Earth, Humanism and agroecology: Our visit to the Ardèche agroecologists

This is an English translation of a blog post published in French by the Ardèche chapter of the AFIS (Association française pour l’information scientifique – the French Asssociation for Scientific Information) back in 2012 about their picturesque visit to a so-called experimental agroecology farm in the Southern France region of Ardèche. This was done with the kind permission of the original authors of the blog post. They also kindly allowed me to republish their pictures here. The titles are from me. And so are the pictures captions.

Translating this article was not an easy task as it is based on a voice recording of the presentations made by members of the association managing the farm and discussions with them, so it is mostly composed of dialogues in a very informal colloquial language, quite difficult to translate in English. Since the discussions often take a hilarious turn, I have also tried to convey the irony and humorous twist underlining these situations. And this is where I painfully remembered that translation is a profession in its own right, with years of training and practice. As I’m not a professional translator, I’ve tried my best, but I’m afraid that many area of my work definitely illustrate the Italian expression Traduttore, traditore: the translator is a traitor.  And I couldn’t bring myself to ask a native speaker to proof-read such a long article (it is more than 20 A4-pages long). Hopefully, you’ll bear with me, because this article particularly well illustrates the failure of agroecology when it is practiced by people strictly adhering to political and philosophical views that are completely disconnected from science (and even rejecting science). The article doesn’t target organic agriculture, agroecology or permaculture per se, but the ideology of some movements that exploit the concept of ecological agriculture. So, here we go! 

Introduction to Earth & Humanism, the association promoting agroecology

Agroecology: Mas of Beaulieu, sky Google view

Sky Google Map view of the region where the Mas of Beaulieu is located.

On 19 July 2012, the Bastamag site published an article by Agnès Rousseaux and Ivan Du Roy entitled « An introduction to agroecology: users’ instructions » [in french only – sorry, I cannot translate all the references, most of which are in French – NfT]. The article praises an experimental farm, the « Mas »* of Beaulieu, belonging to the Association « Earth and Humanism » (E&H) since 1998 and located in the Commune of Lablachère, in Ardèche.

In the article, the production by the « Mas of Beaulieu » is said to be able to compete with « conventional » farming, that is intensive productions, although it is supposedly using 4 times less water and avoiding all pesticides and chemical fertilizers,…. This « true laboratory of agroecological methods » is supposed to produce 2 tonnes of fruits and vegetables per year, making it possible to prepare 5000 meals per year for 175 interns and 150 volunteers.

Their success is so important that E&H has began making presentations in agricultural colleges. The article ends with the allegation that one can even learn how to grow tomatoes in the middle of the winter without any source of external energy….

That was enough to convince us to pay a visit to this exceptional place in order to satisfy our curiosity.

 * « Mas » is the name given to traditional farmhouse in some regions of Southern France: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mas_(Proven%C3%A7al_farmhouse) [back to text] 

Agroecology according to E&H: a philosophy…and a business model to solve the problem of labour costs

On Monday August 27 (2012) at 10:00am, the parking lot near the farm was packed with visitors cars for this open day.

And, indeed, on the other side of the road, the plot was filled with beautiful vines, as in the « old days ». There must have been at least 20 people.

The welcome was heartwarming. We were invited to seat in the shade on benches assembled to form a circle and offered drinks and hats for the walk in the garden.

We were welcomed by two employees from E&H. Julie, one of the gardeners in charge of ground work, seedling, plants, plantations, seed collections and transformation, and Alexandre, responsible for communication and the Website. They asked the visitors to introduce themselves and to tell a few words about their motivations for participating in this visit.

Many people were just « curious » and wanted to know how E&H works things out, how they solve this or that problem (for example: the issue of watering in times of drought, or how they have « revitalized » the soil). Some talked about their own garden, but no one seems willing to go into actual farming (at least not beyond gardening). Among the visitors, the most outspoken were also the ones (besides us) who would talk the most during the visit. They also specifically stated that they participated in actions supporting farmers in poor countries (in Indonesia or in African countries).

The head of the communication for the association started his presentation with an introduction about E&H.

The association was founded in 1994, first under the name « Friends of Pierre Rabhi », but upon the latter’s request, its name was changed in 1998 to avoid generating the impression of a cult of personality. Pierre Rabhi‘s biography was briefly mentioned.

Sky view of the Mas of Beaulieu using Google Map.

Sky view of the Mas of Beaulieu using Google Map. [Click to enlarge]

The Mas of Beaaulieu was bought in 1998. Its surface area covers less than one hectar (2.47 acres). « This means that we have very little surface to grow stuff on, so, this is mainly a place where we carry out experiments, but it is also nevertheless a production place, as it is enough to feed part of the volunteers and the interns; and it is also a place where we attempt to build another type of human relations. »

The mission of Earth and Humanism is to promote agroecology both in France and  abroad.

E&H hosts between 150 and 170 volunteers per year. They get lots of requests, so they have limited the volunteering period to….1-2 weeks. In fact, when we checked it out, their Website indicated that all their programs were fully booked until October. We also learned in the Website section entitled « become a volunteer » that volunteers commit to work a minimum of 6 hours per day, « Volunteers are required to devote a minimum of 6 hours to farm activities (with an early start of the workday during the Summer!), but also that « a contribution to the costs of your stay will be requested from you in the spirit of solidarity: 4 Euros per day during training days and 3 Euros outside the training periods » on top of a mandatory association memberships, which costs 16 Euros. [1]

Let’s do some math here: 10 days X 6 hours per day X 150 persons = 9000 hours of unpaid work per year. While employers in France often complain about the cost of labour, even when people only get minimum wages, E&H has found a solution to this issue and a way to make people work for free.

Volunteers are accommodated in a camping if they wish so. They get access to bathrooms, composting toilets and a kitchen. By the way, E&H « supplies volunteers with basic food such as cereals, legumes, oil, spices, sugar, tea, coffee, etc.« 

« They really participate in the life of the association: they work in the garden, but also indoor [for example, on the conditioning of the harvested products]. » Even better: sometimes the labor force actually pays to work! « Transmission of knowledge goes through hands-on trainings as well, since we have about 200 interns who come every year to get a week-long training at Earth and Humanism (…). They are one of our main human resources.« 

We were definitely ready to believe that these interns were an essential resources considering the fees requested. [2]

For a 5-days long training in agroecology, the minimum fee is 350 Euros, but one is of course free to supplement this with an extra donation! Let’s take the fee for the cheapest internship program and multiply it by the number of interns who come to the Mas of Beaulieu every year: 200 X 350 = 70 000 + 3 200 mandatory membership + work time, since, as we would soon realize, the interns at E&H do actually provide a productive work. Not bad, is it?

The association gets revenues not only from its members and donors, but also from subscriptions to the saving book « Agir » established by the Crédit Coopératif, a « fair and ethical » bank. The subscribers to the saving book choose with which association to share the interests generated by their savings: « This gives us the means to carry out awareness campaign in France and to build programs abroad.« 

Can agroecology really make the Mas of Beaulieu food self-sufficient?

The communication officer finished his briefing with a presentation of international solidarity projects: Mali, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Morroco, Cameroun. The association members seem to consider it essential that African farmers be at the heart of these projects. They often take place in drought-dominated area, but « In Cameroun, we have the opportunity to experiment agroecological methods in a very different environment, a humid and tropical environment with really good lands. In Cameroun, they aren’t seeking food self-sufficiency, as they are already the breadbasket of Africa. They are rather interested in developing ways to preserve their soils and fight against chemical farm inputs. » These are definitely praiseworthy intentions, although it is difficult to see from this presentation how the association and its members could be of any help to farmers at the other end of the world or even how they could train them in anything. All the more since we are talking about farmers who, because they have no other choice, are used to traditional agricultural methods that are adapted to their specific environment, and have, for most of them, to work without any industrial inputs, for the simple and good reasons that they can’t afford them. The presentation was reduced to the principle and the assumption (as if it went without saying) that the Frenchies from Earth & Humanism had anything to teach the Malian or Burkinabé farmer.

