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Les Marchés Publics de Montréal
June 30, 2021

Ferme Conrad Pitre: Strawberry Fields Forever

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Ferme Conrad Pitre:  Strawberry Fields Forever
The Pitre family? They’re the real thing. Market gardeners from father to son, three generations deeply rooted in their land in Mercier. People known for love of their trade, their warm welcome and delicious strawberries, available at a small kiosk next to the family fields or at the Atwater Market stall they’ve been occupying since the market first opened in 1933. Let’s meet this endearing family.

We’re heading to the Montérégie region, on our way to the Conrad Pitre family farm located on the side of a busy road in the city of Mercier. Try to imagine this place 30 years ago before the sprawling of urbanization! At the time, 25 strawberry producers were farming this area, but now only the Pitre family remains.

Alain is the best-known member of the family to Atwater Market customers, which is quite natural since he’s been welcoming them there for 50 years. (He was already helping his parents at age 8!). And it’s him who’s greeting us today for a tour of the long strip of land where he grew up and still works with his father Conrad, who’s over 80. As Conrad tells us with a smile: “I’ve got to keep working, I can’t stop just like that!”

Farming the Old-Fashioned Way

Alain knows every square inch of the farm where 20,000 summer strawberry cultivars – Jewel, Audrey and Lilac – grow, as well as tomatoes, cucumbers, corn and squash. For him, becoming a vegetable farmer was a given. “I often say I was born between two rows of strawberries! I could never see myself doing anything else,” he says, with a huge smile. “I feel lucky to have a job that allows me to be outside all the time, whether it’s here or at the market.”

It’s important to mention that a lot of emphasis is placed on family values, tradition and transmission of knowledge at the Conrad Pitre farm. They still grow their strawberries the old-fashioned way, without plastic covering or artificial watering. “My father says that if the guy upstairs doesn’t want it to rain between May and July, then we just won’t have any strawberries, that’s all! To us, watered strawberries are not as tasty.”

Such an approach can obviously jeopardize production. Because of drought conditions, the entire production was scorched in 2020 and 2021, which means they had to buy strawberries elsewhere in Québec to stock up. Typically, they pick 3,000 x 12-pint crates of strawberries between June and July, delivering their production daily to the market to guarantee maximum freshness. “During those months, I have to work real fast unloading tons of crates from the refrigerated truck while my customers eagerly await their strawberries!” says Alain.

Strawberries Forever… and Much More!

The life of a market gardener who doesn’t grow in greenhouses is generally put on hold during the winter. “But I can tell you it’s very demanding work from April to November, work that would be impossible to do without a great team,” says the farmer, who puts in 90-hour weeks in season.

Thanks to an amazing team of up to 30, the Pitre family amply supplies their market kiosk with strawberries, vegetables and squash every year. “We grow Italian and Canadian tomatoes, cucumbers, cantaloupes, watermelons, sweet corn and many, many kinds of squash!” Alain says proudly as he shows us a photo of his stand overflowing with pumpkins and other Curcubitaceae, the pride of Atwater Market every fall. “People know that we produce quality fruits and vegetables. They support us and often tell me: “Alain, you have to be here forever!”

As you can tell, the Pitre family is dedicated to the market, which is quite understandable since they’ve been there for almost 100 years. But they’re even more dedicated to their land. “The day my father leaves the fields, the day I’m not able to secure production alone, I’ll rent this land to a farmer rather than sell it or see it wither away,” says Alain. “After all, it is part of us.” Proof that they’re the real thing!

Text by Sophie Ginoux, magazine Caribou

Photos de Dominique Viau, BODOÜM photographie

Producers, merchants and artisans together make up the Montréal Public Markets’ extended family. For years, often for generations, they’ve been getting up early, experimenting, sometimes starting over, nurturing, harvesting and flourishing! Day after day, they stand proudly behind their stalls as if by their own dining-room table, inviting us to feast. They’re the heart and soul of the markets – their very essence – and the reason we keep coming back. The Family Portrait series aims to pay tribute to all the pillars of our public markets.

This project is funded through the Programme Proximité of the ministère de l’Agriculture, des Pêcheries et de l’Alimentation, a program implemented under the Canadian Agricultural Partnership according to an agreement between the governments of Canada and Québec.

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