When Rollande Guinois took the stage at the spring meeting of the Quebec Produce Growers Association to receive a lifetime achievement award, the sold-out crowd gave her not one but two standing ovations.
Those who worked with the Carrot and Onion Girl, who recently turned 80, still consider Guinois a friend. Younger growers, hearing her story for the first time, were in awe of the woman who single-handedly opened the U.S. market to Quebec produce in the 1960s, a time when most women worked at home with large families.
History of hard work
| Courtesy Quebec Produce Growers Association
Laurent Lessard (from left), minister of Quebec agriculture, fisheries and food; Rollande Guinois, a longtime member of the Quebec fresh produce industry; and Mario Isabelle, president of the Quebec Produce Growers Association visit at QPGAâs spring meeting. Guinois was honored at the meeting with a lifetime achievement award for her contributions to the industry.
In her thank you speech, Guinois shared her award with all the men and women who helped her to advance Quebec agriculture, and with those who continue to choose this difficult way of life.
âI approached my work with love,â she said, âlove of people and love of the earth.â
The oldest of 14, Guinois helped raise her siblings after her mother died. She learned the business working in her father Eugeneâs Montreal produce store at the age of 14, and opened her own store at the age of 19 when he bought land in St. Remi and became a grower.
In 1964, while working for the family farm, she realized the only solution to surplus produce was to export to the U.S.
Fearless, she headed south and found customers in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Pennsylvania and Florida.
She eventually added Trinidad and England. To fill orders, she began to build a network of growers in Quebec and Ontario.
âShe was pretty well alone because she spoke English,â said Christiane Begin, one of her two children. âAfter that, a lot of locals got into the export business.â
Her own business
At the age of 53, Guinois formed her own company in St. Remi with Begin, now purchasing manager for Saladexpress in St. Remi.
âShe told me I was in charge of accounting and booking trucks,â Begin recalled of those pre-computer days. âI didnât even know what a skid was, and she didnât have time to teach me, so I learned the hard way.â
In their first year, with no warehouse, the pair loaded four to five trailers a day bound for the U.S.
âWe started at 7 a.m. and finished at midnight seven days a week,â Begin said. âOrders would come in by phone between 8 a.m. and noon, and my mother would spend the rest of the day finding the produce she needed at the right price.â
As the business grew, Guinois became a friend and confidante to countless Quebec growers. She was often out in the fields checking crops and building relationships.
âIf a grower had lettuce ready to cut but no crew, sheâd make a few phone calls so she could fill her order by the end of the day,â Begin said.
Her mother was obsessed with quality, forever asking her daughter, âIs the lettuce big? Is it dry? Is it clean?â
After weathering financial difficulty one year in particular, she picked herself up avoided financial devastation.
âShe would go to all the PMA and CPMA conventions with a friend and come back and say she hadnât slept at all,â Begin said.
âSheâd take a cold shower and keep going.â
Along the way, Guinois befriended many industry pioneers, including Bob Antle of Tanimura & Antle.
Begin said her mother still loves to travel, and she still misses the produce business.
âWhat matters in life isnât so much oneâs successes,â Guinois told the crowd, âbut the people who cross our paths and who help and support us every day.â
(Note: This article has been corrected to accurately reflect Rollande Guinois' financial situation in hard economic times of the past.)