Finally, Alexandre gave us a definition of agroecology: « It’s both a set of agricultural methods and an ethos. » Agricultural methods: « garden and nature are approached from a global perspective, that is, we are trying not to disassemble the various elements of nature, and humans are only a part of it, they aren’t the center of the universe. We are truly trying to redefine man’s relationship to nature. » Agricultural practices based on « preservation and regeneration of the soils. » and the necessity « to recreate a bound with Earth. » A bit later, we’ll come back to this word « agroecology ». 

AFIS07 [3] You use the word agroecology, but how is it different from organic agriculture? Is it the same thing or not?

E&HFor us, there are two types of organic agricultures. There is an organic agriculture which tries to respond to an almost exponential demand, with a very strong growth, and so, this agriculture, has the same flaws as the industrial production-driven agriculture. This means that one will favour monocultures and one will not care for the life in the soil, that is one does away with chemical fertilizers, but to replace them with organic fertilizers, without any concern for the balance of the soil. It is true that there is a social dimension (in agroecology…). Someone using agroecology, for instance « Nature and Progress », whose work takes place in a farm. They actually talk about a farm, not an agricultural enterprise. Agricultural enterprise means one exploits the land, that is one exploits individuals, one exploits animals, one take advantage from them. What we really want is to work more, to have a human-sized farm, that is a human-sized agriculture, and that is what is interesting. In other words, everyone should be somehow in harmony with nature. A man and his land, a man and the products he produced. It’s really this human element that differentiates us from organic agriculture (…). I went to Spain last year and I have seen farms, more like big agricultural companies, well, actually, just gigantic green houses with no soil life, and completely dry lands outside the green houses of course. For me, this isn’t organic agriculture, that’s not possible.

AFIS07 – If I understand the difference correctly, from the standpoint of a consumer, that would mean that he could buy organic products from a supermarket, but if he wanted to feed himself according to your principles, he’d have to produce it himself in his own garden?

E&H – No, it’s not just the consumer, for instances, there are very simple solutions. There are a lot of Community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs. The CSAs are associations that give consumers the choice to buy their products locally. The CSA products are always traded within a limited area, the production zone, and that makes it possible to support a human-sized agriculture. CSAs aren’t big producers, but small local farmers who offer a wide variety of products. The solution is really that simple. In all cases, we don’t support organic products sold in supermarket and we don’t acknowledge this kind of practices, because it keeps following a production-driven logic.

In the name of agroecology: the end justifies the (financial) means

These agroecologists claim that their practices are to be distinguished from those characterizing the « production-driven organic agriculture » by an ethic that takes into account human and social issues and distance themselves from the business world. However, they don’t seem to have any problem when it comes to find money through so-called « ethical savings »:

The Crédit coopératif which makes it possible to make a regular donation to the association is now in the midst of a conflict with unions. They are, surprisingly, demanding more social justice: « The direction must absolutely align the moral, ethical and solidarity values it displays in its advertisement and marketing messages with its treatment of its employees. » [4]

« Saving in all conscience », founded by Josette Amor, is the other organism that helps fund E&H. « The CGPI [the organism just mentioned – NfT] has convinced the Crédit coopératif to include, among the recipients of its saving Book Agir, the Association Earth and Humanism, which was founded by its friend and mentor Pierre Rabhi, a French farmer, writer and thinker. The association receives 350’000 € in annual gifts from this Book through 4’300 subscribers. All of whom are potential customers for Josette Amor. [5]

Josette Amor is member of Finansol (as a qualified person). « Founded in 1995, Finansol is a professional association which federates finance organizations working in a spirit of solidarity in France such as the solidarity founders and some financial institutions involved in solidarity sharing and investments. Its mission is to promote and value the principle of solidarity in savings and finance, to develop the collecting of ethical saving and the use of investments in the spirit of solidarity, to insure solidarity and transparency in labelled financial investments (cf. infra – The Label). »Among the members can be found most of the big banking names such as the Banque Populaire, BNP Parisbas, the Crédit Agricole, the Crédit Lyonnais, the Banque Postale, etc. [6]

Sure, money is always needed in order to build up projects and one can understand that they could sell out their so-called principles to « the cause » and accept money from the financial business world, although it is responsible for a crisis which has worsened the living conditions of many populations, including farmers. Everyone does the same, when one borrows money to buy a house or a car. But are their relationships to the business world really only limited to this kind of financial contribution? Not so sure…:

Pierre Rabhi, the mastermind behind and honorary chairman of E&H has relations with many corporations. Through his association Colibris, he offers advertisement in favour of Ecover, which has become the world leader in the business of 100% organic care products. [7]

One can also find advertisement for Weleda, Jardin Bio and other companies which have participated in his 2012 campaign « All candidates ». [8]

On the website of the Fondation Rahbi, created within the framework of the Fondation de France, of which E&H is one of the historical founder, one can find among the founding members such names as:

  • François Lemarchand, founder of Nature et Découverte, 472nd fortune of France. [9]
  • Charles Kloboukoff, founding president of the group Léa Nature. [10]
  • Jacques Rocher, former president of the Yves Rocher Foundation and presently « Director for sustainable development and prospective » of the groupe Yves Rocher, 26th fortune of France with his family, according to the magazine Challenge [a French finance magazine – NfT]. [11]
  • A princess, Constance de Polignac. It’s really lovely…one could think of a gathering for the magazine Gala [a French weekly fashion and people magazine – NfT]. [12]

In the executive committee of the Fondation Rahbi, one can also find the Director General of WWF, Serge Omu, a specialist of « green-washing » and partnership with corporations, which benefits from a branding recovery in exchange of financial contributions. [13]

All this to say that reality, both in agronomic and financial terms, is obviously a bit more complex than what we’ve been told. But let’s get back to the discussion we had with our host before the visit started:

Comparing agroecology with classic agriculture…or not.

The conversation addressed criticisms of « intensive » organic agriculture, which is not the one that Earth and Humanism wants to promote. The crop yield issue seemed to be a concern for neither the speaker representing the association nor for the visitors expressing themselves. One of them explained that when one starts using an organic method on a soil that has been « devitalized » through conventional agriculture, yields can only fall at first (which explains the higher price of organic food products), but then, as the soil is being revitalized, they increase again. This statement was confirmed by the spoke-person of the association, who also took the opportunity to explain how they monitor the evolution of their own yields (while the AFIS people there asked loudly why on earth would conventional farmers keep spending so much money on costly inputs, if it is that simple and just a matter of « revitalization »….):

E&H –« It’s true that at the beginning, there was no production surplus, but now, after the soil has been labored again, in this garden for instance, which has been existing for 6 years now, we are starting to see some good results and we have been able to figure an average. We weight our vegetables, garden by garden, vegetable type by type, to see what we have. I don’t have all the figures in mind now [which was too bad for a communication officer. We would see later that in fact no one had the figures in mind], but last Spring, we spoke about this with an organic vegetable farmer, working in the spirit of non-intensive use of the soil, and we gave him our figures and he said that for the type of lands we are working on and considering the amount of water available, we had somewhat reached the limit of what was possible and that our production is just below the average, which is pretty good for this kind of area. Now we have been seeking a way to use water more efficiently for the last two years, just after this encounter. We realized that we wanted to grow everything that can be grown here, everything, and that in the end, we didn’t make the connection with the amount of water that was available to us. We didn’t see if it was balanced and we did realize it was not balanced and we noted that the production cost at that time, 2-3 years ago, was below what it could have been, so we reduced the crop area in order to have enough water for vegetables. Then, we realized we had better yields in term of global weight, with a smaller area, through optimization, by adding shaders and by monitoring properly the mulching, by being really serious about mulching, by planting more trees, as trees grew and recreated an ecosystem with shadows and bushes. »

We turned the conversation towards what seemed to us to be the core of the problem, before visiting the actual garden [which would have plenty of surprises in store for us…].

