Agnes showed up mid-morning to take me to her friend Isabelle’s farm. Isabelle has another CSA down the road and needed some extra help for the day. Isabelle’s father was a tenant farmer on the land and when he wanted to retire, the tenancy was first offered up to his children before it was offered up to the public. Isabelle said that she wanted to take over the land even though her father was initially against the idea. He was against it only because she is a woman and he didn’t see farm management as women’s work. She convinced him of her strength and he was quite quickly proud of his daughter. She runs the farm organically and holds AB certification. The whole family, mother, father, brother, Isabelle and her two beautiful young daughters all live together in a large old farmhouse on the property. She has one worker who she began to employ last year. He was homeless for 20 years and in that time held no jobs. When he turned 40 he had a bit of a life epiphany and decided to get a job and try to function in society. Isabelle tentatively employed him initially but he has become a great employee and works hard often putting in longer hours than she is able to pay him for.
The three of us spent the day pulling shelling pea plants and her mother and father spent the day sitting in the front of the house and separating the pods from the plants. A family working together is a beautiful sight. She raises vegetables and some fruit as well as eggs, sheep, meat chickens and pintards, a type of guinea fowl. We had lunch with the girls when they got home from school and I got to try several of the local cheeses made by neighbors and friends. After our days of work, she drove me back to Montes Gardes.
The next day I was on my own. The farm was peaceful and I spent the day weeding in the vegetable patch while Mesrine grunted and pushed on the garden gate looking for belly rubs.
After work I explored around to look at some of the artistic structures Agnes’s friends have erected over the years. All of them serve some sort of function and most of them have become insect hotels. One has even been colonized by honeybees that happily buzz in and out all day. I also explored her various experiments around the property. She has built several windrows out of various materials, some with sticks, others rocks and railroad ties and others with fallen timber. These windrows are set up to be colonized by local flora and fauna. As I’ve said before, the land is barren and though she has planted hundreds of trees, there are still areas that are just a sort of scrub wasteland. The idea of the windrows is that a birds will drop seeds and they will germinate in the shelter of the material. So far the rocks and the sticks seem to be doing the best with various brambles and saplings popping up. She also experiments quite a bit with different mulches for the trees, all salvaged material of course, small stones, wood chips and piles of sticks. All of this in another effort to create something from nothing. Agnes showed up in the evening and we spent a long time talking in broken English about our broken global food system over a fantastic meal sourced from the garden and just a bit of wine.
The next day was another volunteer day and a few people came to help out. We spent the day harvesting potatoes for CSA distribution while Agnes harvested all of the other produce. She took off to Paris for distribution and I took the bike into town to attend Isabelle’s weekly CSA distribution. I got there just as Isabelle was pulling into the community center and several members were already waiting.
They helped to unload the truck, set up boxes on the tables inside and lovingly divided the harvest. Isabelle was also distributing lamb that week and several members eagerly picked up their share of one quarter animal each. We had a signup sheet for those interested in Pintards in two weeks’ time. It was great to see all of the members put in so much of the distribution work and after it was finished, they stayed behind to clean up the mess and pack all of the now empty boxes back into the truck.
On my last day at Monte Gardes, Agnes came with two more long term volunteers. They showed up with a van full of spent grain from a brewery in Paris. Agnes picks up the grain a few times a week and uses it to mulch the vegetable garden, feeds some to Mesrine and the rest goes into the compost. We spent the morning unloading the truck and spreading the material and in the afternoon it was time to take care of the 6 bee hives. We were basically just checking on health and honey production. The bees are a relatively new addition, some hives were doing better than others but all were healthy enough. That night, lucky for me, Isabelle was throwing an appreciation party for her CSA members with an open house aspect for them to explore the farm. All of us from Monte Gardes attended and a great time was had by all, lamb and pintard from the farm, heirloom tomato salads, melons, a wild hog roast and of course a fabulous cheese course for dessert. It was an amazing way to end my visit.
In the morning Agnes gave me a ride to the train station and it was back to Paris for me.
Why did you choose sustainable agriculture and what was your journey to get there?
My background is in landscaping. This profession is still young and was really only born when landscapes became ugly and standardized. That transformation has accelerated. There is a need to improve the current situation, but this type of work can only, at best hide the misery. These modern landscapes reflect our society’s choices, our short term logic and reflect our consumption and subsequent resource depletion.
Our agricultural soil is threatened by urbanization and development and it is urgent that we act now. Agriculture can contribute significantly to shape our landscapes. Farmers have an important responsibility in terms of their production choices and cultural practices. They must choose a form of agriculture that feeds everyone; humans, but also insects, birds, mammals and the soil itself. There needs to be a balance where animals, plants and fungi can all find their place in the ecosystem created.
