Théo Champagnat et Jean-Noël Gertz grow mushrooms in a disused underground car park. We sent our future maker-farmers on the first official visit of the only organic farm in Paris.
It’s not our ideal vision of a farm –an abandoned underground car park in the north of Paris under high-rise estate of more than 300 social housing units– but it’s incredibly inspiring all the same.
During the first official visit of la Caverne, the first urban bio farm in Paris, Théo Champagnat, one of the founders, explained the basics to us: “Our aim is to grow different vegetables in the same underground space and let them interact positively between each other and with their environment. For example, mushrooms need very little light and chicory grows in the dark. The CO2 generated by the mushrooms is used for plant growth. The crop waste is composted in our wormeries and the resulting compost is used to feed our plants. These are techniques largely inspired from permaculture.”
Now there’s a word that inspires us because we’re in the process of building a permaculture farm in the French countryside. And the beauty of permaculture is that it’s as applicable to growing mushrooms in an underground car park in northern Paris as it is to a rural fruit farm.
At La Caverne virtually everything is recycled. Using an abandoned car park is the most obvious example, but all the equipment is also second-hand as far as possible. For example, the cold room is made from recycled kit and the electric lifting vehicles are all second-hand.
As we descend into the concrete bowels of a car park in the 18th arrondissement of northern Paris, Théo responds to questions efficiently and politely. We ask about pollution from exhaust pipes, brake pads, engine leaks, tyres… the output of cars basically, but he reassures us: “Our first mushroom harvest was tested in a laboratory and showed no sign of residues dangerous for humans. But before we started both the Mayor of Paris’s office and the landlord carried out air and surface analyses. It was obviously a prerequisite before being able to dedicate the site to agriculture.”
“No car has been driven on our site for a long time,” he adds. “And we only use electric vehicles or bicycles for transport.”
And scooters! The distances are big. La Caverne is 3,600m2 but when they take possession of the second level, that will give them nearly a hectare (2.5 acres).
Oyster and shitake mushrooms are grown here. Soon there will be chicory too. The mushrooms are grown on bales of organic straw which are impregnated with mycelium (bacteria which transforms organic matter into mushrooms) by a farmer not far from Paris. At the moment the farmer wraps the bales in plastic but they’re on the hunt for a suitable biodegradable wrapper.
The chicory will be grown in trays filled with earth and compost created by their wormeries. They’re experimenting with growing salad and herbs under LEDs lights using electricity from 100% renewable sources.
La Caverne sell their mushrooms direct to restaurants and householders, as well at farmers’ markets and in organic shops. Indeed, after the visit, we went to do our weekly food shop at La Louve, the co-operative supermarket that we partly own, and were surprised to find Caverne mushrooms and sprouted seeds on sale.
“The heart of our approach is the interaction we have with the clients. We want to renew the link between farmers and consumers, and we want to make the link as local as possible. Our products are the most local and the freshest in Paris. We harvest in the morning and deliver during the day. It’s difficult to get produce fresher than that!”
The two founders, Théo Champagnat, trained farmer and nomad cook, and Jean-Noël Gertz, thermal engineer, met during the visits to the car park during Parisculteurs, a tender launched by the Mayor of Paris to identify food growing sites in the French capital. Jean-Noël was already growing food in an underground site in Strasbourg called the Edible Bunker. Their joint proposition –to grow mushrooms– swayed the jury which met in November 2016, and less than a year after winning the right to use the car park as an urban agriculture site, they were already producing food.
We wonder if residents complain that their parking places are being stolen and are surprised to hear from Théo that quite the opposite is true: “This level has been abandoned for some years now. There are too many parking places in this area and demand is falling. In fact, we’ve been asked by a lot of landlords if we can do the same thing in their underground car parks! We have a three-fold offer for residents: fresh organic produce at preferential rates; training workshops of all kinds; and employment. There are already two women from this building who do the harvest. We want to participate actively in the transition of the neighbourhoods where we operate.”
Can they draw any comparisons with the Bec Hellouin permaculture farm in Normandy which earns €30.000 per hectare (10.000m2) of non-mechanised organic farming giving a net income of €800 for a 50-hour week after expenses? “It’s much too early to be able to calculate the revenue per m2. The yield depends on the plant and on the number of shelves of the growing system. Salaries at La Caverne vary from €1.300 to €1.600 per month but it’s too early to say if that’s commercially viable. We think it is. Or rather we hope it is!”
They have a team of builders who are constructing the facilities at La Caverne. Once that’s done, the plan is to send the construction team to the next site. They already have 40 possibilities in the pipeline! “In the end we expect to employ about 15 people at this site. We’re talking to the social landlord about finding more local hires. But we’re looking for new urban farmers all over the place. We believe in what we do. We’re developing sites in other French cities and soon elsewhere in Europe. It’s early in the sense that we’ve only been in production for five months, but that doesn’t stop us from expressing our ambition for the future.”
We leave the car park blinking like moles in the sunlight, inspired by the optimistic vision of the future of these urban farmers (Théo is 28) who are so at ease with social and environmental solutions. But then that’s permaculture.