Potager riendeau: a family business and an inter-generational success story
If you ask Clermont Riendeau, co-owner of Potager Riendeau, what the secret to the success of the family farm is, he does not hesitate to answer. It can be summed up in four words: experience, technique, effort and quality. This has been the family's mantra from one generation to the next.
Clermont Riendeau knows everything there is to know about the family business. He is the fifth of seven children and he was born on the family farm purchased by his parents in 1959 from his grandfather Moïse. Maurice Riendeau and Thérèse Beaudin bought the 90 acres to keep the family tradition alive. Half of the farm is sandy loam and the other is black earth; they call it "black and loam". At first they grew sugar beets, potatoes and cumbers, and then gradually moved into vegetables with a better value such as lettuce, onions and carrots. The family has always put the quality of their products first, and the public quickly responded by recognizing their efforts: in 1965 and 1969, Maurice and Thérèse earned the title of salad kings from the Quebec Produce Growers Association.
At the time, farm work was very demanding, as everything was done by hand. The couple earned their recognition through hard work. "My husband left around 11 in the evening to sell our vegetables at the Marché Central in Montreal and would come back home when he had sold everything. He would mostly get home at 8 or 9 in the morning. As soon as he got home he would have a quick bite, drink a coffee and head out into the fields for a day’s work. When the sun started to set, he would sleep for two or three hours and then leave for the market. He would keep this schedule from Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day to the month of November,” says Thérèse. Maurice would finally get some rest over the winter months but was always at work. From 1959 to the beginning of the 1990s, he bought neighbouring wooded lots and would cut timber with one or two employees. He cleared 150 to 200 acres, and doubled the size of his farm.
Passing on the Flame
"Everyone on our family farm had their hands in the earth. When we came home from school, my brothers and sisters and I would head straight out to work in the fields. We would get to weeding, cutting lettuce and gathering and cleaning the vegetables,” remembers Clermont. His mother Thérèse continues in the same vein: "Maurice was the leader, and the kids were his little workers. He showed them how to do everything. The rows of onions had to be straight, or the kids would get into trouble... But because of his determination, we had one of the prettiest farms in the world!"
When they became adults, Maurice and Thérèse's four girls left the nest, but the three boys stayed on the farm and took the reins of the family business. In 1974, the parents and the oldest boy, José, founded the business that we know today: Potager Riendeau Inc. A few years later, Sylvain and Clermont joined the adventure by gradually acquiring shares in the company. That is when the next generation took the reins.
At the beginning of the 1980s, the food industry saw an incredible transformation: the consolidation of the distribution sector gave birth to major players with increased buying power. The Riendeau family saw a business opportunity and developed a shrewd strategy to break into the marketplace. Distributors answered their call, and orders grew exponentially. The business was doing very well. So well, in fact, their supply could not meet the demand for products. Because they were short supplied, the family decided to expand their holdings and purchase three neighbouring farms in 1993, 2004 and in 2008. This expansion allowed them to begin growing a new product, celery.
By the Numbers
Potager Riendeau's production volume numbers are enough to give you vertigo. At the moment, four or five vegetables are being cultivated: Iceberg lettuce makes up 40% of the sales, romaine lettuce accounts for 30% and the remaining 30% is made up of onions and celery. Seventy percent of their total production comes from lettuce. Each week, close to 20,000 cases of 24 heads of lettuce leave the farm, but during the hotter months, the number reaches 30,000 cases (some 720,000 heads of lettuce). This does not include the 3,000 50lb bags of onions and 3,000 cases of 24 heads of celery which are also gathered weekly. All of the farm's produce used to be sold at the Marché Central by Clermont's parents, but now things have changed since the development of large chain grocery stores. "We sell 70% of our production to food chains and distributors,” says Clermont. "We meet in the spring, and they let us know what their needs will be, and we tell them what we have to offer. The other 30% of our products are still sold at the Marché Central by the brokers who work on site."
In order to grow this volume of products, the family has had to hire on a few extra hands. Potager Riendeau now has 125 employees, 90 of whom are seasonal workers from Mexico and Guatemala. The rest of the team is made up of heads of production, watering and seeding, a receptionist, sales people, forepersons, mechanics, accountants and tax specialists. The three brothers can always count on Maurice and Thérèse as well. "My parents will still be around until the year 3000,” jokes Clermont. “They have always been hard workers and they are still working even though they are more than 75 years old. The farm is their pride and joy. They still work, but they do their tasks at a pace they can manage.” The recognition they receive for their hard work also comes from outside the family. In 2006, Thérèse was nominated Farmer of the year by the Syndicat des agricultrices de Val-Jean, first regionally and then provincially.
