Method of La ferme du Bec Hellouin

Ed. The original French text opens with a discussion of the method’s history and underlying philosophy: Genesis. The rest is organised into 24 ‘patterns’ indexed below. Combining them, to suit local conditions, creates the method.

This is a short presentation of the approach developed on our farm. It seeks above all to answer this question: how to feed humanity while healing the planet?

This approach is a contribution to the invention of tomorrow’s organic agriculture, in a world where fossil fuels will inexorably become increasingly rare and expensive. Everyone is free to draw inspiration from this method if it corresponds to their aspirations, adapting it to their objectives and context.

This method is under development and will certainly evolve in light of our future research. The following is simply an outline of its current form.

01. Ethics

The method is based on the ethical foundations of permaculture: Take care of the Earth. Take care of people. Share resources and crops equitably. It seeks to explore a way of living on Earth that is gentle both to nature and to people. The needs of human beings and their welfare are taken into account,… Continue reading 01. Ethics

02. The grower

This method was born from long observation of the relationship between man and nature in different civilisations, especially among native peoples. It is a world view more than a set of technical choices. One perceives oneself as part of nature and connected to all that constitutes it. One does not want to control nature, but… Continue reading 02. The grower

03. The microfarm

The microfarm is conceived as a diversified and autonomous agroecosystem, according to the concepts of agroecology and permaculture. Ideally it comprises different environments that interact in an integrated way. The method is particularly suitable for market gardens of a very small size, and for smallholdings and family farming. Intensive market gardening frees up agricultural space… Continue reading 03. The microfarm

04. Relationship to time

A natural farming approach does not see time in the same way as industrial agriculture. It does not take a short-term view, rather a medium- and long-term one. It does not seek to maximise profit year on year, but to create an agroecosystem that will become increasingly fertile, diverse, resilient and productive over time. As… Continue reading 04. Relationship to time

05. Diversification

It is tempting to diversify the farm’s products and activities. Done successfully, this provides greater economic security and often more satisfaction. But we must be careful to find an optimum (we cannot do everything, nor do everything very well) and not to go too fast. Each new activity generates constraints (e.g. materials, regulations, time management,… Continue reading 05. Diversification

06. Trees

Planting a large number of fruit trees (including nuts if possible) is of major importance. Trees will save the planet! They store carbon, create a microclimate and perform many ecological functions while producing tasty and healthy crops. They require relatively little care, inputs and energy once planted. They are a balancing factor for humanity and… Continue reading 06. Trees

07. Biodiversity

Biodiversity – wild or cultivated – will be important within the microfarm, which over the years will become a refuge for many forms of life. However small the farm may be, a “wild” space will be reserved. Biodiversity fulfils a variety of ecological functions, makes the system more resilient to climatic hazards and contributes to… Continue reading 07. Biodiversity

08. Microclimates

The creation of microclimates beneficial to crops is of great importance in the microfarm’s design. Vegetables appreciate heat (which can, for example, be increased by the presence of a water body south of the garden, which will reflect indirect sunlight to crops). They like to be sheltered from the wind (for example by a forest… Continue reading 08. Microclimates

09. Area under cultivation

The growing area is very small (of the order of 500 to 1000 m2 per worker, adapted to each individual’s capacities), but very intensively cultivated in diversified market gardening on permanent beds. Field vegetables such as potatoes and squash requiring more space can be grown using more traditional methods (draught animals, etc). Densifying vegetable crops… Continue reading 09. Area under cultivation

10. Intensity of care

One of the main features of this method is the central place given to the human hand, rather than the machine. Many studies have found a direct link between intensity of care and level of productivity. An experienced grower, on a living and fertile soil, can produce really large quantities of vegetables, with relatively less… Continue reading 10. Intensity of care

11. Energy

Energy is invisible, but the types and amounts of energy used in each human undertaking are good indicators of its impact on the environment. In our professional practice, we have come to see the farm as a place where many energy flows act and transform matter, more or less efficiently. Becoming aware of these invisible… Continue reading 11. Energy

