After my time in Brittany I headed back to Paris, this time to stay for a bit. My first contact there was with Agnes Sourisseau, the “owner” of Monts Gardes in Mitre Clay, just an hour’s train journey from the city limits. I say “owner” because she has no ownership of the land on which she farms, no ownership and no formal long term lease. The land is owned by SNCF, one of the largest train companies in France. The land itself comprises 35 hectares surrounded by 3 sets of train tracks and a major 8 lane highway. The next door neighbor is France’s largest landfill, covering more than 250 hectares that takes all of the trash from Paris and beyond. In telling Monts Gardes situation, it may sound like a terrible place. The reality is an unexpected oasis.
Agnes has a landscape design and installation business in Paris and this is the full time work that earns her daily bread, cheese and wine, the staple diet of any good Parisian. Monts Gardes is her passion project and makes enough money to run itself with some profit. She was hired 10 years ago by SNCF to install some trees on the property. The land was an eyesore for the daily country to city commuters. It was overgrown by tall grasses and covered in stones and dead soil, essentially abandoned but uninhabited by wildlife other than the thousands of rabbits that had made it through the fence and established residency.
Agnes fulfilled her obligations in about 3 years, rehabbing the soil and planting a series of oak and fruit trees. During this time she was also becoming more and more interested in sustainable agriculture and specifically agroforestry. Agroforestry is the integration of forestry into your agricultural land-use. This combination can in turn create more diversity and productivity. Trees are managed along with both crops and animals ultimately resulting in heathier and more sustainable farms.
As she planted these oak trees, she dreamed of what the land could become. During this time she had been living part time on the property in a gypsy caravan that she bought for herself. That caravan would, in the years to come, be her only luxury. After the planting was finished, she got permission from SNCF to stay on the property part time and build a farm. That was 7 years ago. This agreement is tenuous, she could potentially be told to leave the property at any time, though right now she isn’t too worried about it. Due to the circumstances, she made herself a promise that she wouldn’t invest money in the farm and this promise has resulted in something remarkable.
Agnes picked me and a few other volunteers up from the train station in Mitre Clay on my first visit to the farm. The 4 of us crammed into the front of her old and dingy van and set off along the highway until turning off on a funny little access road. After unlocking and opening a huge gate in the 15 foot tall fence that surrounds the property we were in and the world changed. The highway is a constant rumble in the background, the frequent trains an unwelcome reminder of the world outside and the intermittent trash turnover produces a sickly sweet, rotten smell that breezes through the air. All of it can be overlooked for the beauty of what she and her volunteers have created in this otherwise “useless” and forgotten space.
The first work for the day was unloading her latest “trash” haul from the city. A mish mash of pallets, scrap wood, burlap sacks from a local coffee roaster, bailing twine from opened straw bales and some tarp like plastic banners all collected from roadsides and various companies with which she has cultivated relationships. All of these bits and pieces had to be organized into their various piles among all of the other piles of material discarded by the city dwellers. As I looked around the farm and took inventory of the buildings and animal sheds, I could see what all of these elements had created. A large barn structure artfully put together from bent pipe, pallets and plastic banners.
An old yurt someone didn’t want lovingly repaired and insulated with layers and layers of burlap sacks. A chicken coop made of old doors, burlap hammocks and old wooden wine crate nesting boxes. A higgledy piggledy mish mash of discarded, overlooked parts, lovingly cobbled together to make a beautiful farm. Not always beautiful in the sense aesthetics but beautiful in its invention and utility. I was truly astounded at what she has created with no funds, just pure dedication, ingenuity and the ability to see something useful in everything. We spent the day working on various projects, had a delicious lunch made from vegetables and herbs from the garden and at the end of the day all piled back into the van for the trip back to Paris.
Agnes had offered to drive us all back into the city since she was going to spend the night in her apartment there. On the way, we were passed by a truck full to the gills with refuse. Agnes had seen something she wanted and we rushed through the Paris traffic to make sure that we could pull alongside the truck at the next stop light. She hopped out as the light turned red to speak with the driver and then ran back behind the wheel just as the light turned green again. She is a beautiful woman with an easy smile, a charmer for sure.
She negotiated the traffic for the next few lights finally following the truck into a small alley way. We all hopped out of the van and jumped into action unloading a bathtubs, several sinks and a few other bits and pieces out of the trash truck and into the van. Agnes spends her life like this, always on the lookout for things that people don’t want but that in her eyes have not outrun their usefulness. It’s her life philosophy, forgotten places, forgotten items; remade, reused and reborn. I was the last to get dropped off and as I was getting out of the van, Agnes asked if I would like to come out to the farm and spend a few days and I happily accepted the invitation. I had a few things to take care of in Paris and we planned to meet up at the end of the week.
A few days later we met again at the train station at Mitre Clay, Agnes was in a rush and needed to drop off that days harvest to her 35 CSA members in Paris. I was going to spend my first night at the farm alone. She dropped me off beyond the gate and said “have fun! Don’t forget to put away the chickens and feed Mesrine!” Over the years, along with all of her building materials, Agnes has also collected various abandoned farm animals. She has built a flock of about 50 sheep, she has 20 chickens for eggs that roam the entire property by day, a horse, a donkey, a cat and one very special pig. Mesrine was given to her almost dead. A young piglet that had gotten too close to the donkey paddock and almost had her head bitten off. Agnes nursed her back to health and as a result she has become a very loving pig. Mesrine follows you around the farm looking for belly rubs and she quickly became my constant farm companion.
Mesrine is the beginning of a long time dream to have pigs that feed off of the acorns in the orchard. She will be Agnes’s first breeder. The sheep are raised for meat, all besides the breeding herd, slaughtered once a year and sold through a meat share type CSA. She does a massive wild rabbit cull four times a year. Volunteers come out to set up nets and then chase them out of the scrub and brush on the outskirts of the farm. All of the rabbit meat is turned into a rustic rabbit rillettes with foraged herbs canned with a top of lardo and sold in Paris.
I set up residence in the yurt for the week and spent the next morning taking care of the animals and doing some weeding in the garden. It was a blessing to unplug for a bit. There is no electricity on the farm and no running water. Agnes collects rain water for the animals, the washing up, showers and cooking and brings water from her home in Paris for her drinking water. She has a composting toilet, a solar heated shower and a little “restaurant” for cooking and alfresco dining. She has a little battery operated radio that picks up a few stations and goes to the local McDonalds to charge her phone and laptop and use their free Wi-Fi. She doesn’t buy anything because she, like me, doesn’t want to support them, but just sits in a back booth and nobody seems to say anything.
Stay tuned for Part 2; more about Agnes and her farm as well as her neighbor's CSA.