just going to be a survivalist.” And that’s it. And for me, that doesn’t make a lot of sense because, you know, we’re all in this together. We’re a community, we’re a global community and what impacts the people in the U S impacts us here [in Canada] and what we do here impacts others.
And so we just need to acknowledge that. We need to, and I think that’s happening. I think Black Lives Matters is just another expression of that. And, and for me in my bottom line, I’d like to see the same kind of ferociousness fighting for nature, you know? Cause for me, that’s my bottom line. Like I think that social justice is really important, but I’d also like to see this kind of love and care extended to animal welfare and to the preservation and stewardship of rivers and lakes and forests. And like, for me, that’s what I really care about. And that’s what I think is the true essence – is nature. And, so yeah, I’ll always fight for that, you know?
Dave Chapman: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s interesting to me because talking to Walter Jehne, – he’ll be in the Symposium, he’s a spectacular soil microbiologist who really really gets the connections – and he said, “you know, the kind of the challenge that trumps all other challenges is Climate Change. Because if we lose that, we lose everything.” But he said, “just nutrition is a much easier sell to people because they get it”.
Because we think “if I eat this, I’m more likely to be healthy than if I eat that.” And then we have a greater sense of agency. Then if you say, “well, if you drive an electric car or put it in different light bulbs, that’s good,” but let’s face it – that’s not gonna change the outcome for the planet. It’s gotta be replicated a million times over, a billion times over.
And so it’s a bit overwhelming. It’s a nice thing about something like nutrition. Somebody can go, “well, I can make a choice.” Although, I will say it’s interesting that Jonathan Safran Foer makes the argument that the most powerful thing that anybody can do for Climate Change is to eat less meat.
And it’s interesting because it doesn’t address the fact that properly done livestock farming, I believe, is part of the healing of the planet, not part of the doom of the planet. But his point is that 99% of the meat, milk, and eggs in the United States are coming from CAFOs [confined animal feeding operations]. And he has lots of evidence that this is totally destroying the climate.
JM Fortier: I think that in a hundred years from now, if we’re still here, or maybe in 50 years, we’ll look back at CAFOs and think it was the worst thing ever…we’ll think it’s just terrible. It’s terrible. And nobody sees it. We don’t feel it, the way it’s built up. You know, we never kind of understand the impact of when we buy these meats at the grocery stores and the lack of alternatives. And it’s just, it’s absolutely terrible.
And you know, the other thing is that 60, 70 years ago, at least in Quebec, you know, the water streams weren’t polluted. Now, there’s not one river where there’s a watershed that has farms, conventional farms, that is not totally polluted. Why do we accept this?
Again today in the paper, there’s this person, this young person that writes “Okay, small-scale farming is romantic, but it can’t feed the world.” I’m like, are you serious? Like, you’re my age! And you’re saying that? It’s like, are you paying to say silly stuff like that?
Dave Chapman: So answer that person because there are people who are not paid and they hear that and they believe it. So let’s give this person the benefit of the doubt that you’re talking to and say, “okay, you’re confused. Let me explain it to you.”
JM Fortier: Yeah. Well, that’s a great way to introduce it. “You’re confused. Let’s me explain.” Yeah. It’s just like, first of all, we’re not interested in feeding the world and what we should be talking about is feeding your community; that should be the narrative.
You know, how can we feed our community and the communities in different places? We’ll need to have different setups and different systems and different farming strategies to do that. And yes, it would involve probably trading and moving produce around. But, you know, we want to localize it because it’s resiliency and this pandemic is showing the importance of all of this. And I don’t know.. When we’re always talking about industrializing and streamlining and making everything more hyper-efficient in farming we’re never talking about how to make it more nutrient-dense and how to make it more alive with the soil.
And this discussion never happens with these people that are saying these things. And that for me is where there’s a disconnect. Yes, we could be rolling out awesome big farms that would heal the land. I would love that, but the big farms and the big systems, they’re just, they’re just plundering. And they’re just kind of taking, taking, taking for profit. And it’s so obvious to me that it’s kind of disheartening that people don’t see it. I’m like, do you not see that? That what they’re doing!
Dave Chapman: So this is something that’s very good. This is something that comes up a lot. And you know, I’ve heard that the answer is to “know your farmer.” And so when I go into New York city or Boston, of course, that’s very hard for the millions of people who live there, or LA or Chicago or Atlanta or Miami. You know, there’s a lot of people now who no longer live in the country, they live in the city; that is true around the world that people are moving.
And part of it is because they’re losing those agricultural opportunities out in the country, and they’re forced to go to the city to get a job. And that’s a whole other discussion. I hope John Ikerd goes into that in the Symposium. But so for those people, like my son, who lives in New York city, I think we still need to have good food being sold in cities and not just in a local CSA. In the old model – when I read those old books of Eliot’s you know, how did they manage their organic matter?
