To enter the Bourdaisière micro-farm, you need to pass through the grounds of a majestic castle, Loire valley oblige. A paradox for this “farm of the future” where the simplicity of a sustainable and reasoned return to the land prevails. Report.
Montlouis-sur-Loire (Indre-et-Loire), special report (text and photos)
The engineer Maxime de Rostolan set up the Bourdaisière micro-farm on three and a half acres, having previously travelled the world to raise awareness on the issue of water, written Les aventuriers de l’or bleu (The adventurers of blue gold) and managed the collection of plates Deyrolle pour l’Avenir. These rather old school educational posters displayed in classrooms are designed under the leadership of Louis-Albert de Broglie, owner of the Bourdaisière chateau-hotel.
With the chatelain, Maxime launches into the adventure of the Fermes d’avenir, an ambitious network of sustainable farms. The Bourdaisière micro-farm is to some extent the “tutorial” for the project: the experimentation on this test-plot is documented and shared.In place of the meadow cut once or twice a year “growing beds, greenhouses, an irrigation system, vegetables” appeared, documents the website. However, during our visit, winter had set in and the production is slow: radishes, cauliflowers, lettuces and carrots are growing timidly. “In five years it will be a jungle”, assures Maxime.
His approach is based on permaculture, a rather barbaric word for a concept just as complex. Maxime de Rostolan attempts to explain “It’s a method of conception of a sustainable human ecosystem”. Not an agricultural method, he insists, but a historical approach that consists of recreating a habitat by observing and adjusting human or agricultural ecosystems.
“Our grail is life in the soil. Exactly the opposite from conventional agriculture that frees itself from this parameter and brings everything plants need, or what is thought they need, in synthetic products.”
Maxime de Rostolan
It is time for planning in order to achieve the objective: produce € 100,000 of fruit and vegetables every year, from 2017, to reach a balanced budget four years from now and create 3 jobs. Benjamin Jubien and Nicolas Wagner, truck farmers, thus foresee the locations of the fruit and vegetable patches by analyzing the interactions between species. For example, planting carrots next to leeks. The leek moth hates the smell of carrots and the carrot willow aphid hates the smell of leeks. Winning combo to avoid pesticides. The same goes for the use of the marigold that has repellent attributes for certain insects.
Farmers vs. agricultural workers
In the agricultural world, the idea of permaculture is struggling to find its way. Also in schools, where “it isn’t taught at all, regrets Thomas Paley, 23, horticulture graduate and erudite apprentice. It is regarded as a thing for pot smokers. We experiment it in our free time.”
Charles Laniesse and Emmanuel Magnier, 24 and 25, carrying out civic service on the farm, approve. Both come from an agricultural background. During family meals, it’s hard to talk about work, says Emmanuel. “It’s as if you pointed out all the mistakes and said ‘I have the solution’”. The job that this new generation is dreaming of is not the same, analyze the two buddies: they want to be farmers while their parents were “workers on their own farms”. “We are afraid of embarking on something utopian, recognizes Emmanuel however. There are not many farms with his model, it’s difficult to be confident.”
This is one of the challenges of Maxime de Rostolan: showing that beyond the nice idea, Fermes d’avenir can be a driver for the country. One asset up his sleeve: employment. His farm model, where automation is at its strict minimum, creates six times as many jobs as a conventional farm, he assures. He already employs two truck farmers and has three volunteers for a production of around seven tons of fruit and vegetables over the last six months. Vegetables they sell on site on Wednesdays, to the Amap networks, , but also to the retail sector. “Since 70% of the fruit and vegetables are sold in supermarkets, we sought them out”, justifies Maxime.
Freed from the constraints of machines, the famer can increase the density of his plantations – a tractor will need standard space to carry out its weeding. It’s the method to remain profitable. More density, less water spent watering and less expenses (fuel, machine reparations, etc.): according to Maxime de Rostolan, an intensive organic micro-farm can thus generate profits up to ten times higher per square meter than a conventional farm.
“The difficulty lies in finding people who work with a similar vision of densification, admits the truck farmer Benjamin Jubien. It’s common in gardens, much less so in professional farms.” According to Maxime de Rostolan, “you need to have a rational, searching, curious and scientific mind. You don’t need years of studying but need to enjoy understanding the interactions between the different forces”.
So far so good, he is delighted to say. “As for myself, in terms of time, I’m in the red”, he adds. On the morning of our visit, he announced to his team he was stepping back a little from the farm. “I no longer want to pose with a garden fork in the fields”, he says. Matter of legitimacy, considers the engineering farmer become businessman. From now on, he is concentrating on his consulting activity, ready to train an army of permaculture workers for Fermes d’avenir.
He is hence guiding neo-farmers “searching for meaning”: a computer engineer, a banker, a former multinational employee… “They are convinced we are heading for disaster and do not want to sit around doing nothing”. He hopes 200,000 farms will be in permaculture 20 years from now. In the meantime, the Fermes d’avenir competition organized with La Ruche qui dit Oui! allowed him to collect the necessary funds to help 13 farms with their set up, one per region.
“Simple policies need to be put in place”
This will give him some weight in his lobbying mission. As it stands, the task will not be easy. “It’s discouraging, he sighs. The director of the organic agriculture label (AB), the organic sector of the government, had never heard of the name Pierre Rabhi (one of the cornerstones of agro-ecology and supporter of degrowth, editor’s note). It is a very long shot. They are so disconnected and don’t give a damn. They are bogged down by lobbies.”
Until the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is reoriented towards a sustainable agriculture, “there are many easy policies to put in place”, assures Maxime, like making the labelling of non organic products compulsory (“one should write ‘contains poison’”), “stop giving the impression that organic products are more expensive” by shedding light on the externalities (cost of the CAP, repercussions on health, etc.). Because “it has come to an emergency, says Maxime with alarm. We have lost one third of organic matter in our soils over the last 50 years. We have an incredible number of illnesses that we don’t understand. There is a point at which we will ask ourselves if we are not suicidal to continue eating poison.”