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Posted by Richard Perkins about 11 years ago
Having picked up our dear friend Mark Anthony in Luxembourg after a couple of days rest we headed to Vezenobres, in the warm and tranquil south of France. The next week is set for an exciting mix; Frances oldest agroforestry plot, seed saving extraordinaires’ Kokopelli and a meeting with the wonderful Pierre Rabi. We are also trying to link up with Jean PainsNephew to find out more about this awesome regenerative farm scale compost/biogas strategy.
Denis has an 11ha (27ac) plot that originally began its experimental life with agroforestry systems under conventional agriculture research programs. Inheriting the site several years ago Denis and his wife Virginie immediately transitioned the land into organic cultivation. Not coming from an agricultural background (Denis was previously an electrician!) the support and engagement of the researchers in the move to organics has proved useful and collaborative.
Coming onto the site there is are impressive rows of poplar over standing strips of annual vegetables, mixtures of old varieties of potato, salads, leeks and garlic. The poplars are not in leaf at this time of year, but enticed further into the site we find lime, walnut, wild cherry and pear mixed in with lanes of wheat and further vegetable production. The land sits on a river flood plain, 2050mm a few years ago! The trees immediately showed their benefits in locking down organic material and retaining soil compared to neighboring land, photos you can see in the slideshow.
The architecture of the site is in vast contrast to the monocultures of wheat and rape that surround the plot, virtual deserts compared to this multi layered production system. Many of the stands were already in place before Denis acquired the land and so only new plantings will be purely determined by his knowledge and experience. A large plot of matured poplar has been felled recently to harvest high quality lumber with a mixed orchard planned as its successor. This is aligned between rows of wheat and sunflower on 10-16m spacing’s. The timber trees are planted at fairly widely, equal spacing’s in all directions, to allow cropping rows to be orientated in different directions to the sun; an effective strategy allowing for multiple and rotational crop needs, shade for the workers in the hot summers here in the south and systematic regeneration of different portions of the land.
Machinery size obviously affects the row widths, here everything is run on a medium size tractor, and pruning of the lower lateral branches also depends on both machinery and required light levels to the crop lanes. With vegetable production in the south of France the rows can be narrow compared to wheat cropping where 16m is more appropriate. Beyond 24m the beneficial interactions and ecosystem services of the trees drops off and it becomes less worthwhile.
Diversification as a strategy
A useful addition to this set up, in my mind, would be a mobile sawmill and shipping container kiln set up. Some of the wood here gets sold for planking, whilst all of the brash gets chipped with a Jean Pain chipper to create mulch and compost for soil building. Having passed by one of Frances premier furniture and carving institutes to see our friend George we were interested in their wood budget. A few cubic metres of 6 inch cut and dried lime boards cost thousands of euros! There is great potential with agroforestry systems like this to ‘skip the middle man” and produce and market very high quality timbers directly to an appreciative buyer. It reminds us of Martin Wolfes approach to mixed timber plantings in his systems in Suffolk, UK, based on the assumption he does not know what will thrive best in the future market and climate on the long rotations these systems are on. Again farm succession and tangible assets for children spring up, a familiar topic on many of our visits so far. Its affirmative to hear how George and his fellow craftsmen report back that “industrial” kilned timber is never the same to work with as slower dried wood, the sort of product a land based enterprise could possibly accommodate in the way of solar kilns and persona niche marketing.
Denis has integrated this thinking into his annuals production. He used to produce mainly wheat for wholesale, with timber and fruits as more irregular bonuses. As his plot is relatively small this proved to be a strain within the current economy of agriculture, so he has since creatively localized his farm production and produces milled flour for individual local bakeries and sells vegetables through a local farmers cooperative as well as customers coming to pick their own at the farm. This model works well to embed the farm in the local community, creating personal customers who become true supporters of his work and naturally saves him effort and expense allowing good organic produce to become more affordable. I appreciate the design in this respect; it is surely local, community embedded and ecologically sound enterprises that will withstand the fluctuations of markets, climate and policy.
Do we need Organic?
There is a point that arises for me around organic certification, the need for which is perhaps negated through transparent and inclusive practices such as these. In many ways certification allows all manner of huge operations to pass off as “bona fide” but the simple notion of “organic” apples flown from the other side of the world and vast monocultures supplying supermarkets is enough to upset this perception. It is a costly affair to certify too, particularly for small producers. There are multiple benefits to circumventing the need by opening up the land directly to the customers, developing community awareness through education and participation, all of which lead towards a more thriving model that outshines the conventional model of increasing centralization, scale and inputs. “Green” products make a lot of large- scale producers and retailers more profitable whilst rather negating the responsibility of individuals through supposed convenience.
I know that for myself, Id much rather support my family through an uncertified local farmer who I am free to visit, inspect and harvest with than a plastic wrapped organic supermarket product coming from the intensive glasshouse cities in Spain!
Agroforestry has really caught our attention on this trip. Its often more familiar in drier climates and the tropics and subtropics, but has a definite place through the temperate zones. In my mind it is one strategy that can really leverage and begin the transition of conventional agricultures towards more diverse and stable polycultures. Its not a huge leap or investment for a lot of farms and the pioneers in this field seem open and inviting to share their experience. Heres to re-localised and community embedded farming and all it stands for! We have had it before, and we are going to have to have it again!
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