AFIS07 – And if I wanted to settle down, that is, I want to start such a farm and make a living out of it, not just an experiment, but an actual living, what would be the necessary surface to produce and sell something?

E&H – 4 to 5 ha [10 to 12 acres. NfT]. But you’ve got to be careful with 4 to 5 ha, because you’ll be quickly….tired!!!

AFIS07 – Yes, because there is also the issue of labour. You, you’ve got lots of volunteers who come and help you. That must greatly help to have all these volunteers working on your hectare.

E&H – I’ll talk about this later, because there is something important with volunteering. This helps us a lot, but, at the same time, we are a place of education. We don’t work 8 hours a day.

AFIS07 – If I want to settle down as a farmer, then, I need to spend my labour…what surface do I need and what amount of work do I need to put into it in order to get something to sell at the nearby market, I mean, enough to make a living from it, to have more than just food? Because, sometimes, one needs some fuel. One can get pretty thrifty on this, a happy simple life and all this, but I’m not that good at plumbing, so I’ll need to pay a plumber when he comes and fix stuff at my place….

E&H – When we talk of 4 to 5 ha, it’s not just 4 to 5 ha of vegetables, of course,  that is, in order to have vegetables, to have soils, you have to have livestock, and, well, if you’ve got livestock, you need to feed them during the Winter, so you need lands in the Summer, you need cereals, straw. That is a whole, it is a polyculture farm.

AFIS07 – 4 to 5 hectare, that’s enormous for a region like this one.

E&H – Yes, that is true.

AFIS07 – You really get the same crop yield as with intensive agriculture? You can’t give us the figures?

E&H – I don’t have them right here and I’m not someone who easily memorizes data. We are talking about sobriety now, which means that if we keep consuming as we do, it is quite obvious that it isn’t a sustainable model. The proof of it is that we need two or three planets for just one American…So, it is quite sure that those changes in agriculture have to go with changes in society. It is quite obvious that we can’t keep on living above the means of the planet.

AFIS07 – But this change means that more people have to become farmers? Because nowadays we have just below 3% of the labour force which is composed of farmers. Indeed, yields have increased so much, productivity has increased so much, with tractor for wide area, this is why there are so few farmers, that is in comparison with the past. If we were to implement your model in France, there wouldn’t be only 3% of farmers anymore, there would be a lot more. We would reconnect that bound to nature as you say, through the increase in the number of farmers, but what I would like to understand is how you make a surplus. How many people would such a model be capable of feeding? For instance, if a farmer can feed one more person beside himself, that would mean that 50% of the population would need to become farmer so that no one would go hungry. What I would like to know, with your experimental farm, is how many people can you feed besides those who are working on it, in order to have an idea of the proportion of farmers our society would need if it was to follow your lead?

E&H – Well, in our case, it is kind of biased. For example, we the employees, we only eat lunches, while volunteering, eat more meals, so we need products from outside the farm, because we are not autonomous. There are too many people coming and going.

AFIS07 – So, it isn’t working?

E&H – It does, but…

AFIS07 – If you aren’t autonomous, you can’t feed other people!

E&H – No, but that is because….

Another visitor (not AFIS) reminded us then that, according to Pierre Rabhi, a well laboured 200m2 garden can feed 4 people. We then learned in a bit more details who the production at the Mas of Beaulieu can feed:

E&H – We are pretty much autonomous when it comes to vegetables for all noon meals for employees, so, we are still 9-12 employees to eat at noon all year long. Then, from March to October, we have the volunteers, eating lunch and diner, so we are autonomous when it comes to vegetable, but not when it comes to fruits, except potatoes, carots and onions. We don’t have enough land to cultivate large area of onions. With some surplus, we are still capable of producing some canned vegetables, jam and then, we are devoting about one third of vegetables to internships, with about 32 weeks of internships per year, and with six days of internship per week, that includes about 8-12 interns as well as the lunches of the employees and the volunteers. We produce about one third of vegetables for our meals. Let’s say we devote everything we can to the internship weeks and we try to manage to have interesting dishes during the internships, with products that come from the garden, because, otherwise, it is true that we have to buy them.

The discussion became then somewhat confusing, because, despite our repeated requests, we were unable to get any precise figures on the number of people this place can really feed, or rather, on the proportion of the food produced at the Mas of Beaulieu from the total amount that is served to employees and visitors, as it had been admitted by our host that the so-called « experimental farm » is absolutely not self-sufficient:

AFIS07 – If you can’t be entirely food self-sufficient, you need external inputs.

E&H – With such a small area, it isn’t possible, because there are too many people coming and going.

AFIS07 – But these visitors are working, aren’t they?

E&H – No, there are visitors like you who don’t eat, but there are the interns (…) Interns don’t work for instance

AFIS07 – Interns don’t work?

E&H –Very little. They have practical work, but one can’t really say that they fully contribute to the advancement of the garden.

So, Earth & Humanism, who was speaking here about visitors and interns, but was completely forgetting volunteers, considers that interns aren’t actually working and not really contributing to the advancement of the garden. We’d talk more about this as we went through our visits….

Agroecology experimental garden and experimental methods

Wild garden of agroecology

The « biodiversity garden » at Earth and Humanism. Credit: © 2012 AFIS 07. Republished here with their permission. [Click to enlarge]

Anyway, it was now high time to go visit the « different types of garden », with Julie, our guide. As we reached the first one, one person asked how much water is used for 1000m2:

E&H – Look, I’m not going to answer tons of questions on details, or I won’t have the time to cover the complete outline of our projects, and I would end up speaking with only one visitor. So, these issues should be addressed with Eric and Valou, who are responsible for the data about water and everything. I’m not the one responsible for these here.

So, the person in charge of the garden doesn’t know how much water is used, when the reduced use of water by the Mas of Beaulieu was one of the main performance highlighted by the Bastamag article. All through the morning, we were told that « someone else knows the figures ».  Our guide then explained us that there are bushy area because they are left to fallow, as the labored area has been reduced.

The first garden we discovered wasn’t related to production, but to leisure, she told us, and they call it the « garden devoted to biodiversity ». Lots of perennials, berries, flowers and seasoning. They allow the « wild plants to develop while managing it ». It would be the nicest garden we’d see.

Since that Summer, they had set up two little ponds using large plastic wash pots. It’s not very organic, but within 24 hours, frogs and many insects, including dragonflies, made it their home. E&H didn’t know how frogs got there, but if it was within 24 hours, it is quite reasonable to think that they weren’t very far in the first place. So, could frogs really have survived through such a harsh climate, on these drylands, riddled with rocs, as described by the authors of the Bastamag article?

The family garden at Earth & Humanism. Credit:  ©2012 AFIS07. Reproduced with their permission. [Click to enlarge]

The « family garden » at Earth & Humanism. Credit: ©2012 AFIS07. Republished here with their permission. [Click to enlarge]

The next garden was called the family garden and represents the type of garden advocated by Pierre Rahbi to feed a family of 4.

E&H – It’s a small but sufficient area, except for large crops of cereals, potatoes and onions.

AFIS07 – And livestocks…

E&H – We call it the family garden.

AFIS07 – We agree on that: This area between here and there….[We tried to estimate the size of the area].

E&H – that’s hardly 200m2. (656ft2)

AFIS07 – But, you’d have to be a vegetarian or a vegan, as you still need livestocks.

E&H – We are indeed talking of vegetables.

AFIS07 – No fruits…

E&H – I’m not going to add 3 cows on top of it in there….

Building hummock really not actual work?

