When Julie Lefort was pregnant with her first child in 2012, she was not allowed to enter the greenhouse of her family’s transplant business.
“It was crazy that I couldn’t go in the greenhouse and do my job because I was pregnant,” Lefort said through a translator.
“But, when you’re growing conventional and enter the greenhouse, you’re first in line to be exposed to these products. It didn’t make sense to grow good vegetables that needed such products.”
She told her father she wanted to grow organics.
Her father, Sylvain Lefort, who founded Sainte-Clotilde-de-Châteauguay-based Les Serres Lefort in 1984 and now is the company’s president, gave her a hectare (2.47 acres) of greenhouse to play with, saying, “You can do what you want with it, but you have to make money.”
She began the company’s first organic production, and spent a year growing 45 varieties of vegetables.
“I wanted to see how all these vegetables would react — how I needed to treat each vegetable,” she said.
Her enthusiasm for plant research came from her family and education.
“My family has been in the business for over 50 years, and it was clear to me that I would take over the company from my dad,” Lefort said.
“My dad always farmed by instinct, but I wanted to push it further and go with really good techniques and ensure good production with proper tools.”
She earned a degree in agricultural and horticultural production from Quebec’s Institute of Agro-Food Technology in 2009 at the age of 19 and joined Les Serres Lefort.
At the time, the company was supplying more than 70% of the transplant market in Quebec.
Three years later, her father gave her a greenhouse playground, and she began her organic research.
“It was a research project, and everyone was telling me it wasn’t going to work,” Lefort said.
“All the agronomists, everyone was telling me it was not going to work.”
“She said, ‘You’re telling me it’s not going to work? Well, I’m going to show you you’re wrong,’” said Josiane Roy, food marketing specialist with Girard-Roy Management and Communication. “And that’s exactly what she did.”
Her mobile growing field didn’t have four feet of earth under each plant, so the agronomists said it wouldn’t work.
She had infrastructure, tables, containers — and zero budget. Lefort did everything by herself.
Her methods worked, and she found herself with a large harvest, but nowhere to sell it.
“I was so focused on doing the job and proving everyone wrong, I didn’t have infrastructure to sell the vegetables — no name, no packaging,” Lefort said.
“Everything that had to do with marketing was absent.”
She packed up her harvest and headed to Montreal, where she met with restaurateurs to get an idea of what the demand for her vegetables was.
Of the 45 varieties she trialed, she reduced her growing to only the most profitable: organic bell peppers in all colors, Lebanese mini cucumbers and English seedless cucumbers.
The business took off. In 2009, transplants were 100% of the business.
Now, transplants are 10% of Les Serres Lefort’s business, although transplant volume has not been reduced, and 90% is organic vegetables.
The company recently invested $30 million to expand the organic greenhouses, doubling the size. Now a 28-hectare (69.2-acre) operation, it’s the biggest organic greenhouse in Canada, Roy said.
Lefort’s latest challenge? Dealing with the huge growth.
“She’s the one who does everything here — she touches everything. It’s very demanding when you’re making such a big investment. You have to make sure you’re making money,” Roy said.
“This has always been a very family business,” Lefort said.
“The big investment means more employees, machinery, storage, harvesting.”
Lefort will stay in her role as vice president of innovation and development, but with expanded responsibility.
The industry is taking notice of the innovative young woman.
In 2015, she was named the Releve in Agriculture (akin to a rising star award) at the Agristars Gala and also began a yearlong internship with the Quebec Produce Marketing Association.
She also served as president of the Quebec Young Farmers Federation in 2016.
“I’ve worked closely with Julie on a couple projects,” said Philippe Pagé, interregional coordinator for the Quebec Young Farmers Federation.
“She has an enthusiastic personality and always has a lot of ideas.”
“Julie is an asset to the produce industry because of her strength of will and resilience,” Pagé said.
With three children, including twins, a big harvest on the horizon and a company to grow, Lefort continues to believe in what she does.
“If you are what you eat, you’ve got to put in good energy,” Lefort said.
“We’ve got to create a better world and make the next generation proud.”