The majority of agriculture these days (monoculture and conventional practices) creates deserts. There is no diversity in the production or the wildlife. This type of agriculture consumes too much space and energy to feed us in the long term since it starves all other living things in its path.
I started my career in farming after working with this dead space created by the train lines. I was charged with restoring this vast dead and sterilized ground. I learned the importance of plants in the cycle of soil formation and naturally both wild animals and livestock can also play a key role when combined with re-vegetation.
I am testing agro-ecological practices on restoring degraded landscapes and I believe it is a way to reconcile environmental concerns with food production issues. The more biodiversity that is integrated on the farm, the more efficient the land will be. Good ecology lays the foundation for sustainable and productive agriculture that feeds us all, produces more with less and provides landscapes in which to live.
What do you think the current food system in your country?
Keeping a budget is not a priority for the average French household. We need to feed all segments of the population and therefore food must be cheap. However the prices paid today do not reflect the true production costs. This is especially true if you take into account the environmental damage and the impact on human health that the majority of agriculture today produces both in France and abroad. These practices induce costs to be paid by future generations and seem so irresponsible it’s outrageous.
The culture of respect for food was lost with the food production companies. In rich countries more than one third of what is produced goes into the trash somewhere along the line. This makes me outraged and the ability of the modern grocery store to have all products available in every season throughout the year does not facilitate any awareness.
Processed foods do not favor any traceability or responsible production. Often, it is the brand name that counts way above the place of production or even the producer. Sometimes labels and certifications can help to solve this problem but in reality they are not always suitable and can even have negative effects; penalizing those producers that wish to work in the right direction but find the rules, made on behalf of commercial criteria, too rigid and ultimately unsuitable to their needs. If we look at the Bio French label for example we see that the definition is far from focusing on ecology and biodiversity.
Furthermore, few people are aware of the impact their food choices have on the environment, especially when they live in the city. They don’t realize how interrelated the city and the countryside truly is, they are linked. A world where we disassociate habitat, production, recreation, agriculture and forestry into separate areas cannot lead to a balanced future.
Fortunately there are citizen movements such as AMAP (help to maintain peasant agriculture) that favors farmer independent of organic certification or not and involves the population in both food production and distribution. Agro ecology is beginning to emerge as a more comprehensive approach to agriculture which has no label as of yet but allows us to restructure for more sustainable food production methods.
What do you see as the future of food in France, do you see a change coming?
Things are definitely evolving through informed consumer networks and even chefs that put forward the idea of better products being the basis for quality gastronomy. The flavor of food is indeed related to the production methods. The difficulty lies in making these products accessible to all. Through school canteens and courses we need to teach the next generation, but it moves slowly. I am, however noticing more and more initiatives, publications and courses for people to learn about wild edible plants, how to use every part of a vegetable, how to cook and waste less and I rejoice in it.
So far I believe these practices are not yet wide spread but change is coming little by little and there is a lot of interest out there about how to gain more food independence. There is again a renewed interested in food gardens and the Minister of Agriculture is promoting agro ecology.
I believe that Permaculture offer a more comprehensive plan for the future. Some may consider this a retrograde vision but for me it is an incarnation of sustainability. It seems to me that there is a fundamental shift going in that direction. I don’t know how representative that is of enabling real change but it is what I believe and it is the path I have chosen.
Are you concerned about how climate change may affect your farm in the future?
Issues related to climate change are very worrying. It is vital that agriculture admits less CO2 and that it traps more than it does currently. We can limit emissions with less tillage and integrating trees into the farms. Stopping plowing and keeping plant cover will have beneficial effects on the climate. Agroforestry and permaculture cannot solve everything but it is urgent to develop new production models that will at least limit the damage.
Who do you hope will inherit your enterprise?
I believe agricultural land is an asset to the common good, a heritage that should benefit the greatest number of people possible. What matters to me is that somebody makes use of it.
The land I cultivate belongs to the French Rail Network. I do not want to own it and I have no descendants I could leave it to. I have set up an association and I hope it will survive me and continue my work. However, my situation remains precarious, the owner of the land will commit to nothing long term and may take the land back at any time. This does not prevent me from cultivating the land. It may seem counterintuitive to set up a sustainable agricultural system under these precarious conditions but I am taking a stand. It is a way for me to break free of the current principals which have no concern for future generations. This farm has more legitimacy every day as more and more volunteers take part in the process. I hope that if the state ever does take back the land that an association like Earth Links can acquire it since they work to preserve land that is in agricultural production.