She then went on explaining how the garden works:

T&H – So, all of the garden where you’ve got hummocks are used for crop rotation. Thus, you can see there is a sign « leaves », « fruits » and behind you « roots », and over there, « flowers ». And so, we create rotation, that is the area with fruits this year will have flowers next year. So, this is the raised beds crops, because on the mounds themselves, we are still practicing associations. For instance, it might be tomatoes, so I’ll plant tomatoes with salads, basil and, well, I don’t know, a couple of squashes, some French marigolds, in order to protect them against insects and worms. This is a garden where we work with interns. We are devoting it to internships, so it is really a garden. You were asking me earlier what interns are doing. Well, they built up these hummocks, so we can’t say they are really working, but they did that part.

AFIS07 – Well, it is work….

E&H – Well, we do the maintenance, we do the follow-up, because they planted on hummocks in the greenhouses below, and we planted on empty ones here….

So, interns had built up the hummocks in the family garden, then planted on the ones that are in the greenhouse, but E&H claimed that this isn’t really work since they are in training.

She then explained to us that the U-forking of a hummock takes half a day. A u-fork is a tool that supposedly makes it possible not to tear up the soil, but to aerate it in order to allow micro-organisms to stay where there are. Then, they add some compost before planting and mulching.  At this point, someone asked whether they use straw or hay. She answered that they are using straw and the person points out that it doesn’t disintegrate well. She then explained her method:

T&H – Well, if we lay it down in the spring, for instance, when fall comes, it starts decaying little by little, which means that at that point, what is in the alley – because I also lay it in the alley – I’ll move it on the hummock and I lay new straw on the alley and I’ll have my soil by the end of the winter. Then, it will have completely broken down.

Can you really grow tomatoes in the winter without external source of energy thanks to agroecology?

Someone else then noted that straw doesn’t bring much carbon to the soil.

T&H – What is good is to sow some green fertilizer from times to times….

The green fertilizers she uses are: Phacelia, white mustard, vetches and buckwheat.

Showing us the hummock, she then told us:

E&H – Here is a mix of green fertilizers, young salads, which have been eaten and goosefoot, no goosefoot, garden oraches, red spinach over there in the back.  Unfortunately, ipomoea have taken up all the space. Ipomoea are quite invasive, so they took over quite a bit of space. Here, I’m going to mow soon, and in fall, I’m going to have new plantations on there. But green fertilizers, once mowed, you don’t bury it, you leave it on the surface. It is possible to bury it, but you have to mulch over it just enough for it to touch it. By next Fall, we’ll be starting new hummocks, that is, for instance, this one will be completely mowed, I’ll leave it sit for a week, and then, I can plant something else. There, I planted some green fertilizers, so I’m thinking to do something over there.

AFIS07 – You mean that you’re going to replant in fall? What will you plant?

E&H – Well, all winter vegetables: salads, Winter chicory, leeks, cabbages, not much, maybe some Swiss chard if I have them, Chinese cabbages, which are working well.

AFIS07 – Spinach?

E&H – No, we’ve got troubles with spinach

AFIS07 – Why?

E&H – The soil doesn’t suit them here. I’ve got really a lot of troubles, or, I don’t know, maybe I should also plant this in compost, but afterwards, they are disbalanced….

AFIS07 – So, leeks, cabbages and Swiss chards…

E&H – Leeks, cabbages, Swiss chards, Winter salad in large quantities, Chinese cabbage, which works really well here in the Fall.

AFIS07 – And carrots?

E&H – Carrots give us a lot of troubles, anything like turnips, carrots, we have a lot of troubles with them. Tetragonia work well. I’m planting oraches and tetragonia instead of spinach.

AFIS07 – Do you grow tomatoes in winter?

E&H – No.

AFIS07 – Because I read in the article, I believe, if I remember well…

E&H – Who wrote that article? [she asked laughing], Tomatoes in Winter!

AFIS07 –  Yvan du Roi. What’s he saying again…[We were browsing through the article…]

E&H – We had two tomato plants left in the main room and which had sprouted in a pot, so we kept them.

AFIS07 –  Still, I’m pretty sure I saw this in the article. So, I was wondering how you could grow tomatoes in the winter.

E&H – On the other hand, we have tomatoes plant seedling starting the end of February.

AFIS07 –  Ah so [Found it]: During internships here, one can « learn how to grow tomatoes in the middle of the winter without resorting to external source of energy. » This is what is written in the article.

E&H – Then, he extrapolated.

AFIS07 – So, it isn’t possible. Maybe he saw a greenhouse where you had tomatoes plants….

E&H – Maybe he saw something like that, because in February, we build hotbeds, as I’ll show you next. I’m now going to show you the hotbeds setup.

Thus, it’s still not possible to grow tomatoes in the winter without resorting to an external source of energy, contrary to what the authors of the Bastamag article are fantasizing.

Water management according to agroecology: the murky data from E&H

agroecology in greenhouse

One of the greenhouses at Earth & Humanism. Credit: ©2012 AFIS07. Republished here with their permission. [Click to enlarge]

We then entered a small greenhouse which allows for an early or a late production, as she said.  She explained us that Chinese cabbage will not freeze in it during the winter, while it does happen to those growing outside. Thus, they harvest for those planted outside and then, those growing in the greenhouse. Inside the greenhouse, they also have arugula, Winter salad, spinach and early basil, which is at ease in the shade and humidity of the greenhouse. It is also in this greenhouse that they use the « hotbed system », which makes it possible to have a warm area for early plants like tomatoes, basil, eggplants, peppers and bell peppers.

agroecology hotbeds

Hotbeds in one of  the greenhouses at Earth & Humanism. Credit: ©2012 AFIS07. Republished here with their permission. [Click to enlarge]

She then set on detailing the steps required to build a « hotbed compost ». When another visitor noted that « in fact, compost nevertheless uses a lot of water » and that the gardener confirmed that « yes, it uses quite a bit of water« , we felt obliged to pick this up:

AFIS07 –  However, you said that you use less water than most farmers around here.

E&H – Yes, well, I haven’t really compared with what the other farmers do, since they don’t use the same method as ours. We try to limit its use to a maximum and shade clothes as well as mulching help a lot in this.

AFIS07 – But you haven’t compared with anyone then?

E&H: No.

AFIS07 – Then, when the authors of the article say that you use much less water, they actually don’t really know. In fact, you make an effort « to limite » its use.

E&H – We know it because we compare with previous years.

AFIS07 – Well, then, you use less water than in previous years, but it’s not less water than the other farmers of this region.

E&H – Exactly. That’s exactly that. We know it, because we’ve seen it.

AFIS07 – That is, as you are making arrangement, you are successfully optimizing your use of water.

E&H – As the soil becomes more organic, we can say, it also retains water better (…).

This idea of « 3-4 times less water » put forward in the Bastamag article comes from video 4 and 6 [on the Webpage of the Bastamag article indicated at the top of this page. NfT], in which we could hear Erick explain that he thought they use around 400-500m3 (1312-1640ft3) of water per year for one 1ha (2,47 acres), which includes 2000-2500 m2 (6561 – 8202ft2) from the garden, the compost, the trees, the hedges, etc. One can nevertheless wonder about the accuracy and the value of these « estimates » and the way they were established. Indeed, Erick added that they consume 4 times less water than other locals, when our guide claimed that they have not made any comparison with the other farmers of the region.

