Ferme et Forêt: Sean Butler and Geneviève LeGal-Leblanc
“Managing a forest is an intergenerational affair. We’re always thinking about how our actions in the forest will affect our children and grandchildren . . . .” Geneviève and Sean of Ferme et Forêt describe their sustainable management of the forest where they forage and harvest wild foods and tap maple syrup, and what nature can teach us – if we listen.
Photos: Jana Dybinski
Q.1. When did your interest in farming begin? Was there a specific time or event in your lives that spurred on your interest in farming?
Sean: There were many factors involved. It began with a love for good food. And the best way to get to eat truly great food is to grow it yourself. I also became aware of the problems associated with the way agriculture is commonly practised in high income countries. I realized that agriculture is probably the most destructive thing humans do to the planet. A lot of people don't realize, for instance, that it accounts for about 30% of greenhouse gas emissions - twice that of the whole transportation sector. I was drawn to the philosophy of permaculture as a way to possibly make agriculture the most constructive, regenerative thing humans can do to the planet. I saw that farming had this potential - to do great harm, or do great good. Then I got to know other local organic farmers who were making a living farming. I hadn't thought this was really possible, but when I saw it was, I realized that I had finally found a calling that I enjoyed doing, that I could make a living at, and that satisfied my desire to help improve the world. The final piece of the puzzle was meeting Genevieve and realizing that we shared the same dream, and that together we could make it happen.
Geneviève: In some ways, I think the interest has always been there. In grade two, I was put in charge of the classroom plants, and I looked forward to getting to school early to prune and water the plants. Then, in high school, at a time when girls are usually interested in everything that has to do with NOT being at home, I dug part of the lawn up and planted a vegetable garden. I later went to post-secondary school in agriculture, et voilà, here we are!
Q.2. Your business, Ferme et Forêt, features a lot of wild foods that you harvest from the forest. Where does your source of knowledge about cultivating foods from the forest come from?
Geneviève: It comes from a privileged childhood where I was allowed and encouraged to roam free in the forest. We spent a lot of time at a family cottage where we were taught by my family, mainly my uncle, what plants were edible, how to harvest them, etc. This knowledge has been passed down from previous generations, from a time when this type of activity was neither trendy nor recreational. It was simply a way of life and a means to feed their families.
More recently, I have been professionally trained as a wild forager by my uncle, Gérald Le Gal. He has been working in this area for over 20 years and has trained hundreds of foragers across Canada. He is our mentor and a great source of inspiration.
Q.3. What motivates you to harvest wild foods?
Geneviève: Our motivation comes from the realization that nature is bountiful. A walk across a field or a forest in spring, with the right knowledge, is like going to the grocery store. There is a tonne of food growing, in enough quantities that it's sustainable to harvest.
Other than that, I love the work. The uncertainty of finding a crop…the hunt...then the moment of awe when we find a patch of something scrumptious to eat. Although I love other aspects of farming, like growing vegetables, there is nothing that compares to wild foraging for me in terms true connection with nature. And the learning is endless.
Q.4. Ferme et Forêt is about integrating nature and people through food. How do you do this? Why is this important to you?
Sean: I think it's important because in our largely urban society, people have lost most of their connection with nature. Even the word "nature" is problematic, because it implies that everything non-human is somehow set apart from humans. Yet humans are as much a part of nature as any other creature, whether we realize it or not. If we lose sight of this we run the risk of treating the planet's ecosystems in such a way that we undermine our own survival. Also, I'd like people to value the non-human world for its own sake. Only a species as disconnected from other species as us could instigate the mass extinction we're currently living through.
I think that food is a very good way to wake people up to the existence of other life forms than humans and other ecosystems than cities. For one thing, everybody eats. On top of that, eating can be one of the great pleasures of being alive - and it's often food grown in harmony with nature that tastes the best. Concepts of locality, seasonality, and terroir are increasingly being applied at the dinner plate, and as people learn to appreciate these foods they can also begin to understand how they are produced. Take drought, for instance. Most people actually like droughts, because it means sun all the time, but if they see how drought affects the foods they have grown to love, they begin to see how the natural world affects them. And if they then make the connection between the climate change they cause, and the drought, and the loss of favourite foods, then the connection between people and nature can really start to hit home.
Q.5. What tree product are you most excited about bringing to market?
Sean: I'd have to say the shiitake mushrooms. Very few growers are offering log-grown shiitakes in the Ottawa area (I know of only two others), yet they've been cultivated on logs for centuries in Japan. The log-grown variety has a firmer texture and richer taste than ones grown indoors on sawdust, which is how most shiitakes are grown in North America.
Geneviève: Our wild herbal teas. One of our mixes has two of my favourite forest plants: cedar and wintergreen. Taking a sip of it is like taking a walk in the forest: refreshing, invigorating, and making us feel alive!
Q.6. From your perspective, is the demand for locally sourced, wild foods growing? Why or why not?
Geneviève: Yes, it is growing. Chefs are enthusiastic about this type of food. And usually, the interest of chefs trickles down to our family kitchens. At market, we are being asked about wild and wonderful plants that have unique flavours, wonderful textures, and unbeatable nutritional value. The demand is growing. Now we need to make sure that the people meeting that demand are responsible, ethical harvesters.
Q.7. Can you give an example of a “forest food” that grows widely in Ottawa that most people don’t know about?
Geneviève: Serviceberries. There are about 25 species of this tree, one being the Saskatoon berries. They grow on small trees or shrubs. There is a tonne of them in Ottawa. They produce a delicious fruit that is almost like a cross between a blueberry and a cherry. If you can harvest some before the birds eat them all, you will have a real treat.
