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What One Small Farm Can Teach Us About Our Broken Food System

Lionel Astruc  /  11 Aug 2020  /  5 Min Read  /  Activism, Food, Our Footprint

In 2008, two little-known farmers, Perrine and Charles Hervé-Gruyer, decided to embrace the principles of permaculture. 12 years later, the success and lessons of Bec Hellouin Farm spark a movement in Europe.

Regarded as the French pioneers of permaculture, Perrine and Charles Hervé-Gruyer live with their family at Bec Hellouin Farm in Normandy Their small-scale farming practices and river-fed pond network ensure biodiversity flourishes at Bec Hellouin Farm. Spending 22 years sailing the world, Charles learnt farming practices from Indigenous peoples and later authored several books on permaculture. "They taught me so much about applied ecology," he says. "The small-scale farming I observed around the villages still inspires me to this day."

A Farm Designed Like An Ecosystem

One winter evening in 2011, I received a call from a friend who had recently opened his own restaurant in Paris and needed my help finding local organic ingredients for the menu. “The whole system is designed to provide easy access to the major wholesalers’ products, but not to small farms’ ones,” he lamented. I had just published a book called Eat Local – Supplying and Producing Together. In my book, I show readers how fragile our food system is and expose its dependence on long supply chains that consume vast amounts of oil. The book discusses time-tested solutions such as community-supported agriculture, buying food directly from local producers, local food associations and neighbourhood associations.

On the hunt for suppliers for my friend’s restaurant, I met Perrine and Charles Hervé-Gruyer and discovered the Bec Hellouin Farm, 50-acres of farmland, nestled in Upper Normandy (northern France), and a model of permaculture farming that goes way beyond organic. Permaculture brings together many nature-inspired practices and treats farms like they are ecosystems. But more than that, permaculture is an ethic; it’s a philosophy under which people take care of the planet and human beings, and share resources equitably.

What One Small Farm Can Teach Us About Our Broken Food System

Bec Hellouin Farm operates a 50 acres farm including forests, grasslands and 4,5 hectares of production gardens cultivated with nature-inspired permaculture farming. Practices include systematic soil protection, through mulching, designing and organising of permanent crop rotation, manual work wherever possible and the use of ancient, organic seed varieties and fermentation – traditional, natural fertilisers and remedies, such as purines.

Beauty over Theory

Thrilled with the idea of cooking with produce from Bec Hellouin, my friend arrived with his team at the farm. He was blown away by the flavour of the produce, and even more dazzled by the beauty of the crops.

A short walk around the farm is all you need to quickly get a sense of the genius of its design. The landscape features a beautiful patchwork of ecosystems interspersing pools, hedges, gardens, orchards, and pastures. It’s plain to see how the highly complex interactions between vegetation, animals, and people are the driving force behind some very formidable agricultural biodiversity. The companion planting of the vegetables reveals deep insights into farming. Squash and green beans, lettuce and carrots, radishes and onions, all planted together for their mutual benefit. The fruit trees store water and offer valuable shade to the goose and raspberry bushes below them. In turn, these provide protection for the aromatic and medicinal plants carpeting the ground beneath them. According to Perrine Hervé-Gruyer, “Design is at the heart of permaculture. Everything on the farm has a vital role to play. The waste produced by one activity (dung, droppings, compost, green waste, etc.) is food for another.”

What One Small Farm Can Teach Us About Our Broken Food System

Permaculture takes particular care of plants, including the practice of mound culture, judicious watering and use of manure and compost, intercropping (whereby each plant helps its neighbours), soil aeration and manual weeding. At Bec Hellouin Farm, some landscapes resemble ‘edible forests’ with several strata of trees and plants intermingled. In the greenhouse are layers of companion-growing vegetation – onions and salad leaves under grapes, courgettes and squash – all planted in trays, with a lot of horse dung. Under the greenhouse grow tomatoes, bananas, figs and more.

