Billionaire Desmarais Takes Page From Rockefeller in Farm Push
(Bloomberg) -- Andre Desmarais’s farm seems too pretty to be real.
A massive, colorful sculpture by French-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle towers over beets and greens. Stained-glass windows by Quebec painter Marc Seguin adorn the pig barn on the 160-acre property that lies 6 kilometers (4 miles) from the U.S. border. Chickens hop in and out of wooden coops, occasionally escaping the meadow to venture near the Canadian billionaire’s country residence.
And yet, La Ferme des Quatre-Temps, a name evoking the four seasons as well as a native wild plant, is on track to sell C$700,000 ($540,000) worth of vegetables from about eight cultivated acres in its third year, a 40 percent jump from 2017. The numbers matter to the co-chief executive officer of financial empire Power Corp. of Canada, who considers the experimental farm a form of philanthropy, because they show small-scale organic agriculture can be lucrative and inspire careers.
“If we can meet our goals, we’ll demonstrate that it’s possible to have profitable farms for young people, that there is a future there,” Desmarais said in an interview on the Quebec estate, an hour south of Montreal. “That means having a healthy life style, with an exceptional quality of life where you can take a few months off in the winter, and make C$100,000 worth of revenue.”
When he started thinking about organic food after his grandson’s birth in 2013, farming was foreign territory to Desmarais, who hails from a family that funds museums, hospitals and universities. But he knew where to ask. For years, he’d been close a friend of David Rockefeller, the late financial titan who donated family land and barns in Pocantico Hills, New York to establish the non-profit Stones Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in 2001.
The center, known for its educational programs, connected Desmarais with experts who helped him find the right land and the right man—a charismatic Quebec vegetable grower with a worldwide following named Jean-Martin Fortier.
The two were no obvious match.
The media-shy Desmarais family, with its business and political connections across the globe, sits at the top of Canada’s establishment. Andre and his brother Paul Jr. jointly run Power Corp., a Montreal-based holding company that controls some of Canada’s biggest insurance and mutual-fund businesses, including Great-West Lifeco Inc., and IGM Financial Inc., and has a web of investments from the U.S. to China.
Fortier’s community-focused approach reads like a response to the excesses of globalization. He’s a fierce advocate of “human-scale agriculture.” He shuns tractors for hand tools and sells directly to consumers. A book detailing the techniques that helped him and his partner make six figures a year in Quebec on less than two acres sold more than 100,000 copies and made him a sought-after public speaker.
“My message was to explain to people that it’s possible to have a small farm, with small tools and equipment, and to manage to live well off it,” Fortier said in an interview. “And Mr. Desmarais comes up with his plan for a big project and I’m like, ‘I’m not sure.”’
The two men found common ground in societal goals—a model farm would help workers prepare to start their own, spread organic agriculture and improve people’s health. Working for a billionaire also gave Fortier the means to try things that were previously out of reach, such as commissioning an ecosystem of ponds, hedge rows and bird houses to attract predators of garden pests. (The jury is still out on that).
For the 61-year-old Desmarais, the project has been a bright spot during relatively tough times. He took an eight-month medical leave last year to treat a cardiac issue. Upon his return, he oversaw Power Corp.’s parting with La Presse, the Montreal daily his father had bought five decades earlier. Shares of Power Corp. have been flat for about a decade amid increasing competition in the wealth-management industry.
Desmarais considers Quatre-Temps as philanthropy because he doesn’t expect to recoup the several million dollars he put into the farm, which also runs higher-than-normal expenses due to its experimental nature. Still, he would like sales to cover operating costs this year.
Quatre-Temps has other powerful backers, which distinguishes it from your typical farm. About 20 families in Desmarais’ social circle receive baskets and invitations to stay at the 160-year-old house on the property in exchange for “the equivalent price a very good golf club would charge.”
Consumers can taste the products, from eggs to tomatoes, at one of Montreal’s biggest food markets or at high-end eateries such as Liverpool House, where Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau took former U.S. President Barack Obama last year. Desmarais figures the sweet spot is to price his organic vegetables at no more than 30 percent higher than regular grocery stores.
Those who can’t make it to Montreal can watch a documentary series called Les Fermiers (The Farmers) shown on a small French-language channel and online. It’s no Kardashian drama, but the daily life of Fortier and his Quatre-Temps crew grappling with frost or racing against the clock on harvest days beat expectations and will extend into a second season, according to producer Catherine Bureau.
The series also introduces some of the dozen garden workers, who’ve come from as far as Italy and live in group housing provided by the farm. Under Fortier they get to master bio-intensive gardening, a method that develops the soil while planting lots of food on small surfaces. They also take on various responsibilities, from plant nursing to handling restaurant chefs.
“What’s fun here is you get to learn about a lot of different things pretty quickly,” said Flaam Hardy, who’s in her second year and in charge of irrigation and pest management.
There’s one drawback for future farm owners. With Desmarais’ wealth and focus on aesthetics, problems that would take days to address in real life get sorted in no time.
“We don’t get to experience the challenges that come with not having money on a farm,” Hardy said.
Desmarais has followed up with a smaller farm close to his family’s lush estate northeast of Quebec City. And two alumni from Quatre-Temps have gone on to start their own project in Quebec, expanding a network Desmarais would like to see grow to 100 farms in 10 years.
“I don’t know if we’ll get to that but I believe we’re on the right track,” he said. “I think it’s possible to make a difference. At least we have to try.”
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.