12. Tools

To be effective in working entirely by hand, it is important to have suitable and effective tools! At Bec Hellouin we try to develop efficient hand tools and now have a range of simple and complementary tools for working quickly with a minimum of fatigue. [Editor’s note: The best resource so far is (translation… Continue reading 12. Tools

13. Soil

The microfarm’s fertility is clearly based on soil quality. This must be the object of all care. A good level of soil health determines all of the grower’s activity. Soils must gradually become as alive and natural as possible, fertilised appropriately, worked with respect, mechanical work being exceptional or forbidden. Cultivation on permanent  beds meets… Continue reading 13. Soil

14. Compost

Composting is specially managed. Large quantities of compost are needed when the number of rotations reaches 8 or 9 crops in the year, which is the case in our greenhouses. We must therefore ensure sufficient availability of composting material, ideally produced on the farm. Composting can be done in different ways. As mentioned in section… Continue reading 14. Compost

15. Growing beds

Growing on permanent beds has many advantages that we cannot detail in these lines. At Bec Hellouin, market gardening is practiced on three types of bed: o Rounded ridges, requiring little work once in place. They are generally mulched, so that composting in situ – provided that it is diversified and balanced – can provide… Continue reading 15. Growing beds

16. Mulches

We see the effectiveness of mulching more and more each year; we feel that the practice is really necessary. However, it is not necessarily desirable to mulch in all seasons: in spring, the land heats up faster without mulch and slugs are less present without this shelter. But from June, ideally, all beds should be… Continue reading 16. Mulches

17. Companion planting

Companion planting (from 2 to 4 vegetables grown together) is practised whenever possible. It is only made possible because work is done by hand. Crop combinations are exciting to explore, despite their complexity. The good economic results obtained at Bec Hellouin are partly based on this practice, common among market gardeners before the rise of… Continue reading 17. Companion planting

18. Dense planting

Cultivation on permanent beds enables denser planting. The spaces between rows, in a mechanised approach to agriculture, are dictated in part by the physiological needs of the plants, but also by the need to move between the rows (footpaths, wheel arches) and weeding (width of the implements). Working by hand on beds, we can densify… Continue reading 18. Dense planting

19. Rotations

Good crop rotation is fundamental to plant and soil health. In our approach, however, we deviate from the rigorous management that generally prevails in organic market gardening. It seems to us that the substantially higher number of crops that we grow each year (3 to 9 crops [per location] compared to an average of about… Continue reading 19. Rotations

20. Watering

Water is retained by the high soil organic matter content [Ed: and additions of biochar] and evaporation is limited by mulching and dense planting. Watering requirements are thus significantly reduced compared to a conventional approach. To supply a permaculture with water, priority will be given to soft solutions like pond creation and rainwater harvesting (roofs… Continue reading 20. Watering

21. Weeds

Weeding is considerably reduced by zero tillage, mulching and intensity of care. The fact that the soil is not turned between crops also prevents buried seeds from rising. When rotations [immediately] follow one another, the soil is weeded frequently and this task reduces as the weed seed stock runs out. Good weed management is to… Continue reading 21. Weeds

22. Area under cover

The covered area [greenhouses, tunnels, etc.] varies according to the climate and the objectives of each microfarm. To produce all year round, it can be about 30 to 40% of the overall cultivated area. Note that although this proportion seems relatively high, it is rather low compared to the usual standards, per worker, for organic… Continue reading 22. Area under cover

23. Seeds

Ideally, at least some seed is produced on the farm. There is meaning and much interest in producing one’s own seeds. However, this task requires skill and time, mainly during the summer season when growers are already overworked. Sometimes there is a gap between what we would like to achieve and the reality of everyday… Continue reading 23. Seeds

24. Quality of Life

“Pleasure is also a harvest,” wrote Bill Mollison, one of the founders of permaculture. Bec Hellouin is an expanded garden and not a shrunken mechanised farm. Gardens have always been happy places! Tomorrow’s farms are likely to perform several functions, in addition to providing nourishment. They will be places of learning, environmental education and health,… Continue reading 24. Quality of Life