A summary of the NTFP industry in Quebec

Prepared by
Gerald Le Gal
Gourmet Sauvage Inc.

February 2007

As in other parts of the country, NTFPs in Quebec have a long history dating back to their use by aboriginal communities and more recently by Europeans who arrived to settle the continent. By the 1960s, the harvest and use of NTFPs began to decline and much of the traditional knowledge was lost as older people passed away. Nevertheless, a few traditional crops, specifically blueberries, cranberries and Christmas trees (with related products), which were found to have economic potential, emerged as full-fledged industries in their own right and continue to thrive today.

The broader NTFP industry is not yet 20 years old. It is market driven and the thrust of development and innovation comes from a handful of private companies. More recently, a number of initiatives have been taken, namely in the areas of training, research, marketing and legislation, which indicate that a maturing process is under way within the industry. Though many communities participate in the harvest, processing and marketing of forest products, the industry, as it is structured today, is not truly community-based. Nor are the aboriginal communities of Quebec much involved in the development taking place. Loosely organised, the industry is in need of better coordination and a healthy infusion of capital.

The products

If we set aside the ‘Big Three’ (blueberries, cranberries and Christmas trees), we can observe a number of crops that are beginning to show economic potential and improved organisational systems. It seems too early to predict how far things will go for different reasons which we will attempt to identify.

Fiddleheads are now a springtime mainstay on supermarket shelves throughout Quebec. They are also exported to Ontario and the northeastern USA. Prices to harvesters have been rising steadily and a number of large companies specializing in vegetables have taken over a major share of the harvest while the small companies that have pioneered the work have seen their sales levelling off or dwindling. Large amounts of readily available cash, adequate refrigeration units and efficient transportation systems have given the larger companies the edge. Consequently, the harvest has increased dramatically and most certainly exceeds a quarter of a million pounds annually. The main concern expressed by a number people revolves around the resource itself. The harvest is now more about money than sustainability. No one knows the true size of the resource or its ability to sustain intense harvesting. The story of fiddleheads is strangely beginning to resemble that of the wild leek, now a protected species in Quebec. Fiddleheads already appear on the government list of plants to be protected but we haven’t gotten beyond the discussion stage. There are a number of projects looking into the feasibility of cultivating them.

Sales of wild mushrooms have ‘mushroomed’ over the last decade. Not only are harvests increasing here but there are now several companies specializing in their trade and they get their produce locally, from the West Coast, Europe, South America, Asia and Europe. The burgeoning marketplace has encouraged foragers to enter the trade, but they also have to compete with cheap imports. The harvest potential is unknown but most certainly huge. However, much prime mushroom territory is by and large inaccessible. An interesting development has been the creation of companies that are growing wild mushrooms in a controlled environment. Their sales are not yet significant but steadily growing. The excellent quality of their products commands top prices.

For several years, the harvest of yew for taxol extraction gave all indications of growing into a strong industry with government research work, training programs and huge resource allocations to several large companies. There have been setbacks, however and its future is uncertain at this point in time.

Quebec’s North Shore region has been active for several years in the business of harvesting cloudberries and lingonberries for the domestic and export (Scandinavia) markets. A dozen or so villages are involved and they are well organised for handling, packaging, storing and shipping the produce.

The harvest of wild plants for the ornamental trade is not big business in Quebec. It is not favourably perceived by conservationists, nor is it condoned by government. Legislation to protect fiddleheads is centered more around the ornamental use of the ferns than their use as food. Several companies now sustainably grow their own wild plants for the lucrative ‘green’ city and municipal markets. They are making inroads into the public sector as well. These plants are well adapted to our climate and better equipped to resist insects and disease.

There are many small companies growing or harvesting wild plants for medicinal uses but the impact on wild populations is negligible given the relatively low volume of the harvest. Most if not all larger companies import dried plants from all areas of the globe as pickers here can’t compete with cheap imports.

The essential oil trade is small but several small companies are doing well with oils not easily available elsewhere. Among the many species harvested are a wide range of coniferous trees, Labrador tea, sweetfern and sweetgale.

The ocean is another source of interesting plants. Several species of edible plants, notably sea asparagus, are harvested. Several species of algae are also processed for health spas.