Such a comparison involves two figures:

  • On the one hand, you need figures for the water consumption at the Mas of Beaulieu and there seems to be a great confusion about it. Either this bit of information isn’t properly conveyed to members of the E&H team (during training, depending on your trainer, you can get two different versions of the story and thus return for another training to get the second version), or Erick was telling us stories.
  • On the other hand, you need the figure of the water consumption by the other surrounding farmers. To « assess » the benefits of the farming practices at the Mas of Beaulieu, one needs to also investigate those of the neighboring farmers, especially those from the direct surroundings, for the comparison to be relevant. However, during the general discussion before the visit, we realized through our questions that the agroecology experimenters had only very tenuous relationships with the other farmers of the region, except with one living nearby, who has vines, olive trees and some donkeys. They only get some free manure from a few of these farmers. [14]

In short, there was no reason for us to take those figures that had been brought forward at face value, since their existence itself varied from one person to the other.  We sensed a construction as rigorous as the protocols of the experiment of local farm methods…

agroecology water supply system

Water supply tank at Earth & Humanism. Credit: ©2012 AFIS07. Republished here with their permission. [Click to enlarge]

The issue of water management was addressed again at the end of the visit, during the presentation of the « stabilization pond » system. It was a circuit that canalized wastewater through tanks and plants, in order to eventually produce a filtered water that should be drinkable (according to an analysis performed by a specialized laboratory), even though its brown color wasn’t terribly inviting.

Our attention got attracted by a large tank, which turned out to be the first water supply, where water was collected and stored before being pumped up over the slope into the stabilization pond circuit.

AFIS07  [A bit taken aback by this metal tank]: Wait a minute….this is scrape metal there! And inside, it is painted in black? Are you heating the water?

E&H – No, this a tarp, a plastic tarp [Which didn’t cover the tank, but rather lined its upper edges]

AFIS07 – But the water, are you heating it?

E&H – It’s for…it’s for it to be sealed, so that the scrape metal doesn’t get damaged. »

A few seconds later, our guide returned to that subject, as we were muttering among us about the evaporation issue: « Well yes, the problem…I believe that now we have to go and get more tarp, because evaporation is really strong and it is kind of a shame for all this water… »

Naturally we approved of this, while remembering how the Bastamag article had talked about the rigorous water management at the Mas of Beaulieu. If our questions have helped our agroecology experimenters go further and better take into account the fact that water stored in an open-air metal tank, lined up with black tarp, strongly evaporates, which is a huge waste, then our trip hasn’t been in vain!

Bacteria aren’t dangerous! 

But let’s go back to the compost. We confirmed that it included animal manure. We asked how long it took before it could be used: « It can be used after 4 months for plants that need a lot of fertilizers and can withstand a compost that isn’t yet matured, like tomatoes or squash… » We expressed our concerns about the fact that manure can be dangerous if it is used after 6 months, because it still contains pathogen bacteria that haven’t been eliminated. [15]

To this, he answered that « Bacteria aren’t dangerous! »[???] and that anyway, « bacteria, when exposed to a temperature of 60°C or higher, get pasteurized. » [which is true [16]]

When we asked if over time, the amount of fertilizer required decreased as the soil is progressively revitalized, the answer we got mostly pointed us toward how to manage experiments in an « experimental farm »:

E&H – I believe so. I haven’t really calculated that…that is something we’d like to do….we’d like to produce a synthesis of all data, but collecting all the data is a huge work. And until now, we haven’t had the time. We only started two years ago. »

Indeed, research and experiments require time and means, as well as a rigorous method. But as much as we tried to look at the issue from all angles and were ready to make concessions, we couldn’t really understand how it was possible to carry out experiments without « collecting data », especially after a decade of implementation….

We then asked about a small « hummock », less than 10m(32ft2) in size. It is « something a bit special », the method of the « sandwich hummock », which is taught to interns. The objective is to create a soil basement that will act as a water storage through a transformation of deep humus. It is really a deep transformation of the soil structure – but without resorting to tillage of course! – which is used in difficult area and rapidly produces good results. « Here, we’ve had zucchinis, but they are over now. » « In order to build this kind of hummock, we have to dig the ground about 30 cm (0,9ft) deep, we have to clear away the surface soil on the one hand, and deep soil on the other one, in order not to get them mixed. »  Then, one adds dead wood into the hole (« which is small », but it can also be logs or…even a whole tree trunk!), everything gets compacted, one adds another layer of « something green, with lots of nitrogen. »(mown grass or, « sliced thorns »), then a layer of compost or manure, then, one bury all this in « deep soil« , then add more surface soil. One plants, mulches, then sticks in the pipes through which the water is running down all the way to the manure layer. The whole thing is then inundated:  the plants buried and drenched in water serve as water storage, so that watering is required only once a month. By creating this humid underground, plants are « forced » to grow deep roots (because, « sometimes, in garden, if one doesn’t water enough, the roots stay near the surface and the plants are then weakened »). Well, it does seem possible to play around making layers by digging the ground with a shovel [without mixing them!], when one deals with a less than 10m2 (32ft2) parcel (with the support of  free labor provided by many interns and volunteers)… but what farmer having to make a living out of his work would want to inflict on himself such a hurdle on a much larger surface? What is the use of an experimental approach that cannot be implemented in real conditions? And for what result?

Pests and diseases love agroecology!

agroecology and tomato full of mildew

tomatoes plants full of mildew at Earth & Humanism. Credit: ©2012 AFIS07. Republished here with their permission. [Click to enlarge]

However, at that very moment, one of the visiteur expressed his concerns about the tomatoes on the hummock and the best way to protect them against mildew. The answer had the virtue of honesty:

E&H – It’s quite difficult. We still have to spray them (with a mix made of nettle, horsetails and comfrey), so it helps limit the damages, but you can see that we are almost in August and it’s been in it for three weeks already.

With respect to this issue, there seemed to be a debate among the gardeners of the Association about the Bordeaux mixture (a formulation based on copper sulfate and limestone), used in organic farming, but not at Earth & Humanism. There is here the faction « I would spray with only copper in extremely minute quantities, because they do it in biodynamic agriculture », but currently, this solution is rejected by the other faction, which refuses any use of copper by fear of accumulation in the soil.  And this is when the AFIS07 chose to ask the question about the tomato yields on this multi-layered hummock, compared to that of the family garden.

E&H – « I haven’t really calculated that. As for tomato plants in comparison to those over there [the family square]? There is a slight difference, but I don’t think it is really significant. Those ones there, for instance, I don’t think they look very beautiful [there was a muttering of approbation among the AFIS visitors]. They were absolutely gorgeous at first, but with the mildew…. » This year, the gardener has tried not to trim the tomatoes to see what happened (« the yields didn’t decrease, at least, that’s not the impression I had »). Confronted with all these experiments, the AFIS07 decided to start addressing the « method » issue.

AFIS07 – And what about the method? Do you decide to plant, for instance, the same variety of tomatoes over several years in different soils or in the same soil for several years, and to retrieve the weather conditions in order to make comparison and see what works, or you just base your assessment on your feeling?

E&H – We have actually done a lot empirically. What worked pretty well, what type of compost has worked well, so, we use it again,…and this year, we’ve decided to collect data in a more rational way in the orchard-vegetable garden, that’s the large garden over there. « 

So, after 14 years of practices in their experimental parcel, Earth and Humanism had therefore decided….to collect data on the results of their experiments. It’s a first step and the proof that there is always hope. Maybe, after another decade, the agroecological experimenters will be thinking about a control plantation next to their experimental plantation that would make it possible to compare the methods they are testing with what is happening when one doesn’t use them, so as to be able to estimate their possible benefits….

agroecology and dry toilets

The dry toilets at Earth & Humanism. Credit: ©2012 AFIS07. Republished here with their permission. [Click to enlarge]

We continued our walk down, towards the « domestic compost », which serves to recycle the kitchen wastes without including manure, and which is rather for household plants. As we went, we passed two plum trees, about which we’d express our concerns later on…. As we stood in front of the domestic compost, we started discussing the compost coming from the dry toilet, which is used only for the flower hedges and ornemental plants. At first we thought it was to avoid the contamination of foodstuff with bacteria, but not at all. Once again, we were told that: « Bacteria are cooked as the heat rises through the compost ». In fact, it is to avoid contaminations from « toxines » and « toxic stuff« , which could have been released by visitors at the Mas of Beaulieu, who might have ingested medications. Because, people here are wary of medications, « especially of medications », not of the bacteria. It was the impression that resulted from the visit to the dry toilets, which were rather crude, as each person was responsible for covering up their « crap » with straw and to bring the whole thing to the storage place.

