What It’s Really Like to Be a Farmer

In our 9–5 series, we ask boss babes what a day in their work lives entails. This week, Clémence Briand-Racine, the co-manager of an organic farm on the western tip of the Island of Montreal, gives us a glimpse into her daily grind

Ishani Nath

canadian farmer

Age: 26

Education: Bachelors of Science in agronomy from McGill University

Length of time at current gig: 5 years

Did you grow up knowing you wanted to farm? My dad had a homestead, and this family we grew up with had a garlic and organic beef farm so we would help them hay and harvest and plant garlic—and just play a lot, really. But at that time I thought, “I’m never going to do that for work, are you crazy?”

What made you change your mind? I actually started studying health and I realized that the projects I wanted to develop were all linked to having a place where people could be connected to farms. I started with farming thinking I was more interested in education, but quickly realized that I wanted to be on the production side of things.

What is it about farming that drew you in? I like how it links everything together. There’s this huge intellectual component; you always have to be really sharp, thinking about the consequences of what you’re going to do next. But then there’s a big physical component also. You’re at [the mercy of] your own rhythm and also nature’s rhythm and you can’t really force things. Sometimes you have to be patient, and sometimes you have to go really fast. Riding that is really thrilling and it’s amazing to observe what happens.

canadian farmer

(Photo: Samuel Oslund)

How would you describe the role of a farmer? On a broad scale, our job is to take care of a space and the land that we’re farming on so that land is capable of nourishing people and communities.

What does that mean in terms of your day-to-day work? In the morning, I wake up and open my computer, have coffee at the same time, and just prepare the day. If we have to harvest that day, I’ll make sure that the employees all have the right numbers for what we have to harvest. If we’re weeding or planting, I’ll make sure we have an agenda for the day. At 8 a.m., our interns, my co-manager, and sometimes our volunteers come in. If it’s a harvest day, we try and get most of it done in the morning then we’ll wash them, pack them, and in the afternoon, if we’re done, we might do some planting or weeding. Everyday there’s also unpredictable things that came up—sometimes you’ll do some pest scouting and you’ll find an infestation so you’re going to spend half a day squishing potato beetles. On Thursday afternoons we run a market from 4 to 7 p.m. Then we pack up, do inventory, make sure that we recorded everything that we brought so next year we have an idea of what sells well, and then head home in the pickup truck around 10 p.m.

What aspects of this job do you find challenging? We’re at a level of production that’s pretty high for the amount of resources we’ve injected in the farm so it’s challenging but it’s also nice because sometimes I feel like we’re reinventing the wheel everyday, trying to find solutions to the lack of resources we have. I think that’s probably a reality for most farms when they’re starting out.

What are some misconceptions that you encounter about farmers? I think people have a lack of respect for the work because they think you don’t need to be educated. But actually, farmers are these hybrids between mechanics, human resource managers, business owners and super-athletes. I feel like it’s such an honourable job because you have to be really good at adapting.

canadian farmer

Who buys your produce? We’re a CSA (community supported agriculture) farm. That means people will pay for a share of the harvest in the beginning of the season and then receive baskets of fresh produce. We grow around 40 different crops so our shareholders get different things every week in addition to the staples like cucumbers and tomatoes. Our clients are not like a grocery store or a company; it’s families that choose to take a risk with the farmer and give a portion of what it’s going to cost them in advance so the farmer can ensure a season.

That is a large variety of produce! Do you have one particular crop you like working with? The tomatoes in the greenhouse. Every week we have to tend to them, fertilize them if needed, and trellis them—it’s very calming. I feel like I’m really caring for something.

How does your job change throughout the seasons? In the winter, we’re planning out our season so we’re doing a lot of computer work and Excel sheets are filled out so we know things like what we’re going to harvest or plant each week or the main times of pest control. We also do a lot of marketing in the winter to get our shareholders for the summer. In the early spring, we’re doing a lot of fixing and tuning up of the machines, and starting our seedlings in the greenhouse. Once that’s started you can’t really go anywhere because you’re taking care of babies, basically. Once the snow melts, we’re prepping beds and making sure that the fields are ready to start seeding and planting as soon as the weather permits it. Then we start transplanting, weeding and seeding and by June we start harvesting. In the fall, once the big harvests are done, we kind of put the fields to sleep, so we seed green manure—crops such as oats that provide ground cover, prevent erosion and will enrich the soil with nutrients—and we clean up and make sure everything is ready for the next season.

canadian farmer

How has climate change affected the way you farm? Springs come in later and fall ends later, in general, but it’s kind of unpredictable. We’re seeing more and more where it won’t rain for two weeks and then it’ll be a downpour of like 30mm of rain in eight minutes—more tropical than what we’re used to here. Then there’s huge windstorms or late frosts. Last year it rained and rained, and this year, we’re always watering. We’re using more tunnels—7ft-tall structures that are anchored in the soil with a sheet of plastic over them—and greenhouses to adapt to that unpredictability. It really changes how you work and the practices we have.

Farming techniques are evolving; what are some advancements you’ve seen? There’s a lot more acknowledgement for the organic practices. In organic agriculture, the philosophy is to feed the soil that will then feed your plants, rather than just feeding the plant what it needs to grow for that year. I think some of the conventional farms now are also using some of these practices, like green manure.

canadian farmer

What is the vibe like in the organic farming industry? It’s such a great community to be in. It’s intergenerational, there’s a bunch of us who are in our 20s and then a good portion that are in their 60s and almost retiring. There’s inherent knowledge that comes from the older generation and inspiration and new techniques that come from the younger generation, and it’s really a collaboration. We’re all kind of going towards the same thing: we want to make good food accessible to all, and farmers to have fair wages.

What is it like to be a woman in such a male-dominated field? It’s a male dominated industry, but that’s also a misconception because women have always been in farming, it’s just that they were never referenced in the name of the farm itself or recognized for the work they did. We have more women being recognized and starting their own farms now. My experience has been pretty good, but occasionally I work with people who still think that women aren’t as strong or capable as men in the fields. So there is definitely that challenge for women to be seen as good farmers like males are.

What attributes does someone need to be a farmer? To be adaptable, caring, be a really good observer, and to be able to juggle a lot of things at the same time—which women are generally good at.

canadian farmer

(Photo: Alex Tran Photography)

What is the best part of your day? The morning, when everyone has more energy and is in a better mood. I really like the end of the day too where we can see the work we’ve done and we have this appreciation for what we’ve accomplished.

What’s the worst part of your day? When I can’t do what I want to do, not because of my lack of power but because of a lack of resources.

How do you unwind at the end of a long day? I’m doing doula training and I find that meeting with the future mom and partner is really good for me. It’s sort of in the same realm of farming, in terms of nourishment and care, but on a human level.

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