In order to make his microfarm a reality, Alexis trained in permaculture at the Norman farm of Bec Hellouin, France. He took the opportunity to interview his founders, Perrine and Charles Hervé-Gruyer.
Perrine and Charles Hervé-Gruyer decided to become low impact farmers in 2006. It was a long and difficult initiation. He had been a sailor, she an international lawyer; their efforts to grow food without mechanisation or chemicals were often ridiculed in the early years. But their farm in Normandy, Bec Hellouin, is now established as one of the most important permaculture centres in France.
It is also the source of a number of scientific studies showing that it’s possible to make a living wage by growing food using permaculture techniques on just a quarter of an acre of land. That’s why we decided to visit them, to see what a trainee maker-farmer could learn forLa Grande Raisandière (The Big Raise), the permaculture farm that we (Blanche and I) are hoping to create in the Perche region of France.
What made you decide to become farmers?
Charles: Personally, I always dreamed of being a farmer, but I grew up in Paris where everybody told me that it wasn’t done to become a farmer and so, by default, I became a sailor! And when I had my school-boat [editor’s note: a French version of Operation Raleigh allowing young people to travel the world in an educational setting] we shared the life of many farming communities, mostly in the global south, and after years and years of spending time with these farmers I was almost jealous of the intimacy they had with nature. I wanted to discover for myself this intimacy with nature. And with Perrine we were determined to be politically engaged, to do something for the planet, for humanity, without taking ourselves too seriously.
Perrine: We started our personal transition and family transition at the same time. The first door we went through was self-sufficiency. I liked that idea very much. Producing the food for a family of two children (now four), doing as much as possible for ourselves, household cleaning products, cosmetics, personal hygiene products—that was more or less the ambition. When, in 2006, Charles said he’d really like to work the land, I said ok even though I absolutely didn’t get it, or rather I didn’t see myself doing it. I told myself it was passing phase, that he’d get over it. But he persevered and it was so hard he had to do so many things that I felt obliged to give him a hand, and soon we became 100% engaged, without, if I‘m honest, me being totally happy at the start. For sure we were in organic agriculture, for sure we were using animal traction, but the sense of it all was missing for me. From 2006 to 2008 it was chaotic and then in 2008 it was in a chance email that we discovered permaculture and that made sense because it reconciled our desire to be politically active but for a cause.
There aren’t many farmers who are also politicians and teachers like you two. You, Perrine, you’re even a local politician. And you, Charles, you have a natural gift for transmitting information.
C.: I had a lot of trouble finding my place in life. I love travelling off the beaten track, but for me the adventure only has meaning if it is shared. And with the farm that’s naturally what we do. We never woke up one morning and said: “We’re going to sell, we’re going to make an innovative farm, we’re going to give permaculture classes, we’re going to contact the media, we’re going to do scientific research.”
P.: We’re not the sort to go to demos. We do our demonstrations here. For years we didn’t stick our noses outside the farm. For a long time we forgot to engage with the local community. We’re not forcing our message on people. Even my political experience, I didn’t do it as a career, it amused me to move the lines from time to time.
C.: I’ve always sought to live my dreams and living my dreams has been great for me and, in the end, it’s also been positive for others. As a market-gardener friend of ours says: “Utopia is like spinach—it shrinks in volume when you cook it—so you have to have a lot of utopia in your life!”
What has surprised you most since the beginning of your adventure on the farm?
P.: The impact the project has had. Even very recently I felt it was overestimated by comparison with reality because it’s hard to see past the daily difficulties. We manage a team—who are magnificent but it’s not easy every day; we manage the gardens—we became more distant from the gardens at one point in order to deal with the rest; and it’s difficult to fight against dispersion and dilution which is always a trap. But when we see that the people who come for training leave inspired, boosted, well, that boosts us too. Also, my political mandate, and the fact that our word travels a little further because of the media. When we see projects starting to appear all over the place, we feel that it would have been a shame not to do what we’ve done.
And you, Charles?
C.: I agree. What also strikes me is the rapid evolution of the natural world around us. Because when we started, our land was very poor quality, there was only grass, and nature responded very quickly to our actions. We sought to put our intelligence as human beings to the service of nature and it’s as if the energy of the natural world and our energy converged on the luxurious, the abundant and the living. Despite our inexperience, the farm was transformed in barely ten years from a bare field to a rich eco-agro-system which surprises scientists. This capacity for repairing the planet more rapidly than one might think is possible from reading scientific papers, that gives a lot of hope for the generations to come.
Have you created a community around the farm?
P.: At the village level, yes. People know us. We’re here, we’re part of the landscape. And we’ve seen, over the years, confidence grow. It’s the local people who asked me to be a regional councillor. It wasn’t easy because at the beginning they saw us as Parisians. Anyone who’s not from here is a Parisian! And so they didn’t really understand us or our project. They understood that there was a farm but organic agriculture wasn’t an obvious choice when we began—it was pfff&X$£ [Perrine emits a pooh-poohing sound that only French people can make and which can’t be translated!].
When we did our first markets, you had older folks who said things like: “Organic food makes me sick,” or “Organic is a hippy thing, isn’t it?” So, we didn’t really reach people at the start. But now, in the village, we’re starting to be known. They see that we’re creating economic activity, that we’re part of the local economy. They were terrified when we announced recently at the village council that we were going to reduce the number of visits to the farm in 2018. That’s because we now support quite a few livelihoods locally. Why does the village appear on TV? Because of the “organic farm”, as they say.