We had seen more developed and certainly more hygienic dry toilets. The input of compost at the Mas of Beaulieu doesn’t only serve to feed the plants, but more generally to « feed the soil life », in order for bacteria, micro-organisms, earthworms and fungi to proliferate. « Mission accomplished! », would cry the tomatoes devastated by mildew [17]… It seems like it is the main condition for vegetables to be healthy, and « that is how it happens in the forest » (where, as everyone knows, huge healthy vegetables grow naturally). If we had a bit of trouble imagining how a human population could be fed using these agroecological methods based on a romantic view of nature, we saw with our own eyes that, indeed, the soil life was doing very well, especially insects. But this blooming life is also that of « pests », that is crop pests. Then, how does the association gardeners protect their crops from pests, we asked?

Colorado_potato_beetle

A Colorado potato beetle. USDA photograph by Scott Bauer. In public domain. Source: Wikimedia

E&H –« We prepare a lot of plant protection agents ourselves, that is, mostly fermented plant extracts (nettle, burdock,  comfrey, horsetail) and then, well, that is all.

AFIS07 – But you grow potatoes, don’t you? How do you protect them against the Colorado beetle?

E&H – Ha, we pick them up by hand….we only grow small amount of potatoes. We pick them up manually. This year, it was alright, but two years ago, it was terrible. There were so many, so many…well, there were always more of them. Even if we were picking them up, they were constantly coming back.

AFIS07 – So, the crop was lost, then?

E&H – yes, pretty much. »

A discussion ensued between the visitors about the best way to get rid of the Colorado beetle without resorting to pesticides, one visitor explained that if you squash them manually, they are multiplying (as their eggs are released when they are crushed) and it is better to pick them up from the plants and to drown them….

AFIS07 – What about fighting against slugs, snails, and whatever can eat salads?

E&H – Well, I tried to put less straw – they really love straw, that is the main inconvenient of straw – and at the end, I came up with something quite radical, not very nice, but….I have built beer baits and it works really well. »

[Those among us who had tried confirmed….but this requires a pretty big waste of beer! Those of us who love beer were qui shocked.] Further, under a pretty greenhouse (which « isn’t completed, but is already yielding some good results »), the « animal visit » continued. A temperature system control based on water pipes within the walls had been set up, but vegetables and visitors weren’t the only ones to find the temperature to their taste. We were first reassured to hear that our guide is aware that « yes, it is true, sometimes we have issues with diseases spreading in the greenhouse, we have to be careful ». However, this isn’t their first concern: « I think we’ll set up mini humidifying manifolds for the tomatoes, because the main issue in greenhouse is the red mite. » Indeed, the tomatoes didn’t look in their best shape, certainly less than the red mites that were proliferating, as the our guide was complacently showing us:

Agroecology and red mites

Red mite on a tomato leaf at Earth & Humanism.Credit: ©2012 AFIS07. Republished here with their permission. [Click to enlarge]

E&H – The red mites are a real problem. [She showed us the tomatoes] You see, they aren’t too affected by mildew though. On the other hand, it’s the red mites that make them like that. »

When we asked our guide about the crawl space required in Winter, she explains to us that there is no real crawl space and that it is the crop rotation « that cleanses everything ». But, she immediately admitted that:

E&H – Now, we aren’t devoid of diseases and pests. You see, the cabbages, they will catch on by next fall, but now, they are invaded by bugs, which eat them, drill through them, suck them and this is a big problem [people around her were impressed by the damages]. Yes, they did that too, and since the spring, it has been full of it…On the other hand, if the cabbages can survive until the temperature drops, the bugs will leave and these cabbages should be able to grow normally during the fall and the winter.

agroecology and cabbages

Poor cabbages at Earth & Humanism.  Credit: ©2012 AFIS07. Republished here with their permission. [Click to enlarge]

AFIS07 – And if cabbages don’t survive, you’ll loose your crop.

E&H – Yep. But we have no solution! If you have some tips, concerning the bugs….I’ve been searching, searching and searching, but I haven’t found any solution. And impossible to catch them by hand, because they drop into the straw. »

We were therefore reduced to wish the bugs bon appétit and to light a candle in a church while praying for the cabbage to survive until winter comes, although it looked like it was a long shot.

Then, considering all this, we felt pretty skeptical when our guide concluded by saying that « Aside of that, we still have a really good production in the greenhouse ». We moved along to another small zone where the gardener was testing all kinds of tomatoes breeds, to see which ones are most resistant to mildew (it turns out that cherry-tomatoes are the most resistant…a shame for the weight of the production). But the production of tomatoes in this area is almost over, and « I believe, they are sick »….

During their 2-days long training entitled « Pests and diseases: agroecological solutions« , sold for 140€, do interns learn how to make their plants sick and to feed bugs?

Agroecology and corn plant

Desicated corn plant at Earth & Humanism. Credit: ©2012 AFIS07. Republished here with their permission. [Click to enlarge]

In the midst of this tangle of plants, we glimpsed a row of something completely desicated and shriveled up, so we asked if this was corn:

E&H – Yes, there was a corn trial there.

AFIS07 – That…was a corn trial, was that it? And it obviously didn’t work….

E&H – Well, it did work….but they aren’t big, huh. As you see, there is still a small corncob….there is a corncob, but normally, there should be more… »

agroecology and apples

Dropped apples rotting on the ground. at Earth & Humanism. Credit: ©2012 AFIS07. Republished here with their permission. [Click to enlarge]

During the talk, and especially while looking around, we understood that the watering had been insufficient during the heat wave that had just ended. Not enough volunteers? Further, we were a bit surprised by the situation of an apple tree.

AFIS07 – And the apples laying on the ground? Aren’t you picking them up? You don’t use them?

E&H – We did collect a lot last week, but here, more have fallen from the tree.

agroecology and apples

Dropped apples rotting on the ground. at Earth & Humanism. Credit: ©2012 AFIS07. Republished here with their permission. [Click to enlarge]

AFIS07 – And you let them rot directly on the ground to make fertilizer?

E&H – No, they haven’t picked them up yet. Normally, volunteers should have taken away the rotten ones, but…well, we’ve got a bit of troubles with fruit trees at the moment.

AFIS07 – You’ve got trouble with fruit trees?

E&H – yep, exactly. We aren’t there yet. »

agroecology and plums

Plum tree with plums unpicked. at Earth & Humanism. Credit: ©2012 AFIS07. Republished here with their permission. [Click to enlarge]

We then worried about the plums we had seen earlier, which had been left rotting on the tree (when the one among us who had a plum tree in his garden had already picked them up 10 days ago).

Explanation: « They’ve been forgotten. I wanted to have them picked last week, but sometimes, there are failures in the community. »

At the end the tour, as we were almost back at the entrance, we asked again a question we’d already asked at the beginning and which the communication officer had been unable to answer. The question concerned the strange thing hanging from the ridge of the roof…

 Note of the translator: If what follows doesn’t seem to make much sense to you, it is because it didn’t to me either and I’m not sure the people from AFIS-Ardèche who heard these explanations understood much of it, so they probably simply transcribed what had been recorded. This means, I’m also just trying to translate it without really understanding it. If someone has better clue, let me know! ^_^  

  

When Agroecology meets esoterism, keep your helmet on…

mesentery and agroecology

Mesentery at Earth & Humanism. Credit: ©2012 AFIS07. Republished here with their permission. [Click to enlarge]

E&H – It’s a deer mesentery

AFIS07 – A what?

