The Origin of M. Tomate and the Really Local harvest Co-op - Rogersville’s Buy-Local Heroes
Growing up in the small Acadian village of Rogersville in the late 50s, Patrice Finnigan learned from a young age the importance of farmers working together.
He remembers when farmers in the area, including his father Jean, survived by joining together to form La Coopérative Agricole de Rogersville Ltée to grow brussels sprouts. It was good while it lasted.
“Back then, there was over 600 acres of brussel sprouts growing in the area and only one buyer. So once the market dried up the whole deal kinda went with it,” said Finnigan.
By the end of the 80’s, the main buyer for brussel sprouts had stopped buying and the Cooperative closed. In addition, chain stores also were consolidating and had stopped backdoor buying. This made it difficult for farmers who were located far away from the warehouses. International competitors could also produce the same crops elsewhere for cheaper.
“Farming was about to dramatically decline in the area with the loss of that one market industry. While brussel sprout was the main cash crop, it complemented other production such as grain, beef, dairy, and other rotation crops very well,” said Finnigan. "But with the main crop gone, the region went from some 30 to 40 farms to a handful, in less than a decade.”
By the end of the 1990’s, only three farmers, including Finnigan, remained producing fresh produce in Rogersville.
But Finnigan wasn’t about to give up. He looked to the lessons learned from his father and the importance of cooperating. Producers throughout the region, from Rogersville to Sackville, joined together and created La Récolte de Chez Nous/Really Local Harvest Coop - a network where growers could exchange produce to supply their roadside stands or farmers market and promote their industry.
It worked and in 2005, the Really Local Harvest Co-op made an agreement with the City of Dieppe to open a new Market run by the Cooperative.
“That really brought us face-to-face with the consumer,” says Finnigan. “It brought our products directly to the city instead of having to go through a chain of stores.”
Today, the Dieppe market is a busy and popular stop for shoppers looking for fresh, local produce. The cooperative has also created New Brunswick’s first Agro-tourism route where visitors can have an authentic farming experience or spend a beautiful day in rural New Brunswick visiting a farm, u-pick, winery, or garden.
As one of 30 farmers of the Really Local Harvest Coop, Finnigan is also known as M. Tomate. A graduate of the Nova Scotia Agricultural College as a Plant Science Technician, his work in the agricultural field eventually let him to envision something new, yet comfortably traditional and familiar. From that vision sprouted the Mr. Tomato brand.
Finnigan put all his money on the table, bought a greenhouse and built a small roadside market. Over the next 10 years, he expanded his potential market by purchasing a greenhouse and garden center in Richibucto and a seasonal garden center in Miramichi. He also built a new greenhouse specifically for organic produce.
Finally, with all the puzzle-pieces were in place, Finnigan’s all-in-one local market, green house, bakery and garden center sprouted to life as M. Tomate, stocked with a vast array of fruits and vegetables grown by local farmers from the Really Local Harvest Co-op, as well as freshly baked bread, bedding flowers, and of course Finnigan’s famous tomatoes.
Today, older shoppers ask for him personally, knowing they will get the same friendly and knowledgeable first-person service they remember from their youth - directly from the grower himself. And the younger generations are learning about the importance of having that connection to the local food supply and the farmers who produce it, through regular school tours to M. Tomate. The Really Local Harvest Coop has also been instrumental in developing the Farm-to-Cafeteria project which supplies local cafeterias in the Francophone South school district with fresh, local food.
Finnigan and the Really Local Harvest Coop continue to strengthen the connection between farmers and their communities in the face of changing times.