One of the things was that all of the cities were ringed by market gardens. And there’s the model around the world that every major metropolis was surrounded by the vegetable and fruit growers who were trucking their stuff in every day to market. And these old books said that every day they would come back with a wagon load of horse manure, because back then the transportation system was the horse which produced all of this manure. And so they would take it back and put it on their fields. It was a beautiful system, very in balance. So what are your thoughts about an urban dweller now? You know, how did they get good food?
JM Fortier: I think urban farms, they have a role to play in that. You know, I don’t think urban farms are a solution to feed cities, not at all. I don’t think that’s realistic. But I think that urban farms, they reconnect people from the city to the farm, to the farming landscape, to the farming, ideals, to the agrarian kind of lifestyle a little bit. It’s just like an introduction. And I think city people, a lot of people, they don’t know that lifestyle, but I think they need it. But I do see people migrating out of cities in the foreseeable future, to be honest. And I think it’s already happening. Like this pandemic, in what we’ve seen here in Quebec, like, you should see this day to like weave with the Masterclass that I teach the online course.
There’s been an explosion of people that want to take the class. So, I’ve had to hire people to help me manage this, cause we’re more than 2000 students. It’s just like, it’s exploded beyond what I can manage. And so we’ve been hiring a lot of people. We’ve been putting out job applications and you should see the profile of the people that are applying. It’s just like, “Oh my God, this person is, amazing!” Like experiences of running campaigns for NAEYC and whatever. It’s just like high, high profile people. And they’re like, “I don’t want this life anymore. I want to have purpose. And I want to reconnect with something that is in line with what I think needs to happen.”
And that narrative, I think will bring some people, perhaps not completely out of cities, but it’s certainly reconnecting them with the importance of having a safe space outside of cities where there’s air, where you can walk outside and there’s not a million people.
Dave Chapman: That’s good. That’s great. Okay, you work with a lot of young people helping them to learn the skills, what’s that like for you?
JM Fortier: When they’re super bright it’s fun; you know, that’s the best part. I’ve trained people in two years and they’ve become really, really, really good. That for me is very eye-opening because it took me 10, 15 years to get really, really good. And then some really get the systems. They really apply them and they have this drive. You know, when you’re young and you’re wanting to learn and to do it. So I like that drive and it keeps me motivated to kind of pass it down.
But I like talking with you and I like having discussions with people that are older, that have been around the block more because, you know, for me, I need to have a connection on that spectrum. Also, I like talking with younger people and then being somewhat of a big brother or mentor to them, but I need to also have people that are, have been around the block more than I have that are passing down some of their wisdom on me. So, I like young people, but when I’m not working, I like to hang out with, with people that are more senior than me. Can I say that?
Dave Chapman: Yeah, yeah. Old people!
JM Fortier: Wise, wise people. We hope, right? Yeah, wiser.
Dave Chapman: So since the last time I saw you there’ve been huge protests for climate, for racial equality, Greta ThunBerg blew the world up, beautifully. And she said in very stark terms – I just listened to a speech of hers and I was just really impressed – she said, “our house is on fire, you know, and this is not complicated. Our house is on fire.”
And, you know and the same with Black Lives Matter. This has become in the United States, a huge national discussion. And my God NASCAR got involved. Right? Amazing. And, you know, they took down the Confederate flag at NASCAR. So these things, these social movements, I feel are touching virtually every sphere. And the organic farming sphere, which has always been, as you said, really about protecting this really rich soil community, this diversity that we are part of, it’s not like, Oh, I’m going to take care of that.
So it takes care of me. I am part of that. And it’s a beautiful understanding of this process that we have always, we humans and mammals, have always been part of, but I do see that we’re part of the social ecology too. And at the Real Organic Symposium at Dartmouth last year Onika Abraham said “as a community we protect the diversity of the soil, but I challenge us to do a better job on building the diversity of our movement”.
And she said, “it’s pretty white in here tonight.” And I think she was right. And, you know, one of the things that I have become aware, is from the New York Times podcast 1619, which was really kind of brilliant at describing why so many black farmers have been pushed off the land. And, you know, it’s a systemic issue.
And again, we are part of that system, whether we wish to be or not. Everything is connected. So I’m just curious for you, is all of this something that touches you? You know, we think of Paul Hawken’s a great phrase, “Blessed Unrest” where there are many kind of parallel movements, not organized, but all moving towards a common goal, that are ultimately climbing towards the same mountain. And I think the organic movement has been one of those. Black Lives Matter is another one, right? And the Climate Crisis, Extinction Rebellion is another one. So, that’s a lot of stuff. Do you have any thoughts about all that?