E&H – A mesentery, that is a part of the deer intestine or the bowel, I’m not sure anymore, filled with manure, which dries up and picks up cosmic influences, and at this point, we are talking about biodynamy. Here, we are dealing with biodynamic principles, we use animal principles, with manure, which is then connected with the principle of the sun. Afterwards, the whole thing is diluted, in infinite quantities, within irrigation water, which we’ll distribute it at specific moments in order to activate some properties and qualities. Here, we are talking about biodynamy on a vibrating level. 

AFIS07 – What does « on a vibrating level » means?

E&H – That means that they bring in vibratory properties…it’s almost homeopathic, almost homeopathic biological qualities for the soil, which makes it possible to start processes in different soils.

Our guide claimed not to be the specialist of this issue in the group and not to be the one who made that biodynamic preparation, which had been the work of a gardener that the other call the « druid ». She ventured into answering when she was asked whether she could see any effect of the watering reinforced with almost homeopathic qualities. She found that biodynamy is « concrete on an invisible level » and thought that a lot of winegrowers had turned to biodynamy with « great results ».

AFIS07 – Thanks to cosmic and vibrating influences?

E&H – That’s it, in fact, these are the cosmic influences related to planets.

AFIS07 – A bit like astrology, then?

E&H – No, not like astrology, more like….like the lunar cycles, the tides. So, when we speak of cosmic influences, we aren’t exactly talking about esoterism.

AFIS07 – But tides are a phenomenon linked to gravity, because of the mass of the moon. Where is there supposed to be any cosmic influence? The lunar attraction, is it what has an effect on the deer?

E&H – No, the deer, here, is related to…the deer, it’s the earthly element…no, the manure put into the deer is the earthly element, and the deer is the solar element.

AFIS07 – But why is the deer the solar element? [She hesitated] Because its antlers resemble the sun, is that it?

E&H – That’s it! Because its antlers are connected to the solar principle!

A few more visitors entered the discussion, which drifted towards the topic of the lunar calendars used in biodynamy and the fact that all this can be explained by the « energies » that reflect the various influences from each planet. But when we pointed out again that this is pretty much the same as astrology, we were met with strong denial. The gardener explained then why she always followed the biodynamy lunar calendar, in order to take into account the influence of different planets on the soil at different times of the year:

E&H – Well, for instance, Venus is connected to water, so if I want to plant salads, I need this kind of water-energy at that moment.

AFIS07 – What does it mean « Venus is connected to water »?

E&H – In the symbolic and vibrating fields – the symbolic and vibrating are meeting – Venus is connected to water. And at this time, in the weather broadcast, there is « water » influence that is taking place. Because this planet has an influence at this specific time on a concrete level, on the weather and on our planet. 

AFIS07 – You mean that when Venus appears in the sky, it’s a day when it rains more than usual?

E&H – Not necessarily rain. There is a « water » influence, but that doesn’t necessarily means rain.  

AFIS07 – But then, what could be that « water » influence, if it isn’t rain?

E&H – ….it’s vibratory!

AFIS07 – It’s vibratory, alright….And Pierre Rabhi, does he talk about this?

E&H – He doesn’t necessarily talk about it, but it is something he’s interested in. Let’s say that it is something he’s connected with, yep. » 

agroecology and Swiss chards

Swiss chards having a bit of troubles at Earth & Humanism. Credit: ©2012 AFIS07. Republished here with their permission. [Click to enlarge]

« You see this, this is a board that would have required some shading. There wasn’t any and the Swiss chards are still…in troubles. And the cabbages as well. We planted them because we had seeds but [incomprehensible laughing] We planted them, but I can see that, as usual, it doesn’t work. »

We stopped our recording and questions, and as we were almost back at our starting point, we reached a composting zone which wild boars had started raiding. Indeed, the Earth & Humanism grounds are not fenced and this is actually the main miracle we were able to witness here: wild boars have not yet devastated everything. But it seems, according to explanations, that the peripherical zones of composting are playing the role of decoys, focusing the beasts’ attention away from the rest of the gardens.

A little detour by the bookstore of the center, where naturally the « Health » shelf is mostly occupied with books on alternative medicines – leads us to find an echo of the cosmic and vibratory explanation we just had:

Literature on agroecology and magical plants

The bookstore at Earth & Humanism. Credit: ©2012 AFIS07. Republished here with their permission. [Click to enlarge]

As we were leaving the place, after tasting the really good sirops offered by our hosts and thanking them, we threw a glance « over the other side of the road » toward « the neighboring parcel » of one of the other farmers, which the journalists of Bastamag had felt obliged to disparage as « dry and dusty » to put the transformed soil of Earth and Humanism under a more favorable light. It turned out to be actually a vineyards devoted to production, that is something very different from the essentially ornemental little gardens that we had just visited:

vines and classic agriculture

Some really well-doing vines across the road from Earth & Humanism. Credit: ©2012 AFIS07. Republished here with their permission. [Click to enlarge]

No straw everywhere in those vineyards, which didn’t benefit from the free labour of an army of volunteers, no plant association to make everything very pretty, nothing of that sort, that is true: the soil was bare and rocky. But we could see something that almost didn’t exist or so rarely on the agroecological side of the road: real healthy fruits which would be harvested for a real production, which would actually be used.

And before starting our car, as we were starving because of the time spent there since breakfast, but also because of the display of non-food production we just saw that morning,  we rushed onto the only farming trial that yielded any results at Earth & Humanism, that is plants that looked healthy and offered us plenty of tasty fruits. Yes, we mean our friends the wild thorns.

thorns and agroecology

Some really thriving wild Thorns at Earth & Humanism. Credit: ©2012 AFIS07. Republished here with their permission. [Click to enlarge]

In conclusion…

All in all, how can we evaluate this very informative little visit? At least, we have a better view of this experimental farm than what offered the Bastamag article, which, we know now consisted of a complete fantasy.

Obviously amateurism and ideology are the two main features dominating this place, with a touch of esoterism to completely discredit the whole enterprise.  According to the presentation given to us by the communication officer at the very beginning of the tour, this agroecological farm was supposed to be a place of both production and experiments:

In terms of production, the results seemed to us rather disastrous. To the point that the introductory presentation, which mentioned the De Shutter’s report [18] and the possibility to feed the whole planet with agroecological methods, seemed in retrospect a claim verging on indecency.

In terms of experiments, the result is also confusing, even disarming, since ours hosts simply don’t have the slightest clue of what is a rigorous experimental procedure, that would make it possible for them to validate their experiments. After seeing the actual situation, we are even more flabbergasted to read on the Express Website [L’Express is a weekly magazine with a pretty high standing in the French written press. NfT], an interview of the « director » of Earth and Humanism daring to claim that « we have good results with our family garden »and that « the organic and biodynamic farmers have better results than those practicing classic farming ».  [19]

At the Mas of Beaulieu, the association professes its intent to reach food self-sufficiency and even an ambition to feed the whole planet with these methods. In reality, they are a long shot from it and the experimental farm can display its meager results only thanks to a massive external contribution, in the form either of financial support [interns, donors, subscribers], systematic resort to free labor or external inputs. Those latter are either bought with donors’ money – the straw, found everywhere and the seedling compost that they prepare for sprouts they use in their gardens, but which they also sell – or offered for free by other farmers (the manure). Before feeding the planet, Earth and Humanism should already make sure it can feed itself a minimum on its own, with its own strength and work.

On the other hand, the Mas of Beaulieu is pretty rational if one doesn’t consider it as a farm, but as a communication tool. It should be treated as a display window for the association. If it had been properly set up, if during those past 10 years E&H had really turned it into a farm experiment with the constraints this involves, they would have lost their business and volunteers.

