Verger des Bois-Francs
In 1942, Rosaire Brie planted his first apple trees on a small plot of land in Princeville, Quebec. This was the beginning of Verger des Bois-Francs, a strong family-owned and -operated apple producer that has been in business now for more than 70 years. Over the years, Rosaire shared his passion for apples with his son, Pierre Brie. The tradition passed to another generation as Pierre shared his wisdom with his son, Martin Brie, who now owns the business with his wife Mélanie Fleury.
“I have been in the business since I was 10 years old,” says Martin. “I was working on weekday evenings after school and on the weekends. I've been a partner of the business since I was 21 and I took the lead of the business on my own when I was 26.” Four generations strong, Verger des Bois-Francs has become a leading producer of Quebec apples.
Still headquartered in Princeville, Verger des Bois-Francs now has five orchards on 270 acres of land, with around 70,000 apple trees. “In 2009, we only had 90 acres and around 22,000 trees,” says Maxime, one of the couple’s sons who manages the Princeville orchard and the U-pick operations at the company’s location in Plessisville, Quebec. “Over the last six years, we have expanded significantly to add more space for growing.”
Apples to apples
Apples comprise a majority of Verger des Bois-Franc’s revenue stream, although the family business also makes apple cider and apple juice for its own kiosk. Beyond the orchards, however, Martin, Mélanie, Maxime and their colleagues focus on packing and selling apples to many of the province’s major retailers. Verger des Bois-Francs sells to Loblaws Supermarkets, Provigo, Maxi, Métro, and the produce store Végétarien as well as in some smaller stores throughout Quebec. While most apples hit the produce department labeled under the company’s name, the business also co-brands with Loblaws for the chain’s Farmer’s Market brand as well as popular generic, No Name.
Year-round, Verger des Bois-Francs employs between 30 and 40 people, which jumps to more than 100 during the harvest, taking place in September and October for eight weeks or so. “We grow, pick and pack apples,” says Maxime. “We have our own trucks too that we ship with. Our truck fleet ships to warehouses and others ship directly to stores. We like to produce our own apples and sell our own apples. We do all the marketing and verify that we are selling the highest quality fruits possible all year long.”
There is a lot of competition in the industry, our orchards and packing facilities always has to be at there best. “We maintain quality and service as the key factors in our growth,” says Maxime. “We always concentrate our efforts in order to obtain the best quality fruit possible. We are always looking for small details – small improvements that can differentiate our business from the competition.”
“We have a packinghouse with a high efficacy of production; each square foot is used and there is no loss of space in the packinghouse” he adds. “We are always looking for new technologies to upgrade the quality of our product and the efficacy of our packinghouse. When new equipment emerges, we will improve to keep up. Right now one of the most advanced technologies is the camera that detects defects and grades the apples.”
With recent expansion, including the latest orchard purchased in early 2015, Verger Bois-Francs has become an important producer and packer in Quebec. “Over the coming years we want to expand on the sale market of the packing for groceries and the production of apple in our orchards,” notes Martin. “Also we want to be more known in our apple kiosk in Princeville that is open all year long and try to attract more people from other regions to come to our stand in Plessisville every year to pick their own apples in the orchard.”
The company’s U-pick operation started in 2001 and is getting more popular every year. With more people dedicated to buying local produce, demand has increased.
As the business continues to attract more consumers, both direct purchasing from the farm and buying Verger Bois-Francs apples at the grocery store, Martin and his wife Melanie are looking into contingency plans. “We would be really proud if our children wanted to stay in the business and would take on more responsibilities in the coming years,” he says.
That plan seems likely. Maxime enjoys his work, even as a young man. “I like working with apples from the production in the orchard to the sales in the grocery store,” he explains. “I’m involved in the business and I like to take the lead, I enjoy taking responsibility for the sites I manage,” Having recently graduated high school, the orchard is a good place for him to hone his management skills and learn the business.”
Samantha, Martin and Mélanie’s daughter is now going to university to obtain her BAC in commerce and management, which could be helpful for the business. Mathieu, the youngest brother is at specific school to learn and practice electromechanical work. While they are both exploring opportunities in their chosen fields, both may choose to be involved in the business with their brother, Maxime.
The Brie family remains dedicated to quality and service, while retaining a distinct passion for their work. Those values continue to foster growth as Verger des Bois-Francs expands its market in Quebec.