After months of being under lockdown in Montreal, I was happy to go to Ferme Berthe-Rousseau, an organization located on forty acres of land in Durham-Sud whose mission is to welcome and provide accommodation to people living in difficult circumstances. Marie-Ève Barbeau, one of the persons in charge, received me with the joy and passion that were already apparent when we spoke on the phone.
Although the farm is nondenominational, it is in fact part of the network of Jesuit works in Canada. Firmly rooted in the Ignatian value of contemplation in action, it offers residents an opportunity to step back from their day-to-day routine and gain a new perspective on reality, a perspective that is perhaps more focused on the positive aspects of their lives.
“We are women and men who value life above all,” says Michel Corbeil, SJ, one of the founders. “This includes all of us and implies an awareness of what is happening within and around us.”
The Ignatian sense of justice and ecology is also being lived on the farm. “We are making choices that may seem radical in light of today’s organizations that need to be profitable and results-oriented,” says Marie-Ève.
At the farm, hospitality, ecology, community life, and education are different aspects of the same mission. Organic agricultural production serves as the basis for communal living, accompaniment, listening, and building relationships.
Pascal Melançon, a former resident, poetically describes life on the farm:
“At Ferme Berthe-Rousseau, we take care of the land and the water as well as what is most beautiful in ourselves. We garden and care for animals and people, heart to heart and hand to hand. At the break of dawn, we begin to sow the seeds of goodness and beauty, for the common good.”
A bit of history
With the establishment of the international cooperation organization “Salut, le monde!” in the 1980s and after having been warmly welcomed by families in Central America who shared what little they had, a group of people in Quebec were inspired to create a project to accompany those who were marginalized. This was the birth of the farm.
“They wanted to work with people who have mental health issues, who are homeless, who are isolated,” explains Marie-Ève.
“The mission is to welcome people who need a place where their spirits can be restored and where community life can ground them. It is a place of transition, but there is no pressure to reach a certain level of reintegration.”
Julia Roy, another person in charge, adds, “The farm is a place where we are really welcomed and accepted as we are.”
In short, it’s “a place where we can be Zen and not have to perform,” according to William, a resident. And ecology is an integral part of the farm’s mission.
Mental health and ecology
The farm is a model of sustainable living. “We do the dishes by hand so that we can spend time together. We have a composting toilet to save water. The zero-waste lifestyle is popular right now, but when you live on the farm, it comes naturally…. Visitors and residents are made aware of the importance of protecting our common home,” Marie-Ève points out.
This attention to the environment was at the very foundation of the organization. “All the people who were there when the farm began were attracted by the values of local, eco-friendly farming. There were agronomists among the young people who founded the farm, and agricultural technicians,” explains Marie-Ève. The farm has a dairy cow and dairy goats as well as a fruit and vegetable garden where the harvest lasts a good part of the year. “This year, we rarely went grocery shopping,” she notes, “we only bought dry products such as flour, which we don’t produce.”
“We offer the residents hands-on, practical work as a way for them to get out of their heads. What’s interesting is that the project enables these people who are usually marginalized because of mental health issues to experience a sense of belonging to a group. When they arrive at the farm, they quickly feel that they are involved in a different type of project, one that is meaningful.”
“Gardens are a wonderful excuse to spend time with people, to show them what it means to be self-sufficient and active, to help them restore a sense of balance in their lives,” adds Julia, a former vegetable gardener. “It’s rewarding to say, ‘Hey, we’re going to eat the food that I grew in my garden.’”
“For me, being on the farm is like taking a break. It’s a time to rest, to relax. Here, I feel like I’m working,” says William, who had heard about the farm when he was in therapy.
Marie-Ève adds: “Someone who recently came to the farm said: ‘All my life, I have been considered a parasite on society, but now I have the opportunity to participate in a common project that is bigger than me. It’s different than being in a place where I don’t fit in.”
Community work—in the barn or garden, for example—does a lot of good for people, even though not all residents have a strong interest in agriculture.
During the visit, Marie-Ève introduced me to her spouse, also one of the people responsible for the farm, and their two young children. As part of their approach to community life, the team lives on site, which offers an opportunity for informal moments of connection between the residents and the team, where “the most wonderful interactions happen.” Significant times of sharing take place on a daily basis. We want people to feel welcome, and it seems that we’re succeeding. We create a sort of family atmosphere, a community life that we don’t often experience in today’s world. It’s rich, despite the more difficult aspects of living together.”
In addition to residents, the community regularly welcomes visitors who come for a much-needed break. Meals are sometimes served to as many as 25 people! The farm is also open to the wider community and has developed strong ties with its neighbors and the village of Durham-Sud.
During our visit to the garden, we meet Jean-Marc, a neighbor who is picking cucumbers. He speaks enthusiastically about the fact that the farm has created networks of relationships.
“I’m a native of this area, and I’ve met a lot of people through my time at the farm. It creates bonds, introduces you to new people, new ways of thinking. It brings new energy to the community.”
Impact on a larger scale
Ferme Berthe-Rousseau also has an educational mission. “Last year,” recalls Jean-Marc, “young people from Collège Régina Assumpta were surprised to see that this is how we grow vegetables!” Marie-Ève adds: “Groups of scouts came to visit, and we cleaned the fields with them. One girl said, ‘Now I understand all the energy and effort behind the pint of milk I buy at the grocery store.’ When she said that, I thought to myself, this is why we exist!”
Everyone should go for a visit! “It’s amazing to see what it does for you to be in such a beautiful, peaceful place, so connected with nature, the animals. It’s really wonderful,” concludes Julia.
The farm can also inspire Jesuit works and communities, according to Marie-Ève. “I think that we could share a lot about the experience of the farm participants regarding mental health challenges and how to live together with our differences. There is a social–analysis component that could be really interesting. Then, on the ecological level, we could share with others the importance of local production. Could the Jesuit works think of a way to engage ethically with their various suppliers? And finally, how can we reflect on our own model of consumption? We have a lot to share and discuss regarding our experience of living together.”
The farm and the UAPs
Of course, the farm has a strong historical commitment to collaborate with others in the protection of our common home and in walking with the marginalized. Like other Jesuit works, the farm participated in the discernment process for the Universal Apostolic Preferences.
In terms of support for young people, the farm welcomes adults in their twenties as well as people over sixty. “There is a sense of commitment on the part of young people at the farm. It’s a place where they can come to get involved. Our mission attracts young people,” says Marie-Ève.
“We are less involved in spiritual accompaniment,” she continues, “but what I understand about the Jesuit approach to discernment is the importance of taking distance, of having moments of reflection that enable you to better understand a particular situation. The mission of the farm allows the residents to do that, although we don’t engage in the Spiritual Exercises as such. We hope that our life together can offer new insights. It’s the same at the level of the team: we have to take a step back in order to see how to manage the farm and the work of hospitality given our limited resources.”
How can we contribute to the success of the farm?
Jesuits and their colleagues can help the farm by talking about it in their professional networks. “Knowing that it exists and talking about it can be very helpful because each of us might someday experience a moment of fragility in our lives and need a place like the farm. Of course, financial support also helps a lot.”
Visitors and families can also spend time on the farm. They can participate in various types of activities: weeding, harvesting, taking care of the animals, doing jobs around the house, and cooking.
The farm is looking for new members for its board of directors to offer support in fundraising, building management, and human resources, among other things.
Finally, volunteers are always needed for various tasks such as garden and building maintenance and kitchen or administrative tasks.