Mangez Québec

Lorraine nadon herbs : with heart and mind!

Based in Saint-Lin-Laurentides, Lorraine Nadon is an accomplished vegetable and herb producer, who has embraced new trends and whose fresh produce now adorns the finest dishes in Québec. Interview with an exceptional woman, with business on her mind and passion in her heart.

“My father used to say that farming meant enduring hardships. Wanting an easier life for his daughters, he encouraged us to go to school to learn other trades . . .” But despite her father’s efforts, Lorraine Nadon had already been bitten by a passion for agriculture, so she simply followed her heart. This farmer’s daughter dived into the family business at a very early age. She was scarcely seven on her first day of work: “For the past 42 years, I have been spending several nights a week, from Saint-Jean-Baptiste Day to Halloween, selling our products at Marché Central in Montréal. I get up around 11:30 p.m. to be at the market by 2:00 a.m. and I stop on the way to make a few deliveries. Although my father has now passed away, I still run the farm with my 72-year-old mother and my spouse, who joined the company about twelve years ago,” says she, brimming with enthusiasm.

From tomatoes to herbs

“My parents began by mainly growing tomatoes and strawberries. But when I started to get more involved in the company, I quickly realized that the competition was fierce and that we had to differentiate ourselves in order to survive. So, 27 years ago, I decided to start growing herbs. Since we already served Italian and Greek customers, whose cuisine makes extensive use of herbs, I deemed it was a viable business. But the people around me were not so enthusiastic, not even the MAPAQ (Québec’s Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food), who refused to subsidize my project. Some people even told me straight out that it could spell disaster for my business! Thankfully, my parents had faith in me. Although my father didn’t loan me any money, he did lend me his machinery, offered me a plot of land, and most importantly, gave me his time and shared his experience. I first started with parsley—to please my Italian customers—and here I am today with more than 25 varieties. That’s what I call a success, and it’s what I’m most proud of to this day.”

Time for change

Lately, Ms. Nadon has been thinking about changing ventures: “The herb producing industry is already saturated, and it’s time to move on to something else,” she says, adding that too few Quebeckers cook with herbs anyway. “Not only are born-and-bred Quebeckers little interested in cooking with herbs, few are interested in cooking at all,” she regrets. “Immigrants are far more inclined to cook with herbs, and in my opinion, they represent about 95 percent of the market.”

From herbs to mini vegetables

In order to meet the growing demand from restaurant customers, who are inspired by what is happening in France—a country she believes to be 15 years ahead of Québec when it comes to the availability of fresh produce—Lorraine Nadon now focuses on growing mini vegetables, slowly phasing out her herb production.

With no shortage of new ideas, Ms. Nadon now turns to growing small — and very cute —vegetables , including mini turnips, mini zucchinis of various colours, mini pattypan squash, and countless more exciting offerings. “These small vegetables grow twice as quickly as the larger ones, are packed with vitamins, and are easier to prepare since you can simply wash and serve; you don’t even have to cut them before cooking,” she adds. “Consumers need only look at what gourmet restaurants are serving, and they will notice these fantastic new products in growing numbers , and how elegantly mini vegetables decorate a plate.”

With her mind full of fresh ideas, Lorraine Nadon works tirelessly, blazing her own path and having fun every step of the way. She definitely knows where she’s going! “I’m currently testing an ancient vegetable—the Jerusalem artichoke. I’m trying to figure out how we can put it to good use. My Jerusalem artichoke remoulade is something to behold, even if I do say so myself! I believe that marketing processed products is considerably easier than growing them: you don’t have to deal with the weather for one thing. As I get older, I’m trying to simplify things,” she explains.

The weather factor

Is it always so difficult for producers to cope with the weather? “Just a bit,” she replies. In fact, like all people in her industry, she has to accept the harsh reality of the Quebec climate. But she says that she has other foes to contend with in the business: “It’s not easy to remain competitive with producers from countries benefitting from cheap labour. It really does make all the difference,” she says, adding that she hires students to lend her a hand during harvest time.

A demanding clientele

Clearly, times have changed. “Our customers used to be served directly from the truck at the Place des Producteurs at Marché Central. Today, orders are received by fax, phone or email, and prepared in advance. Our customers, especially restaurants, caterers and fine food stores are always looking for new products to impress their customers. That said, occasional advertising and our growing reputation have attracted customers from as far away as New Brunswick and Ontario,” says Lorraine Nadon proudly.

Aiming for success

“Way back when, my parents were said to be trailblazers, even if only because they let me work at Marché Central in an almost exclusively male environment. Personally, I think I’m innovative and can move with the times: I’m always surfing the Net, trying to find new methods, new seeds and new products, for example, in order to avoid using insecticides, while continuing to protect my crops as best I can. In the agricultural industry, you must embrace change. With new products, you learn by trial and error. Sometimes you have to refocus and change your methods the following year in order to increase production. That’s why my company is front and center 24 hours a day,” she concedes. However, she still tries to take it one day at a time: “Otherwise, I’d always be under stress and that’s not good for my health!” she says.

A passion she shares

“Not only do you have to like growing a product, but you also have to like getting people to discover it, and selling it. That’s one of the reasons I speak at various horticultural association and group meetings. I like introducing new products and suggesting new recipes to people.” According to this producer, young people today don’t know how to cook any more, which is her greatest disappointment. “I still find it hard to understand why some families buy almost exclusively ready-made dishes while there are so many great products growing in Québec that are very easy to serve. When it comes down to it, I think that fruit and vegetable retailers should be better educated in order to inform consumers as to the choices available to them. For example, eating a fruit that is not ripe enough or badly preserved doesn’t make you want to relive the experience. Flavour is what stays in our memories, and is what determines whether we buy a product again or not.”

We can only wish this producer a great summer that does justice to all her hard work and perseverance. Ms. Nadon, ever the optimist, has the final word: “Believe me, with everything that’s coming up, 2010 will be our year,” she says with a smile in her voice.

Who needs perfect vegetables?

Producer Lorraine Nadon stresses the fact that people seeking a healthy diet must stop looking for perfection: “If you want to avoid traces of pesticides or insecticides on your fruit and vegetables, stop looking for impeccable leaves free of any holes, or perfectly shaped vegetables. Even if my products are not certified organic, I support the movement. People must first and foremost understand what it means, visually, to eat more natural foods.”

Les jardins de Stéphanie

Is all this freshness making your mouth water? If you would like to discover Lorraine Nadon’s products, go to: www.jardinsstephanie.com. You will find, among other things, the areas around Saint-Lin-Laurentides where baskets of fresh produce can be delivered.

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