Increasing Yields Tenfold

There’s no doubt that the farm is masterfully designed. Still, the question remains: Has there been any real impact on production? Is it anything to write home about? A few years after Perrine and Charles got started, the success of Bec Hellouin Farm reached a group of agricultural scientists. They were absolutely stunned by the huge harvests it was turning out with strictly manual labor. Scientists from France’s most prestigious research laboratory, the National Institute of Agricultural Research (INRA), and the AgroParisTech school of agricultural engineering, quickly mobilised to study the farm’s inner workings. Every hour of work, every seed, every shovel of manure, and every Euro spent was meticulously recorded. The research was finally completed after three years, and the results were remarkable. Just 1,000 square meters of the most heavily hand-farmed land produces as much as 10,000 square meters of land farmed with a tractor. The diversity of the products is also huge: 17 types of aromatic herbs and edible flowers, 16 types of fruit-vegetables (such as tomatoes), 11 types of root-vegetables (think carrots) and 32 types of leafy-vegetables (such as lettuce), to name a few.

Perrine and Charles’s success at Bec Hellouin garnered more and more attention and helped like-minded initiatives to get on the map and expand. There are other farms in Europe practicing permaculture and other organic methods like agroecology, farming with living soil, and Regenerative Organic agriculture. These practices all have one thing in common: they’re more ecological than the technical requirements governing organic farming, which are limited to placing restrictions on the use of pesticides, chemical herbicides, and GMO seeds. They also go much further in imitating nature, restoring life to soils and regenerating ecosystems.

What One Small Farm Can Teach Us About Our Broken Food System

In permaculture, manual tools are at the heart of the work. Sickles, dibbles, a spring tine harrow and a grelinette all play a part. As the use of machines is low (only a little tractor for a 50-acre farm), farmers take care of the ergonomics of their tools. Permaculture’s needs also create tools like this precision seed drill, providing tight planting lines to increase density.

Combining Ambition with Humility

Similar to my restaurant friend and Perrine and Charles, many people are changing their practices, their way or farming, or ways of buying and eating food. The goal of this revolution isn’t just to promote small farms or hail insignificant harvest quantities in an attempt to call into question the pervasive presence of industrial farming. The real question here is this: How can we transfer the methods of micro farms (usually 2-25 acres) to much larger areas of farmland? This is the very question that the University Domaine du Possible is trying to answer by conducting an agro-ecological farm experiment on over 136 hectares of farmland. The farm is led by a solid scientific team including Charles and Perrine. We know what’s at stake. It’s not just a matter of copying and pasting ten small farms one next to the other to cover the larger surface area. On the contrary, it’s about bringing the genius of the micro farm to a larger scale. It’s about creating a vast productive ecosystem. It’s about diversifying activities, careful planning, companion planting, keeping the work done by machines to a minimum, and promoting a circular economy.

We’re also aware that we should adapt our ambition to nature’s rhythm: We must stay humble. That is one of the most valuable lessons permaculture’s past has to offer us. Inspired by the Aborigines, Australians Bill Mollisson and David Holmgreen were the first to theorize on permaculture back in the 70s. Before opening his farm, Charles Hervé-Gruyer spent 22 years sailing the world in a training ship, learning from Indigenous peoples’ farming practices. “They taught me so much about applied ecology,” he said. “The small-scale farming I observed around the villages still inspires me to this day.” These Normandy farmers understand agriculture should be governed by the law of biodiversity. Let’s hope that they inspire other European farmers to join the movement.

What One Small Farm Can Teach Us About Our Broken Food System

Bec Hellouin Farm also hosts several hens, sheep, a horse that works the fields and a donkey. Their presence is necessary, not only for eggs and milk, but also because their droppings are like gold for soil fertility.

This article is part of a series on the role farming practices have in providing solutions to climate change. Learn more about Regenerative Organic agriculture, the highest organic which supports people and animals working together to restore the health of our planet.


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