Can a maker live in the countryside, with no 3D printer? Our zero waste experts, Alexis and Blanche, think so. On 15 acres in the Perche region, they’re planning to create a permaculture farm for a low impact living.
Alexis and Blanche live in Paris. Blanche is a teacher, Alexis is an ecowarrior and consultant in sustainability. A few months ago, they embarked on a zero waste journey and chronicled it for Makery. This summer, they decided to go even further: they bought a farm two hours from Paris to experiment with permaculture as a making philosophy. They will send us regular reports about their transformation into “makers-farmers”.
In 2016, we decided to look for a house with some land in the French countryside, primarily so that I could turn my dreams into an adventure that hopefully will become a way of life and maybe a source of inspiration for others and a sustainable business.
For more than ten years I’ve been using permaculture as a toolkit to grow food on my balcony or, with others, in small corners of London and Paris. To a certain extent, I’ve used permaculture principles to organise my life – minimal impact, zero waste, seasonal and organic food, zero fossil fuels etc. But in my heart, I’ve always ached to have my own land, to build something using permaculture principles and then to pass on my learnings to others.
When I suggested it to Blanche, who’s a primary school teacher in a deprived part of Paris, she was happy to buy into “the project”, although it’s fair to say that she didn’t/doesn’t envisage either living there full-time or turning it into a permaculture teaching centre!
So, what exactly is the project? Well, it depends which way you look at it.
I would like to make the buildings comfortable and zero carbon (no fossil fuels), and to create an edible landscape – a forest garden. Blanche wants the house to have enough beds and bathrooms to comfortably entertain family and friends. Thus far there’s no disagreement. We’ve given ourselves five years to upgrade the house and build the forest garden. During that time, we’ll live in Paris during the week and in the farm at weekends and during holidays.
It’s what happens in the long term that’s yet to be agreed. I would like to use the farm to inspire others and possibly try to earn a living from teaching permaculture, selling fruit and nuts and maybe renting out eco-cabins. Blanche hasn’t yet countenanced the idea that the farm could be more than a lovely country house for weekends and holidays. The challenge then is to build something we both love and feel fulfilled by without alienating the other’s vision.
Our first and most daunting task was to find the perfect property. We started with an area – The Perche, halfway between Paris and Nantes – and a series of criteria: accessible from a station by bike, not too far from a boulangerie and a decent restaurant, a traditional building, at least five acres of land, a stream, no industrial farming in neighbouring fields, no busy roads etc.
Between October 2016 and February 2017, we visited about 20 of the 100 houses my mum had found on the internet. A complicated spreadsheet with weighted scores for all our criteria enabled us to select a winner: La Grande Raisandière a small farm sitting on 15 acres in a village delightfully named La Chapelle du Bois, which means the chapel of the wood.
La Grande Raisandière has the traditional stone and yellow render buildings of the Perche and a large pond. There are at least ten mature and majestic oaks on the farm, and a well-developed traditional hedge of hawthorn, hazel, dog rose, brambles, blackthorn and buckthorn running round most of the property.
One of the many things that attracted us to this site was that Steve, the seller, developed an interest in permaculture five years ago and started planting fruit trees and covering bare land with straw. So, we already have fifteen sweet chestnut trees, ten peaches, ten walnuts, two cherries, two apples and one pear, plus loads of raspberry bushes, blackberries and redcurrants. Yum!
La Grande Raisandière means absolutely nothing in no language whatsoever and certainly not French. If you type it into the internet, the only thing you will find is our house! The person who sold it to us says it’s been called that since at least 1550.
After a few months of grappling with the pronunciation and spelling of La Grande Raisandière, we decided to give the farm a second name. From now on it will be known as The Big Raise in English, which is clearly easier for non-French speakers to say, but which also has its roots in the pronunciation of the French original: La Grande RAISE-andière.
There’s also the sense that the farm is a big step up from farming on balconies in London and Paris. And the idea that, in time, we will hopefully raise the skill levels of anyone who comes to one of our permaculture courses. It also perhaps echoes Joanna Macey’s “Great Turning” concept, the urgent need for man to work with nature rather than against it, and Alexis de Tocqueville’s “revolution of rising expectations” in The Old Regime and the Revolution (chapter 16): “Nations that have endured patiently and almost unconsciously the most overwhelming oppression, often burst into rebellion against the yoke the moment it begins to grow lighter.”
Perhaps we can give people a little freedom by inspiring them. Perhaps our farm can be part of the Revolution of Rising Expectations… The Great Turning… The Big Raise!
Over the coming weeks, months and years, we will endeavour to chronicle our story as it unfolds. The ending has yet to be written but then so have all the chapters!
Alexis and Blanche have created a website about their experiences which is launched alongside this first entry in their diary on Makery