Last week saw the launch of our FarmErasmus programme, with 16 farmers from France, Bulgaria and Belgium converging to exchange tips and tricks on eco-farming. We pulled on our boots and followed some of the Belgian participants as they toured the Vendée region of western France.
We travelled with:
Anne-France (47), who grows cereal crops and rears sheep with her husband near the city of Namen. They plan to convert their business completely to organic, but are having to do so in phases. Anne-France finds selling their produce particularly problematic.
Raphael (41), a cattle breeder from Malmedy, who has long been ‘bio’. He wanted to find out more, among other things, about how local farmers pool their resources and use their purchasing power – something that seems to be better regulated in France.
Martin (26), whose parents have a dairy company in Stekene and are in full transition to ‘bio’. Martin wanted to explore how they could achieve a greater degree of diversity.
The highlight of their exchange was a visit to GAEC Ursule in Chantonnay, a farm managed by Sébastien. The farm is run by four partners with four employees, who together work 270 hectares. They cultivate grain and mangetout for animal feed, keep cows and poultry, and do their own pressings of oil from rapeseed and sunflower seeds.
What is interesting is that although they have increased their overall hectarage in recent years, the number of employees per hectare has remained stable. Sébastien and his colleagues want to maximise their production – the mantra of industrial agriculture – but prefer the term ‘optimisation’. They strictly observe working hours and holidays (almost five weeks!) – something most Belgian farmers can only dream of.
In addition, they use hi-tech in their eco-agriculture project. For example, Sébastien shares a ‘toaster’ with other farmers in the area. This innovative unit roasts different types of grain and seed to preserve the nutritional value of the animal feed and make it easier to digest with three times greater efficiency. The ‘toaster’ helps Sébastien and his colleagues to be self-sufficient in terms of fodder production.
Another example of hi-tech use is provided by their driverless tractors: these GPS-guided vehicles are entirely automated and accurate to within 2 cm. Such tools are enormously expensive to purchase, but the cost is shared by several farms.
GAEC Ursule has been awarded the ‘bio’ label, but Sébastien and his colleagues take the principles much further. ‘More biodiversity’ for example is not simply a hollow slogan for them. They seek diversity in crops and animal breed types; they have planted a total of 45 km of hedges; they maintain an agroforestry programme; and follow a ‘pro-bee pollination’ agricultural approach. They encourage varied crops to grow as part of their crop rotation plan and leave fields fallow to maintain soil health and to curb weed growth. Additionally, they create more renewable energy than they consume with their varied agricultural activities.
Although Raphaël found the overall approach highly interesting, he is realistic enough to realise that the model cannot be duplicated exactly. GAEC Ursule has been working on its agro-ecological method for 30 years; agricultural land and labour are also much cheaper in France, and the way in which Sébastien and farmers from the region work together and share through cooperatives is not (yet) feasible for him. However, Raphaël assures us that the one thing he will take away from the whole experience with Sébastien is learning about the group dynamics.
On automatic pilot
The concept of sustained recovery was appreciated by the Belgian visitors. Rapeseed and sunflower oil is primarily meant for human consumption, but anything not meeting the quality control standard is used to enrich animal feed. “Currently all the crops we cultivate are still intended for our animals, but the idea appeals to me”, explained Martin.
“With continued crop rotation and different crops frequently together on one plot, our farm seems to be a highly complex undertaking,” said Jacques, father-in-law of Sébastien. “But for those who are in the thick of it, we’re just on automatic pilot.”
A journalist from the newspaper L’Avenir wants to know whether conventional farmers, who become trapped in a system of industrialisation and economic planning, actually have the time and space to introduce all of these ecological techniques. According to Jacques, “it’s simply a matter of will”. This is exactly the answer you would expect from someone who had the courage to go against the tide of popular opinion thirty years ago.
By and for farmers
At Greenpeace, we believe that organic farming can get a serious boost if greater numbers of conventional farmers come into contact with the knowledge and techniques of ecological farmers. That is why initiatives such as FarmErasmus and of course the farmers2farmers.org platform are developed by farmers, for farmers.
However, the speed at which ecological agriculture becomes commonplace will also be determined by policy makers and the way in which agricultural subsidies are allocated.