C.: First of all, the mairie [can be the mayor or the local council] has always said “yes” to our projects so we’ve never been rejected! Secondly, you can create the most beautiful edible landscape in the world but if you don’t create the social links of shared values around it, then it will never amount to much. And it’s true the farm has had an important economic impact. When we arrived, the Bec Hellouin Abbey was the third tourist site in the département (county). But now the Tourist Office receives more calls about the farm than about the Abbey.
What sort of partnerships have you created through your work at the farm?
C.: We have a lot of links with institutions, for example, with scientific institutions or universities. We’re often asked to take part in workshops or conferences. It’s frankly unbelievable that a tiny family farm can create links with as many different institutions. We didn’t go looking for it but it’s mostly very uplifting. And I think our institutions are much more capable of moving than we believe. For example, at the time of the COP21 climate negotiations in Paris, the wife of Laurent Fabius [editor’s note: the then French Foreign Minister] asked us to create a permaculture food garden for the Foreign Affairs Ministry.
What have been some of the highs and lows?
P.: The lowest points were at the beginning: the technical errors, the arguments, the doubt. We had to do everything at the same time. We had to build our couple, create our family, change professions, start the farm… It was a bit violent, but it was a voyage of initiation as well. The fear of not making it financially; before that I’d never had to check my bank account at the end of every month to see if we were going to make it or not. It was a very new experience and handling it wasn’t easy. And then relationships aren’t always easy. The highs: the family, the farm—that’s part of building our cocoon. And then there was discovering the magic of the natural world and animals. Plus the fact that we made it through despite everything.
C.: We argued a lot for 13 years, but it’s been going really well for the last two weeks! [Everyone laughs!] It’s extremely intense. It’s like a boat. When it’s going badly, it goes really badly. But when it goes well, it’s just great. We left everyday normality behind, we plunged into deep abysses, we had marvellous moments and above all met a lot of incredible people. We gave everything. We pushed ourselves to the limits of our capacities. We almost neglected the children… But given the state of the planet—we’re both in agreement that we have to be politically committed.
Your book, “Miraculous Abundance”, has been published in English and a number of other languages. Did that surprise you?
C.: We were surprised when the Americans wanted to translate it and then bought the international rights. It’s going to be published in Chinese soon. That’s a big surprise. This is a small farm in Normandy but we’re going to be read by small farmers in California and China. Actually, we delayed the book for ages. There was no book in French on permaculture farming when we were asked to write one. But it’s easy to write a beautiful book which inspires people. We wanted to wait for the results of our technical study [editor’s note: which showed that a market gardener using permaculture techniques could make a living wage (£30,000-£35,000 per annum) from just a quarter of an acre of land by working 44 hours a week with four weeks holiday]. We wanted to be sure that it was economically viable. So, we made them wait four years. And after all that it was a lovely surprise to find out that the book could inspire people all over the world.
Do you have any advice for those wanting to start microfarms?
C.: Small is beautiful! Start small and tend to your project carefully. The big trap is that people tend to think too big.
P.: You have to take the time to train yourself. You have to take the time to convince yourself or to test yourself in the profession, to dirty your hands in the soil and to really see what it’s all about. There is a lot of fantasy around these projects but there’s also a reality which is difficult. Take the time to make the transition.
C.: The crazier the project, the more you have to take it seriously. Our project is mad, but we are extremely serious and pragmatic all the time.
How do you see the future turning out for the two of you?
C.: If we want to remain coherent, then we have to go back to the garden. We think it’s better to publish a book every four years than to welcome thousands of people all the time and never be in the garden. So the team is shrinking; we made the choice not to replace people who are leaving. Perrine is taking charge of the fruit trees, the fruit bushes and the birds (ducks and chickens), and I am looking after the vegetables and the animals (horses, sheep, donkey).
I’m also passionate about crafts. That’s what I do at the weekends and in my spare times. I think there’s a natural compatibility between growing food by hand using permaculture, and working with living, renewable resources from our little territory: making wicker baskets, working with wood, constructing buildings with local wood, work in the forge. I think that’s the future. When the industrial era has well and truly collapsed, the world will be full of small farms and craft workshops. It won’t be a return to the pre-industrial era—it will be post-industrial—and we’ll have such fun!
Introduction to permaculture, by the permaculture school of Bec Hellouin (2016):
Do you think the future of agriculture is small permaculture farms where people work by hand or big conventional farms which are more and more mechanised?
P.: First of all, it’s not about big against small. I don’t mind if someone has a big mechanised farm, with a big tractor, so long as the motor doesn’t pollute and they treat nature with respect. I’m not against big farms per se. If we want to continue to eat cereals, for example, then we have to produce them somehow.
C.: We’re not against people, you see, we are just looking to live our dream. And our dream is a beautiful world full of beautiful things to eat. In actual fact 80% of the world’s farms produce 60% of our food working totally by hand. So, in certain sense, what we do here, a tiny non-mechanised farm, we are already a billion working like this. What’s perhaps novel here is that we look to nature as a model and we are inspired by the latest scientific discoveries about the way nature works. There is an unimaginable potential to be gained the day that these simple techniques inspired by nature start to be dispersed around the billion small farmers. And that can have huge leverage for the planet. Each one of these small farms can become a carbon sink, an oasis of biodiversity, a place where soil is regenerated, a place where abundance is created for local communities.
And a vector of geopolitical security as well.
C.: Absolutely, food security doesn’t depend on globalized resources, so it means stability for societies and constitutes a vector of peace. And if this approach, inspired by the natural world, which creates abundance… if it spreads rapidly, then perhaps catastrophe an be avoided. And just the thought that what happens on this miniscule farm could contribute to the solution… that gives us an incredible energy.