JM Fortier: Well, many things. First of all, I think that the organic movement has been one movement that has really developed the concepts and the idea in the last 30, 40 years. I think with Black Lives and Climate Change, and the Me Too Movement also is something that we should include – you know, 60 years ago women in my country couldn’t vote. That’s kind of ridiculous when you think about it. So we come from an oppressive system, a system of oppression where where it was okay to step on others to level yourself. And that’s how things were run for.. I don’t know how many thousands of years. I don’t know, but for a hundred years, 200 years, for sure.
And I think that’s not okay anymore. And that’s how I think that it’s going to also evolve to include animal welfare. I think we’ll extend our consciousness to that because I think Black Lives Matters is going to happen. I think the Me Too Movement is happening and creating a lot of change. I think that Climate Change will be a different thing because it’s going to be a response where we’ll have no choice but to adapt or just kind of die.
But our social norms are evolving and I think they’re trending in the right direction. I think it’s not okay to brutalize people today. So, I see things trending in the right direction.
And I see a lot of white males, like my kind of tribe, where some of us might feel offended by that, but I’m like, no, no, no – there needs to be change. There’s a lot of social things that were norms 60 years ago or 30 years ago that are not acceptable today. What was 10 years ago is not acceptable today. And I think that’s creating a very positive change.
And for Black Lives, on my end, we were like, “okay, I think we need to have role models that are showing this diversity.” And I’m sensitive to that. And I think it’s positive. And you know, that’s something that we can do. And I want to be careful, like, I don’t want to be showing off somebody just because of the color of their skin.
At this point in time, I think that we do need to go that extra step. So let’s just put it out there and have role models in farming. Like, I want to help as many black young farmers as I can, to be able to share their voice and express what they have in their heart and hopefully to others to kind of step up and start farming. And so… I don’t want to go into details, but I’m putting out a magazine that you’ll be a part of in October, Growers Magazine. And we’re going to feature a lot of cool farmers that come from diverse backgrounds. So I’m invested in that at this time.
Dave Chapman: That’s great JM. I look forward to the magazine. So I just have a few more questions. I know this is long, but I’m having such a good time. So there are a couple of those corporate lobbyists who’ve sat around in rooms and actually thought of things to say, to attack what you’re doing. And they’re very good at it; they do it to undermine [sustainable market gardening] and to confuse people. And one of the things that they say is that, you know, somebody like you, you’re just a Luddite.
JM Fortier: I don’t know what that word is!
Dave Chapman: You see, they didn’t do a good enough job then! So Luddites were, I think they were a religious group and they didn’t believe in developing technology. And so they refuse to accept certain kinds of technology. Many of the Amish communities have a similar thing where they’re saying, “well, no we’re not going to drive a car.” So it’s a decision, even though the technology is available to not use it. And they equate that with being anti-science and as being closed minded. So how would you respond to that if somebody said that was true of you, that you’re just closed minded and afraid of change?
JM Fortier: I would ask them: do you feel that you need to tell your kids that they can’t be on their iPads all day? Like, is that the same as me telling you that I feel the need to put brakes on some of these things that I don’t want to be overconsumed by? I think it’s the same exact same thing.
And I think Dave, one of the problems, and I’m reading a lot about this – there’s a really cool magazine out there, it’s called low-tech or something like that. I don’t remember now, but – we think that progress, the way that we’re moving forward is broad by technology. And in certain things, it is. But you know, the road that our society is taking, we take a lot of bad turns and there’s a lot of things that we embrace that are just plain bad for us.
And I think technology is bringing up a lot of bad things, just as many as good things. But there’s this kind of glowing hollow where, you know, if it’s technology goal, it’s good and we should just embrace it because that’s where modernity comes from. But then looking backward, we’re like, “okay, you know, people in France in the early 1800s and early 1900s, they had a great life. They were eating great food, they had all the cultivars at farmer’s market. They were drinking awesome natural wines. The beaches were not overcrowded.
And it’s just like, you know, if you look at life like 60 years ago in certain places, in certain areas, it might’ve been better. So, I don’t know. I just, I just don’t think that the modern way is definitely progress to technology. I think consciousness is more powerful than technology. And opening your heart to as many people as possible? I think that technology can help us do that and express ourselves, but the media can be very consuming. And I see that with my kids and frankly, it scares me, you know?
Dave Chapman: That’s right, it can be like crack. Very addictive.
JM Fortier: And you lose. And when I see the kids, I’m like, “okay, all the creative process of just kind of playing and imagining things.” And now when they’re on an iPad, the whole story’s invented for them. So in many ways, I don’t think that that’s progress. I think that’s not progress. So yeah, I’m a Luddite, ya know.
Dave Chapman: Oh, that’s great. That’s great. Yeah. That on the iPad, the story’s invented for them.