Research stations throughout the province have been doing field trials and exploring the market potential of wild fruit including saskatoons, chokecherries, elderberries, aronia, buckthorn and others. In recent years, many farmers have been growing elderberries successfully and selling their harvest to companies producing natural food dyes.

Then there is the rest of the ‘edible NTFPs’ trade: cattails, ox-eye daisies, milkweed, sea asparagus, at least twenty varieties of wild fruit and as many as 80 different species in all that form the backbone of a brisk trade involving hundreds of pickers throughout Quebec with a target market of high-end restaurants. Total sales are less than three million annually, but as companies grow and get better organized, the market is widening into other provinces and even overseas.

This is an anecdotal picture of NTFP happenings in Quebec but there is more. Field trips centered around the identification and harvest of food plants or mushrooms are fairly common now. All things dealing with traditional knowledge and the natural world are attractive to tourists and our own urban dwellers. There is a vast array of possibilities. Typically, companies developing this industry are small as are their markets, but growth has been significant over the last decade. Away from the few large urban centres there is a huge amount of interest in the economic and social potential of NTFPs.

Organisational structures

In recent years, two associations have been created to bring NTFP players together to share information and to solve problems collectively. Les Artisans des forêts, now defunct, played an important role in helping government ministries assume responsibility and leadership for this sector of activity. The Ministry of the Environment now has a clear NTFP mandate and it acts in concert with the Forestry service and Natural Resources. A second legacy of this association is the formulation of a code of ethics. Upon re-reading it, a number of weaknesses may be apparent, but for all who participated in the discussions, the process itself was very helpful in enunciating the basic principles of sustainable harvesting within a community-based framework.

The second association was created two short years ago. For now, the Association pour la commercialisation des champignons forestiers is concerned only with wild mushrooms. It has a much larger membership base and is therefore richer in ideas and talents. It organised the first ever fire morel season in Quebec. The harvest was not huge but it gave many people insight into the daunting task of harvesting in far-flung regions and marketing in Quebec’s urban areas. We arranged for a lot of media coverage and everything that got to market sold rapidly. Perhaps the association’s greatest contribution to date has been to provide a forum for many isolated companies and individuals to come together. This, we feel, is a major step towards a better organisation of the industry. 

Training

Over the past 20 years, private sector enterprise has taken upon itself all training requirements with predictable results. Due to lack of time and other resources much of the training has been inadequate and the quality of the harvest has reflected this. Lack of equipment and facilities has also contributed to the problem but the major obstacle remains the lack of training. Many harvesters still perceive the harvest as an identification and picking process. Field handling of the harvest, cleaning, storage and shipping practices are by and large inadequate, though some companies do exemplary work. A new player has come forth. The Institut Agroalimentaire de La Pocatière, a technical school located on the Lower St Lawrence river has been given a mandate and a small budget to help develop the NTFP industry. Thus far it has focused on  NTFP workshops in communities and agroforestry field trials. It does conduct informal training but a more serious approach may be in the works.

Research

There are several components to this work. Many involved in the industry feel that the most important element, and one that is sorely lacking, is that of gathering data. Broadly speaking, this would include better knowledge of resources (what, where and how much of it) and reliable data on harvests (species, harvest areas and volumes). Only then can we develop guidelines for a sustainable harvest. In Quebec, the task is monumental given the size of the territory and the growing numbers of people involved. One group has suggested that commercial harvesters be required to register at no cost but that they comply with mandatory reporting requirements. It may be easier yet to get relevant information from buyers who are fewer in number than harvesters.

Applied research is just beginning in Quebec with Laval University doing work on fiddleheads and several commercial species of mushrooms. They have also delved into the possibilities of cultivating cloudberries and lingonberries on Quebec’s North Shore. Masters or doctoral students are offered tantalizing field problems by organisations and individuals. The latter often help researchers with logistics or data gathering. Resulting information helps the industry, of course. It’s a win-win situation and we hope this type of collaboration will grow.

Infrastructure and capitalisation

There are many NTFP processing facilities in Quebec. Most are small, inadequately equipped and struggling to survive. Few are federally inspected, a fact which often limits businesses to the provincial market. Much capital is required to develop the industry and it will remain in short supply as long as the industry remains artisanal.  The obstacles to development are varied and numerous. As a rule, distant communities, whether white or aboriginal, are not sufficiently involved in the process. Nevertheless, growth and diversification of the industry is evident in all areas of Quebec.