To produce a lot on a small area, to provide vegetables to 1000 individuals by cultivating land whose surface area would not feed 50 if ordinary methods were applied, and if craft did not come to the aid of nature, such is the problem posed every day to market gardening in the Paris area, and the problem is solved every day.
“Practical market gardening in the environs of Paris” I. Ponce – 1869
The 19th century Parisian market garden averaged 4000 to 8000 m2. A master market gardener gave this advice: “Always choose the smallest possible plot of land, but cultivate it exceptionally well. Another market gardener of the time described their profession as “the goldsmiths of the ground”.
“The Winter Harvest Handbook” Eliot Coleman – 2009
Intensive vegetable cultivation, as practiced in professional gardens where water and compost are readily available, differs from conventional vegetable cultivation in that it must be an uninterrupted process throughout the year, often with many different vegetables planted together on the same piece of land.
“My practice of ordinary and intensive market gardening” J. Curé 1904
We created La Ferme du Bec Hellouin in 2006 with the desire to explore as natural a way as possible of cultivating the Earth. We started with animal traction and continue to work with a draught horse on some plots.
Discovering permaculture in 2008 resonated profoundly with our aspirations. During the first two years of applying permaculture principles on the farm, we saw a clear increase in yields, but also difficulties linked to the fact that these applications have so far been developed mainly in private and community gardens. They still need to be adapted to the needs of organic farming professionals. Several study trips abroad (Japan, England, Cuba, USA) confirmed this impression.
Achieving a fruitful marriage between permaculture and organic farming became our priority.
Permaculture concepts can be applied to agriculture in a variety of ways, according to individual objectives and sensitivities. We quickly became aware that a model which is better from an environmental and societal point of view must, in order to spread, also prove its economic viability. However, the practice of market gardening and the growing of tree fruit, berries and aromatic plants at Bec Hellouin are characterised by work done almost entirely by hand, on small areas. How can we be competitive in a world where labour is expensive and fossil fuels are undervalued? Can agricultural practices that put the hand of man at the centre of the process, creating jobs, well suited to the coming post-oil era, be an economically viable alternative today?
Can a truly ecological model be economically viable?
The answer must be true to the spirit of permaculture: turn the problem into a solution. manual cultivation makes it possible to carry out tasks for which mechanisation is less suitable: extreme care of the soil, dense planting, companion planting, etc. This rationale must be pushed far enough to turn manual work into an asset, not a handicap. It must create, for each square metre grown, enough value to pay the market gardener decently.
We then discovered the work of Eliot Coleman, one of the pioneers of agriculture in the USA, a master market gardener. In particular, Coleman invented a manual multi-row precision seed drill that can achieve very high yields. His 6000 m2 farm in Maine employs 7 people in summer and 4 in winter! We also studied another American experiment, bio-intensive micro-farming, popularised by John Jeavons. In the books of Coleman and Jeavons, we met for the first time a reminder of the rich Parisian market gardening tradition in the 19th century. The Parisian market gardeners, using an intensive method of which the Anglo-Saxon world has preserved a memory, fed the capital with quality vegetables produced within the city boundary, summer and winter, achieving up to 8 crop rotations a year!
[Editor’s note: In 1845, the population of Paris was about 1.5 million people. In an era without long-distance supply chains, the city’s fruit and vegetable needs were met year round from about 1800 intra-urban market gardens on just 1348 hectares, by about 9000 people, many of them in family businesses. The methods of these maraîchers produced exotic fruit even in winter, and a quality of produce to satisfy the city’s renowned restaurateurs as well as wealthy customers abroad, notably in London. Soil creation was so vital that contracts allowed the gardener to cart their soil away when transferring to a new plot.]
A new conception of organic market gardening
Increasingly supported by a motivated permanent team and agronomists, we then realised that it must be possible to create an innovative method of market gardening, a synthesis of several influences: the concepts of agroecology and permaculture, the work of Coleman and Jeavons, the legacy of the former Parisian market gardeners, the horticulture of Japan and Korea, and of course contemporary organic farming. This new path is called the method of La Ferme du Bec Hellouin.
By naming this method after the farm, we intend to point out that we have taken this approach in our own context, according to our own personalities. In a permaculture process, each place, and each person who inhabits it, is unique and merits a tailored approach. There is no ready-made recipe valid for everyone in every place. Thus there is no desire for hegemony in our approach and we invite you to adapt it, if it speaks to you, to yourself and your context.
Having faced many difficulties, we have sought a coherent and comprehensive approach which is effective on different levels: economic and ecological viability of the microfarm, quality of life of the market gardener(s), etc. After 10 years of trial and error and experience, this document reflects our accumulated knowledge.
The question of the growing area is one of the essential keys to the success of this method. What is the area that a grower can effectively cultivate by hand, in particular on rounded beds, one of the most productive systems available? To gain a competitive advantage from working manually, the soil must be cared for very intensively.
The hypothesis, based on the experience of Bec Hellouin, Coleman and Jeavons, and on the legacy of Parisian market gardeners, is that this cultivated area must be around 500 to 1000 m2 at most [Ed: per worker]. This is very small compared to mechanised organic market gardening, in which the cultivated areas are of the order of 1 to 4 hectares per worker. By practising 3 to 9 rotations a year, thanks to companion cropping and dense planting, the value created per square metre reaches several tens of Euros or more, making such a model competitive, especially since the investment and operating costs are reduced (less land, no mechanisation, etc.).
This very small cultivated space enables the rise of permaculture microfarms in urban and peri-urban areas, where access to land constitutes the major obstacle. Permaculture microfarms can constitute a new entryway into the (currently very closed) world of agriculture.
Since 2010, many French and foreign agronomists have come to visit Bec Hellouin. Seeing a particularly intensive level of production and upgrading of the natural environment (soil creation, improvement of biodiversity and landscapes, carbon sequestration, etc.), some agronomists thought that the experiment deserved to be scientifically validated and modelled. François Léger (director of the research unit SADAPT), INRA [The National Institute of Agricultural Research] and AgroParisTech [a major French Graduate Institute in Science and Engineering] and ourselves jointly formulated a research program entitled “Organic growing in permaculture and economic performance”, whose aim was to record and report our methods and yields. This study [conducted from 2011 to 2015] concludes that small scale ‘microfarming’ done entirely by hand is highly efficient and productive. [You can find all study reports at http://www.fermedubec.com)]. AgroParisTech students completed their dissertation or thesis in this context. This research program is funded by the Fondation de France, the Lemarchand Foundation for the balance between people and the Earth, the Léa Foundation Nature, the Pierre Rabhi Foundation, the Terra Symbiosis Foundation, the Lunt Foundation, the Picard Foundation, the Ivory Foundation, by the SADAPT unit and La Ferme du Bec Hellouin.
From the first year, the results demonstrated the economic viability of this approach. The results are progressing rapidly from year to year (see the website).