Paul Caplette, farmer from Saint-Robert
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(9 minutes, 42 seconds)
INTERVIEW WITH PAUL CAPLETTE
Hello, I'm Paul Caplette. I'm a farmer, and I work in partnership with my brother Pierre. Our mother is also a partner, and she owns our family farm. I grew up here, on this farm, which was originally a dairy farm. We have transformed it into a "field crop" farm. Over the years, we've expanded a bit. We have 380 hectares under cultivation, with several different crops grown in rotation. We grow grain corn and soy, both for seed and for food use. We also produce winter wheat, with a focus on seed production. We grow canning peas for Bonduelle. We have also grown flaxseed, and a few small plots of buckwheat. These are small alternative crops we grow on the side. And we also have a small weaner pig operation. We raise 400 pigs at a time, which means we end up raising some 1,100 pigs each year.
Over the years, we've developed our own special approach to farming; we wanted to grow more than just corn and soy. We've always targeted specialized niche markets. We are a certified seed producer and a seed grower and breeder. This requires special skills and knowledge of seed genetics. We've produced wheat, soy, and also barley seeds. We've been doing this for nearly 15 years. Another aspect of our approach is that we are very focused on the family side of our business. Even as we've grown over the years, we've made sure to keep our business small enough to be managed by us two brothers, together with our mother. Our business is growing from the inside out. That's what we've been doing for 10 or 15 years. We want to increase our productivity without necessarily expanding. We try to be efficient as concerns our inputs and our harvests. We focus on both quantity and quality, and on our market placement. We try to diversify our production to boost our earnings.
Over the years, we've adopted more environmentally sound techniques. In the '80s, we had already started to implement minimum tillage. It means plowing less often, using a chisel plow, and leaving crop residue on the surface to reduce erosion. When we do mechanical work, if we are a little careful and use direct sowing and other such methods, we can get help from earthworms and microorganisms in tilling the soil. We have to be very careful with the earthworms. It can be bothersome, but we need to be respectful of them, avoid stirring them up too much, and not crash through there every year with a plow. By taking plowing out of the rotation cycle, we allow earthworms to build up a healthy, active population so they can make natural channels in the soil. It costs nothing, we save on gas, and it also helps us obtain great harvests.
We try to rotate our crops, alternating the plants in a sequence so that, for instance, we plant corn after a crop like soy, which fixes nitrogen. This means we need fewer chemical inputs. We also use some organic fertilizer. We bring in chicken manure and incorporate it into the soil for summer crops, then we plant the green manure we talked about earlier: oats, radishes, and fava beans. These plants absorb the nutrients. When they die back in the fall, the soil retains those nutrients and gives them back when we plant the next year's crops.
We find winter grains are a great crop because here in the Lower Richelieu region, we are lucky enough to have a bit more snow than other regions. Our wheat is more likely to survive the winter. We sow it around September 20 or 24 in a field of soy, left at its natural height. When the soy loses its leaves, the fallen leaves act as a mulch, rotting on top of the seeds as they sprout and grow.
We went a little further, and levelled our fields to eliminate any depressions. If a depression fills with water, eventually the water will find the shortest way to flow downhill. This results in washout, where earth and sediments are carried away by the water. By laser levelling our fields, we eliminated this problem. We want water to drain, but not too quickly, to avoid washout. It's all very carefully calculated. Then we set up outflow pipes connected to inlets. The inlet receives water from the field. The water is retained for a period, allowing sediments to deposit on the bottom, in the sediment basin. This means the water will be cleaner when it gets to the stream.
Farmers often complain because a stream doesn't drain well. That's not a problem for us. Our stream has a strong current. We decided it didn't make any sense to do all this work on our fields while the stream continues to dig itself deeper and send sediments downstream. So we met with an engineering firm to discuss the problem. They proposed a solution we had never heard of. They told us about a system called threshold drainage. They said it could be an interesting option for us, to slow the current. Because here in Saint-Robert, the ground is very steep. There's a very steep hill between Rue Principale, the street in the middle of the village, and Baie de Lavallière. This means the water flows very fast. The faster water flows, the more soil it takes with it. So what they did is, they built what look like miniature locks or embankments in a few strategic spots to slow the current by making the water run through narrow sections filled with rocks that cause it to lose energy and flow less quickly. Then the water runs nearly level until it reaches the next step down.
To do what we do, you have to really love it. There are other people like us, who love to try new ideas. We see a lot of young people, young people who are growing up and coming up with ideas. We meet up at the Lavallière Club—we have field days in the summer, and in the winter, we always meet up a bit before the Holidays. We are all in different parishes. And often other people are watching what these guys do. When they've been laughing at a kid for two or three years and then he starts to do well... Well, at a certain point you've got to start thinking "Maybe he's on to something!" So after three, four, five years, other people start adopting his methods.
I always try to work with young people I know. People always talk about succession from a financial point of view, but we also need to pass on our knowledge. You know, the feeling you get when it's time to go back to the field. It's all about feeling things, you know. When I was at school, the teachers would say it's time to plant, and that you need to plant early. What does it mean to plant early? You need to plant when the ground is ready. When is the ground ready? We were farmers but we didn't even know our plants. We knew what they needed. It's like when you used to go to the doctor and he would say, "Take two Valium and you'll sleep. If you still can't sleep, it means you've got another problem!" We would say, "It's not growing! Let's add some fertilizer." But it took us a long time. I'm almost 50 years old. I've got another 15, 20 years of farming ahead of me. What's important to me is not just to pass on my farm and some cash. I want to pass on that bit of knowledge I've learned.
We get by. We have our tools and our knowledge. We do everything we can, all through the season, so we can know what stage we're at. Because I get paid by the tonne. I get paid when I harvest at the end of the season. If I miss the boat on that, I might learn something, but I've lost out. I've just crossed out the whole season. But farming gives me a thrill. Once you've been bitten by the bug, you can't stop. I can't imagine not planting. I've missed one springtime in my life, in 2004. I was sick, and I had to take six months off. When it got to be June or July, I told the doctor, "Hey Doc! I'm a farmer. I can't even sit on my lawn tractor!" He told me not to worry, just do my physio. I was going around in running shoes. I could barely walk, my legs weren't working. I was out on my back. What was I going to do? What could I do, if I couldn't even drive a tractor? Would I still be able to farm? I thought I'd have to get a desk job, that I wouldn't be able to go back to the fields. I was worried. Then the physiotherapists told me, "Do your training, take care of yourself, you'll get better!" Look at me now! It's been eight years and I'm as good as new. Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!