Dave Chapman: Almost my last one. The lobbyists who worked for the hydroponic corporations came up with this great slogan: “Everyone deserves organic” and what they were saying, you know, it’s beautiful. Right? Because it’s implying that what you’re doing, that’s just food for the elites. It’s like, “we’re of the people” which is pretty funny because the people who own the company that made up that slogan are multi-millionaires.
But I’m just curious. Again, we won’t talk about you trying to convince the lobbyist because that’s not going to happen. And they probably don’t believe it anyway, but let’s talk about somebody who reads that, who goes, “Oh, they got a good point.” Right now, because of hydroponics and of CAFOs getting certified, finally people at Walmart can afford organic. And in fact, Walmart is the biggest vendor of certified organic food in the world. Stunning, really. So tell me, to somebody who is of good heart, you know, just an innocent, how do you respond to that? How do you explain that to them?
Yeah. I would probably start by saying, you know, when you go to the farmer’s market and you buy directly from a small farmer, you are providing income for that farmer and, your dollars are working in your community. And it’s not all the farmer’s market out there that the prices are high. Like when we go to market, our prices are not so high that we can’t compete with conventional supermarket prices in many ways, depending on the season.
And price is not everything, you know. You pay for what you get, first of all. And there’s a lot of externalities out there that you don’t pay for, but that are true. And it’s kind of difficult to sum up all of this in a one… kind of like, a slogan that kind of kicks in the ball.
But that’s the heart of it. And I think that’s the hard part of what we’re doing. Dave. It’s like we’re explaining complicated things to people that don’t have a lot of mind space to think about these things. So it needs to boil down to experience. Well, you know, go eat your salad from Walmart and taste mine and check the difference. And then perhaps you’ll circle back.
And if the economy’s not going well, and you need to buy cheap, well, perhaps there’s other problems than me having a higher price. Perhaps the economy should be, you know, policies should not be driven by tax cuts on rich people. I just think there’s a, there’s a lot of other debates that should be going on that are not.
Dave Chapman: Thank you. All right, last question. There’s a lot of turmoil right now in the organic movement and in the organic industry, I don’t equate those necessarily, but there are people in the organic industry who are part of the movement and many people who are not.
I’m curious because I think that so many people don’t really get it. They haven’t spent the years thinking about it. You go to the National Organic Standards Board meetings and half of them have never read a book by Albert Howard. They don’t really have any depth understanding. So what is precious about, about organic that we are in danger of losing?
JM Fortier: Yeah, I think you’re right. People don’t understand that there’s a continuum. People were farming organically for millennia, a long time. And then we came up with conventional farming slowly, and then we replaced organic farming with that. And then 60 years later, we see the big problems that it’s creating, but there’s so much interest and so much money, you know, because we’re selling a lot of stuff through conventional farming.
So I think that for some people, they don’t know that there was a prior. Like, they just think that’s how farming has always been done. So to convince these people otherwise? It starts by telling them, “you know what? Farmers in China have been farming organically for 2000 years and they’re doing quite well. And if you go to Asia and if you go to Africa, many of the places where the Green Revolution was sold to these farmers, it was a catastrophe far worse than what we see here. Because the cycles are so short and the impacts of farming this way [conventionally] for just like a couple of years, the impacts are stronger.
So again, it boils down to education and just telling them, you know, what, there’s a reason why there’s hundreds of thousands of small scale farmers that are doing things differently and you should perhaps pay attention to that because it’s a movement and it’s growing and it’s based on integrity.
And it’s based on a lot of the values that we should be promoting in our society. And I think that the discussion should go there. Yeah, I’m not a great advocate, Dave, to be honest. I like sharing the positive side of what we do, but when we’re fighting against this kind of evil, it’s tough. Like tough, tough. I need to have one punchline – you should give me some!
Dave Chapman: Yeah. As soon as you think of it, you let me know. It’s good. All right. Thank you so much. It is always a pleasure.
JM Fortier: Yeah, we should. We should do this again. And that last time you were there, we had a beer together, when you came to my farm. It’s like do that again.
Dave Chapman: I’d like to do that, it sounds wonderful,
JM Fortier: Dave, before we end, I just want to thank you for all the effort that you putting into this and the connections that you are creating, just because of the Symposium. I’ve started to kind of Google the others that are part of it. And I was just like, “wow, these people are awesome.” So for me, it’s been really eyeopening and I’m looking forward to connecting with these people and listening to their messages. And I just want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for what you’re doing. And I want to be a supporter as much as I can.
Dave Chapman: Thank you, JM. You know, I have said if all we had was 100 farmers and the 60 speakers, and that’s the only people who came and listened to each other, what a great success that would be. yBecause the, the 60 speakers are just, they’re just great.
JM Fortier: All right. Well, keep up the good work.