A month into our epic family global film trip and we arrive at the beautiful and incredible Ferme biologique du Bec Hellouin, an experimental organic farm being adapted according to Permaculture principles.
Bec Hellouin is home to Charles and Perrine Herve-Gruyer. The farmyard buildings are mostly new, yet built with such sympathy for the traditional styles and materials that you might never guess. The original house is mimicked with its timber framing and cob wall infills, and thatched roofs are elegantly planted along the top. It is an incredibly beautiful farm and a lot of care has gone into the details of the infrastructure. Walking out through the yard down into the growing spaces I can see this is a very efficient place, with water carefully and magically carried through the landscape, creating productive islands and growing spaces where multiple and diverse microclimates have been created. It's breathtaking.
I'm also taken aback by how much is going on, and by the fact that a couple started this site on their own. Only in the last few years have they taken on extra help. The farms spans some 16ha (39 acres) but is divided into two sites. The other parcel is not connected to the main farm and is a sloped piece of land with trees establishing and animals grazing.
We learn from Perrine that the farm is engaged since late 2011 in a research program in partnership with INRA and AgroParisTech to collect data in an attempt to answer to the question of whether it is possible to live off just 1000m2 of land (1/4 acre). They are very confident that this is so, although the trials will not be completed until the end of this year. If the results are positive then this should have an impact on the wider French agricultural policy, which is really fantastic news. We need data to move this movement forward now.
The main growing spaces around the farm only add up to around 1000m2 of growing space, so you can imagine this statistic is a little removed from the reality of needing space for mulch plants, composting, pathways and other infrastructure. It's the clunky way in which modern bureaucracy meets nature, yet it's a good start to getting serious about a permanent future on this planet. A leaked UN report last year indicated that only small scale local agriculture can possibly meet the needs of the world's growing population when energy, resource and climate considerations are taken into account. I think a number of us in this field already feel quite clear about this, but it raises some important issues for the integrity of work and documentation within Permaculture and similar movements.
It reminds me of the initiative set out by the head of the UK Permaculture Association, Andy Goldring, at the International Permaculture Convergence last year. Andy came up with the idea of seeding an International Permaculture Research Project, which is set to be rolled out later this year. It seems essential to have more projects, researchers and Diploma students focused on producing tangible data now: there are clearly so many people all over the world creating and enjoying solutions but there is precious little data out there that could help speed a transition back to secure and diverse local food systems.
Permaculture and agribusiness
I am all too aware of this after consulting with farmers in the last year, especially when trying to introduce new ideas and concepts that step away from conventional modern agricultural approaches. Modern farming is essentially diverse resource management, and a farmer simply cannot afford the risk, money, energy or time to try out what is potentially a very foreign approach based on hearsay. I understand that; it's basic business. Everyone wants to be able to feed the family and take a holiday some time, and the current market places farmers under immense pressure. It's easy to talk of the benefits and theory of what we do as permaculture designers, but we need facts, figures, costings and returns per acreage if we are to bend the ears of the establishment.
I've also been mulling this over in terms of the work I do with Diploma mentoring. In my experience of teaching, mentoring and researching permaculture around the globe I've repeatedly found clear costings and financial evaluations missing in permaculture education, yet it is this basic aspect that frames most people's goals and boundaries. I also feel clear that it is the generation and accumulation of clear, scalable and replicable data that will help proliferate the transition of positive solutions based regenerative strategies around the globe.
At Bec Helluion the plots are measured down to the square centimeter. All the inputs coming onto the site are recorded diligently, as well as exact quantities of produce that leave. Organic matter fed back into farm compost is weighed and recorded. The hours, even minutes, of work must be written down and other qualitative aspects of working life must be documented for this study.
Perrine and Charles seem to have both lived very full lives before they took this farm on about 16 years ago. Charles was a sailor involved for many years in the brilliant Les Enfants series, sailing around the world with children and creating film and books about their culturally rich learning adventures. Perrine has also published books about nurture in the family environment, and is involved in regional politics. Quite how they have found the time to achieve all this amazes me. You can see the farm has had high capital inputs to establish the stunning infrastructure and accommodations. Perrine admits that looking back they might not have put all their capital into this to begin with - cash flow can be difficult at times, as can finding the money to establish little enterprises such as pressing apples for traditional fruit cider. Yet what I appreciate about this example is that the infrastructure around the growing spaces, including polytunnels and earthworking, is relatively small and completely reasonable. These are obviously investments but this place can turn out 100 veg boxes a week, as well as supply some fine restaurants both locally and regionally.
What was once a bare potato field has been turned into a production unit that does not extensively rely upon costly farm developments. True, if you want to produce preserves, juices, cider, etc, you need a kitchen and materials, but this could be in the form of a shared community space.
The aspect that catches my attention the most on the land is the way water has been brought into the site. The great benefit of having flowing water through a site is clearly revealed when exploring the vegetable islands benefiting from the heat sink and reflective property of water, as well as the ecosystem services it offers. Whilst there are some carp in the ponds, there is room for more diverse and complex aquacultures to extend the yields of a farm like this. Most Europeans still have freshwater fish in their cultural dietary traditions, which has all but disappeared in the UK save perhaps trout. It's an incredibly efficient way to produce protein in small spaces.
Perrine reflects how permaculture design pulled together so many things she had already looked at and considered, giving her direction and clarity - a familiar story to many who have studied this design methodology. The main elements of the farm were put together before this change in the family's lifestyle, and so systems are being established according to what is already there, and everything is being 'tweaked' as they go along. Before Charles and Perrine would do things in the most logical way they could; now they look much more carefully at how to place different elements together so that they can functionally interconnect and create a stable and diverse ecosystem that just happens to grow a lot of food as a result.
And that must be the wider view - to create viable economic systems that can be run by a family not wishing to work full time in back-breaking work. This has led to more tree and shrub species (perennials are far less work than annuals) as well as being of more benefit to soil development and nutrition. There are a lot more species now too, hundreds in this small patch, which looks, feels and tastes very different to a conventional monoculture crop.
Something is happening everywhere you look here, there's a huge diversity in plants, textures, shapes and topography here that makes it a very pleasing space in which to work. It's a great testimony to the fact that even without detailed master planning from the beginning, but instead by just observing and interacting with nature, each other and the family's needs, the end result is a highly productive and healthy farm system.
Richard Perkins is a highly regarded permaculture teacher and designer in the UK and abroad, and director of integralpermanence.org Design Services. Currently on a global family film adventure experiencing and documenting permaculture solutions around the globe, you can follow their adventures at impermanencefilm.org