Different Times and Different Values
When Clermont and Thérèse discuss the differences between the two generations, they are quick to point out that the work used to be far more physically demanding. "For my parents' generation, half the work was done by hand. Now things are 80% mechanized. There are even machines that go into the fields that look like little mobile factories,” says Clermont. Even though the modernized, mechanized equipment allows farmers to work less hard physically, it is still difficult psychologically. "I admit that the work is still hard mentally,” says Clermont. "The logistics of having a farm this size are very complicated. We also have to respect requirements and governmental programs for food safety and health that are getting increasingly stringent. Not to mention the financial aspect. In the spring, our investment is sizeable and that puts quite a bit of pressure on us. Before we harvest and the money starts coming in, well... Let's just say the investment banker is walking around nervously in the field."
Another sign that things are changing: seasonal activities have been replaced with year- round ones: secretarial work, hiring, employee management, maintaining equipment, planning seeds and sowing, and buying material, equipment and fertilizer. There are also the three greenhouses that the three brothers take care of. Everything has to be ready to sow the seeds at the beginning of the month of March in order to begin the harvest by mid-June and to make the most of the soil's peak in July.
A Long Row to Hoe
"The business has always done well. We have always sold our vegetables and we have never encountered insurmountable problems. That said, no two years have ever been the same. There are always ups and downs, but we stay positive,” says Thérèse. The course of the Riendeau family's history is exemplar. The business has always been able to expand to meet demand, and both have grown consistently since the very beginning. There are still some losses to be dealt with. At least 5 to 10% of the total harvest is not usable. Lettuce is a very perishable product and it requires a lot of care.
How does the business deal with competition? "Well, there are other farms with the same products as us, but competition is healthy... It helps motivate us to surpass ourselves,” says Clermont. The Riendeau farm covers 650 acres and is one of the largest farms in the province in terms of surface area but is still overshadowed by the large-scale farms in the United States, many of which are between 20,000 to 50,000 acres in size. Production on these mega-farms is so large that they can allow for a price reduction in order to break into new markets. In fact their prices rival those of local producers even though their farms can be thousands of kilometres away from our grocery stores. The brothers are keeping a close eye on the United States, since 90% of products like prepared salads and pre-cut vegetables come from our neighbours to the south, and their business is growing in Quebec. The family has also noticed that China is playing a larger role in the Quebec marketplace by offering vegetables at competitive prices. "Luckily the Quebec Produce Growers Association is working diligently with producers to promote Quebec products,” says Clermont.
When we asked Clermont what the key to the success of Potager Riendeau Inc. was, he and his mother were unanimous: the family's harmony - they work well together and they only have quality products to offer. To which Thérèse adds: "I'm very proud of what my husband and I have accomplished. We have succeeded as a couple, on the farm and with our family. Despite all these accomplishments, my greatest pride is my grandchildren. When I look today at the business we have built, I think we have left a beautiful legacy." You have to agree with her.
Turning the Farm Over to the Next Generation
Much to the satisfaction of the parent and grandparents, the family's children are also ready to take the reins. For the time being, Clermont's sons Patrice (25 years old), Pascal (22 years old), Sylvain and Dave (both 19 years of age) have chosen to pursue studies that will allow them to take over the farm. Patrice holds a degree as a certified management accountant (CMA), the second has a Vocational Studies Diploma in agricultural management, and the third is pursuing a course in agricultural management.
"We didn't have a lot of schooling when we were their age but we succeeded because we were in good health and we were hard workers. Things are different today. To work in the same fields these days, our children need diplomas and money. If the families aren't able to loan them money, there wouldn't be anyone to follow in our footsteps. There are too many family farms dying out because there is too much money at stake. People end up selling to strangers or large companies and that's a shame,” says Thérèse. Her children are currently trying to find the best way to proceed with a transfer of responsibilities and the sale of the business to the fourth generation of the Riendeau family. It is a far cry from the $35,000 Maurice and Thérèse paid for the little plot of land, and the sale will most likely take several years.