Q.8. As an enterprise that produces maple syrup, how do you responsibly and sustainably manage the forest you depend on?
Sean: Managing a forest is an intergenerational affair. We're always thinking about how our actions in the forest will affect our children, and grandchildren, or the children of whomever takes over this farm after us. A sugar maple takes about 40 years to grow from a sapling to a tree big enough to tap for maple syrup, and it can live for over 400 years.
It might be tempting to cut out all the tree species in the forest that aren't sugar maples in order to maximize the amount of syrup we can make. But we don't believe in monocultures. Diversity has an important role to play in any healthy ecosystem; the forest will be healthier with a mix of species. If a disease ever attacked the maples, we'd be in big trouble if there was nothing else there. Some people even say the maple syrup tastes better when certain other tree species are nearby. You just have to make sure you know your bark and not tap an oak or basswood by mistake!
Another recommendation you sometimes hear is to cut out all the conifers, because the nuts they produce attract squirrels, and squirrels sometimes chew the plastic lines maple syrup producers use to collect their sap. I suppose the same would apply to beech and oak trees, as they also feed squirrels. We couldn't ever imagine doing that, though.
Thinning is one of the main management tools for anyone working with a forest. Thinning allows you to remove certain trees, perhaps because they're sick, or just because they're a species you want less of, and it also allows you to manage the distance between trees. Just as thinning a row of carrots allows the remaining carrots to grow bigger and more healthily, more distance between trees allows them to grow better and be more healthy. Thinning also allows you to manage the amount of light coming through the canopy, which has an effect on the kinds of plants and trees springing up from the forest floor. And these thinnings are not wasted; they go into mushroom logs or firewood for the maple syrup evaporator. Of course, you need to learn to recognize when a forest could benefit from thinning, and when it's already a good density. A rule of thumb often applied in sugar bushes is to aim for about eight feet between each mature tree. And you always want to have a succession of young maples coming up to replace the old ones as they die off. A sugar bush without any saplings isn't a sustainable sugar bush.
So far we've gotten the firewood for our evaporator from a variety of sources: neighbours who've cut down a few trees, arborists dropping some logs off, bought firewood, and old pallets. We've also cut firewood from our own forest. We could sustainably rely on nothing but firewood from our forest, but with so many other sources of wood, perhaps it will remain a mix. We invested this year in a reverse osmosis machine, which, by using a bit of electricity, filters out three-quarters of the water from the sap before we even begin boiling. So that piece of technology - which most maple syrup producers now use - cuts down on our wood use by 75%. There was never any question for us that we would buy a wood-fired evaporator instead of an oil-fired one. Firewood is considered carbon neutral, and it grows abundantly in our backyard; burning oil contributes to climate change and needs to come from far away. We suspect that when we cut a tree in our forest for firewood, the neighbouring trees grow that much faster because of the reduced competition, and they quickly suck an equivalent amount of carbon out of the atmosphere as the burning of the cut tree put into it. Forests are one of the world's great carbon sinks, and making maple syrup from them creates a financial incentive to preserve them.
As a maple syrup producer, you also have to think about the sustainability of your tapping. You sometimes hear that you should tap maple trees on their south side. Well, if you did that for more than a couple years, you'd have nowhere left to tap, because once you tap a tree, you can't tap it again in the same spot, or anywhere too close to that spot, until the tree has had enough time to grow outward enough to grow over the wound and create new sapwood on top of it. So we tap all around the tree, and depending on the size of the tree, we limit the number of taps we put into it so that we'll always have a place to tap next year. The recommendation we follow is one tap for trees over 10 inches diameter, and 2 taps for trees over 18 inches.
Q.9. What benefits do you get, personally and as a family, from spending a lot of time in forests and in green spaces?
Sean: It's fascinating to see how nature structures things in the forest. There's an ecological literacy element that most people are missing, myself included. I remember when forests were just a wall of green to me. The first crack in that was learning to recognize many of the tree species that grow around here. I think that knowledge actually came from learning to recognize sugar maple trees first, because I wanted to tap them for maple syrup. So there's another example of how food led me to reconnect with the natural world. Gradually, I've learned a bit more about forest ecology, but have still got a long way to go. The more you learn, the more you begin to understand what's going on, the more interesting it becomes to walk through the woods. I know people who can't walk ten steps in the woods without stopping to look at something interesting. There's a story there in the woods, waiting for those who've learned how to read the language it’s written in. Once you learn it, you'll never be bored again. I hope my son, who's three years old, will grow up immersed in this language and be able to speak it when he's an adult far better than I will ever be.
Geneviève: we often hear about the therapeutic properties of being in nature. Well, lucky us, this is our job! Imagine exchanging your office walls for sweet smelling pine trees and your computer for a basket of fresh forest food. It doesn't get much better than that!
Q.10. Finally, do you have a favourite tree species? If so, what is it and why?
Sean: It's predictable, but it's always been the sugar maple, acer saccharum, even before I started making maple syrup. Besides its obvious culinary importance, the sugar maple just seems the perfect tree to me. It's like the Platonic ideal of Tree. I love everything about it: the way it lies in wait in the shady understory, until an elder falls and it shoots upwards into the light; its winged seeds helicoptering down; its outrageously beautiful fall colours, heralding in a blaze of glory at the end of another growing season; its bark, ranging from smooth youngsters to the crinkled elephant skin of the ancients; its longevity; its leaves so perfectly proportioned that they became the symbol of Canada; its wood, beautiful and strong for building, a great store of energy for burning, and a happy home to shiitake mycelium; and its roots, penetrating down through rocky land, turning hillsides verdant with life.