In the farthest southwest corner of the historical Eastern Townships, the Verhaegen farmhouse in Clarenceville was bustling with life Saturday morning, as the wind howled outside and 425 head of cattle hunkered down in the barns against the coming storm.
Four generations milled about Réal Verhaegen and Lucie Bonneau’s home, preparing a baby shower as this reporter stepped briefly into their lives. Jeanne greeted me at the door, with her 1½- and 3-year-old daughters at hand; her husband Jonathan would be with me in a minute, she said.
Jonathan’s mother, Lucie, and sister, Christiane, were in the kitchen—built a few steps above the dining room—preparing food for the big day. Grandmother Evelyne would join them shortly.
Lucie’s husband, Réal, greeted me next, then Jonathan came in from the barn, leaving his brother Danny there with the cows.
Jonathan was to be spokesman for this interview. My choice.
He and his father sat me down at the dining-room table, next to the Christmas tree, and told their farm’s story.
Réal’s father, Jean, came with his wife Elisa Vestricht to the Eastern Townships from Zoersel in Flemish Belgium in 1954 seeking affordable land and a better life than what war-torn Europe could offer.
Their original Verhaegen farm comprised about 80 acres and 15 to 20 dairy cows.
The family now farms 3400 acres for 200 lactating Holsteins and cash crops.
“It was hard in those early days,” Réal said of his parents’ life. “You don’t know the language; you don’t know the people.” His father started farming with a horse but had never driven a horse before.
In 1971, when milk supply management came into effect, Jean received quota for his farm’s existing production. In 1983, son Réal and wife Lucie took over. The farm was up to 350 acres at that point, the family approach being that a farm needs to grow and keep up to date.
In 2006, when Jonathan was just 19, his parents bought 1000 acres for $4 million, securing a farming future for both their sons who are taking over today.
The Verhaegen Farm now consists of three corporations owned by Réal and Lucie and sons Jonathan and Danny.
“I’m really proud that every day I see my mum and dad,” Jonathan said. “I find that I’m kind of lucky. Farming is not easy, but there’s a few advantages.”
Jonathan runs the cash-crop farms, one of which is organic, with three fields that are each 300 acres in size—about three times the size of many original Townships’ farms. He produces corn, beans, rye, wheat, alfalfa, timothy, and clover, as well as peas as a cover crop.
Jonathan and Jeanne live 15 minutes from his parents and from Danny, and Jeanne helps with farm bookkeeping while raising their two daughters.
Lucie and Réal also work full time at the farm, as does Danny, who runs the dairy operation, with help from his girlfriend Cynthia Lord. Jonathan and Danny have two sisters, neither of whom is directly involved in farming today.
As kids, the four of them had chores as young as five years old, Jonathan said: feeding the cows, cleaning out stalls, bringing cows in and tying them, then milking.
“For us, we had no choice,” Jonathan said. “But I’m proud to say we were raised the hard way.”
Jonathan finished high school, did one year of farm school in cash cropping (his brother the same but in dairy), then a six-week internship in Honduras, came back to the farm, and started an early career.
“At 16, I didn’t know what I wanted to do… It was really at 24-25 that I knew,” he said.
He brought home new ideas—minimal tilling, cover crops—sometimes in opposition to his father and to neighbours from whom they bought land.
“You have to give them the chance to try things,” Réal said.
“My father and my brother gave me the space to try it,” Jonathan said.
The organic farm is a “rush,” Jonathan added. He has to ensure the organic fields are worked every five days to keep the weeds down without chemicals. It’s a lot of labour—weekends and nights.
They employ four Guatemalan foreign workers 60 hours per week, year-round, Jonathan said. “And my father and brother work 80 to 100 hours per week.”
His dream for the farm is that it “continue in harmony with another generation—after all the sacrifices. To have another generation and that they farm as well as we did.
“The important thing isn’t money—it’s the dirt,” Jonathan added—the soil.
Wall of awards
After more story than space here permits, our interview moved out to the barn, with Lucie and Danny joining for photographs. I was pointed to all the dairy awards—almost as many as the Holstein head count. Softspoken pride is clearly the polish on this family’s hard work.
The barn was quiet and calm compared to the storm building outside—harmony in the home and barn, braced against the howling winds already hitting the first undulations of the Eastern Townships’ original Missisquoi County.
Scott Stevenson farms and writes at his home in Newport, Quebec. He reports on individual Townships’ farmers biweekly for Brome County News and reviews the farm news biweekly for the Record.