Three decades ago, Préval AG — now the largest vertically integrated veal and lamb company in North America — had a staff of one: Fabien Fontaine. “It made the payroll simple,” says the founder and president, who now heads a staff of 1,200. Farmers, technicians, packers, slaughterhouse workers, drivers and distribution experts work at 130 farms, from Brazil to the United States to Saint-Hyacinthe, Que., on the outskirts of Montreal, where Préval is also headquartered.
One at a time, Préval partnered with small agricultural businesses — which had people and land but needed funding — to help them get started. As his business grew, Fontaine looked to his family for help. “My brother Donald joined in 1990 to help with transportation, and then my younger brother, Alexandre, an engineer, came in after that,” says the eldest Fontaine brother. His niece Stéphanie Fontaine joined the company a decade ago as an accounting assistant.
“Fabien’s very humble and hardworking,” says Stéphanie, now the manager of Préval AG, of her uncle’s management style. “He’s at the farm all the time — early and on weekends. He gets in there and gets dirty.” Any farmer will tell you the work is never-ending — it’s 24 hours a day, seven days a week — so first and foremost you have to love it. So, too, must each and every hire at Préval. “We have all kinds of people, and they’re all different [and have] different needs, but the thing they have in common is passion,” says Stéphanie. “If you’re not passionate, you can’t work here.”
“You also need to be picky about details,” says Fabien. Technology helps immensely, having completely transformed the industry since Préval’s founding in 1989. His farms today are closely monitored via cameras, every animal is weighed, as is the grain they’ve consumed, and everything from propane consumption to the temperature of the milk the animals drink is measured and controlled. Still, no matter how cutting-edge technology gets, farmers in general — and Préval employees in particular — require an intuition that can’t be measured. “The best farmers are like mothers,” says Stéphanie. “They notice that one animal’s not eating as much as usual or that one’s not feeling well, and they nurture them.”
As such, trust in Préval employees is paramount, as is having the leeway to accommodate the fickle nature of farming, which changes season by season and region to region.
“Fabien lets us make our own decisions, good or bad,” says Stéphanie. A recent good one: Famille Fontaine, a purple-packaged line of hormone-free, milk- or grain-fed veal, landed in grocery stores just before COVID-19 hit and restaurants closed. With more people cooking at home during the pandemic, Famille Fontaine veal is flying off shelves.