However, here, the Mas offers exactly what the « curious visitor » is looking for. A pseudo-modernity (eco-filtration and water storage,…) and nature in a well-organized mess…then, « well » isn’t exactly the appropriate word! And, on top of it, one can experiment stuff. That is, if we equate the word « experiment » with what is happening in a primary school classroom and if « production » means that seeds have sprouted.

But is all this really that serious, after all? Absolutely not, as long as one is confronted only with amateur gardeners living at the expenses of others and doing experiments without any methods, and presenting them to people who are already convinced and delighted to see their prejudices confirmed. As long as Earth and Humanism, capturing watery cosmic energies in the bowel of a deer filled with manure, just plays around on 1ha land like children in a sandbox, subsidized by ADEME and the General Council, this remains the sole business of this organization and those providing it with money and free labour.

However, our sympathy toward these people, whose company we found otherwise quite agreable, falters when two red lines are crossed: 

  1. When, as indicated by the Bastamag article, Earth & Humanism is allowed to speak within agricultural colleges of the region, that is in public and secular schools where normally only knowledge validated through the scientific method should be taught. In this case, this isn’t funny anymore and we were rather scandalized to learn this….as long as this is true. Indeed, the section of the association’s website covering its activities doesn’t mention these visits in public schools. And we forgot to ask about it during our tour at the Mas. However, on the same day, we called the association and then wrote to it in order to know which colleges had been visited. In the absence of an answer to this question up to this day, despite our repeated calls, we can’t exclude the hypothesis that this is yet another hoax from Bastamag.
  2. And more particularly, when Earth and Humanism explains that the agroecological methods it promotes can feed up to 9 billion human beings in the 21st century and the organization pretends, in a sort of guileless ethnocentrism, to travel to other parts of the world and tell farmers how to go about ensuring their own subsistance (while their « trainers » are unable to do it for themselves), we start feeling really angry. Because farmers in Mali or Cameroun don’t have gullible donors to support them financially or to give them hundreds of hours of free labours, they need to have access to inputs such as pesticides and fertilizers, and mostly to an extensive mechanical development, so as to extract themselves from self-subsistance farming, which means that the majority of the people suffering from hunger on this planet are paradoxically farmers, who are marginalized by an economic system that refuses to give them the means to come out of poverty.

In the meantime, Earth and Humanism is theorizing (without any consequences for itself, since the organization is being drip-fed) the refusal of those same means and advocates the exportation of its own failure.

This is what seems unbearable to us.

The Ardèche chapter of AFIS (Association Française pour l’Information Scientifique – French Association for Scientifique Information)

 

 Endnotes

[1] http://www.terre-humanisme.org/article131.html [back to text]

[2] http://www.terre-humanisme.org/IMG/pdf/bulletin_inscription_-_formations_2012.pdf  [back to text]

[3] In the transcription of our conversations with our hosts, we are not giving out the last name of the people, but only the association they belong to, because our aim isn’t the put this or that person on the spot. Our transcriptions are normally perfectly faithful to the record: we asked for the permission to record the visit and it was granted to us without any problem. We based our report on the record. In case of protest, we can therefore provide a copy of the recording. [back to text]

[4]  http://www.cgt.fr/Greve-et-manifestation-pour-plus.html [back to text]

[5]  http://www.argusdelassurance.com/portraits/josette-amor-gerante-du-cabinet-de-gestion-en-patrimoine-epargne-en-conscience-bonne-conscience.49677  [back to text]

[6] http://www.finansol.org/UPLOAD/rubrique/pages/96/96_rubrique.php  [back to text]

[7] http://www.latribune.fr/green-business/lactualite/20120907trib000718381/produits-d-entretien-verts.-le-belge-ecover-rachete-le-californien-method.html  [back to text]

[8] http://www.colibris-lemouvement.org/ensemble/nos-partenaires  [back to text]

[9] http://www.challenges.fr/classements/fortune/fiche/famille-lemarchand;1592.html  [back to text]

[10] http://businessvert.lexpansion.com/candidat.php?id_page=3&id_candidat=15&count=2  [back to text]

[11] http://www.challenges.fr/classements/fortune/fiche/bris-rocher-et-sa-famille;517.html [back to text]

[12] http://www.agriculture-environnement.fr/actualites,12/l-aristocrate-ecolo-et-le-paysan-bio,754.html [back to text]

[13] Serge Orru was to leave his position by the end of Septembre 2012, a resignation probably related to the strong criticism of his management methods by some of his employees: http://www.rue89.com/planete89/2011/06/24/les-salaries-du-wwf-demandent-la-tete-de-leur-patron-210658. This follows an interview by Elise Lucet of the TV show « Cash Investigation » [Investigation report TV show on the second French public broadcasting channel France 2. NfT], during which Serge Orru had been interviewed and put into a sticky spot about the partnership between WWF and the Crédit Agircole (the bank which was financing an oil rig off the Greenland coasts) [Excerpt availabe here, in French only:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Evig23gnJlw]. This partnership was earning the NGO around 400’000 Euros per year, but an internal audit reported significant problems in the way the organization worked, which were damaging its image. Pierre Rabhi signed a letter of support to the green washer Serge Orru following this TV show. [back to text]

[14] One can also signal in passing that, more broadly speaking, their integration in the local society seems very limited, which leads to some questioning. [back to text]

[15] We had in mind the organic spinach scandal that took place in California in 2003, when 23 people died following a poisoning with E-coli. The same bacteria had been the center of another raging controversy in Europe in 2011, during the outbreak of the organic sprout contamination scandal. On this topic, check out the Website « Agriculture et environnement » (only in French: http://www.agriculture-environnement.fr/edito,2/riz-ogm-et-epinards-bio,141.html). The author of the article wrote: « To overcome the absence of chemical fertilizers which it has decided to give up completely, organic agriculture uses composts made from animal waste particularly rich in nitrogen, but likely to carry bacterial pathogens harmful to humans. While it is quite easy to produce one’s own compost, it is much more complicated to obtain a good quality toxin-free product. As highlighted by Dr. Robert Tauxe in the Journal of the American Medical Association 10 years ago already, « our knowledge concerning the time and temperature required to render compost made of animal waste safe from microbial infection is totally insufficient. » We do know however that composting for more than 6 months is efficient to neutralize most pathogenic micro-organisms. To this day, there is no regulation on the application of manure and an organic farmer can therefore spread freshly made compost on his field, just a few days before harvest. Moreover, he’ll be all the more likely to shorten the time of composting as the fresher the compost, the richer in nitrogen it gets. This is why the risk of contamination with Escherichia Coli is 6 times higher in organic farming than in classic agriculture, as has been demonstrated in a study by the University of Minesota, published in the Journal of Food Protection in 2004. » [back to text]

[16] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pasteurization  [back to text]

[17] Here one can remind the reader of the 1845-1849 Great Famine in Ireland, resulting from a mildew outbreak, which destroyed all the potatoe crops of the country. [back to text]

[18] For critical analysis of this report that became the main reference for those who want to believe that agroecology could feed the planet (only in French unfortunately): http://imposteurs.over-blog.com/article-de-schutter-l-agroecologie-et-l-imposture-politique-et-mediatique-par-wackes-seppi-80320617.html  [back to text]

[19] http://www.lexpress.fr/actualite/environnement/l-agriculture-bio-est-competitive_938906.html (in French only) [back to text]

Ariane Beldi

Assise à la fois sur un banc universitaire et sur une chaise de bureau, une position pas toujours très confortable, ma vie peut se résumer à un fil rouge: essayer de faire sens de ce monde, souvent dans un gros éclat de rire (mais parfois aussi dans les larmes) et de partager cette recherche avec les autres. Cela m'a ainsi amené à étudier aussi bien les sciences que les sciences sociales, notamment les sciences de l'information, des médias et de la communication, tout en accumulant de l'expérience dans le domaine de l'édition-rédaction Web et des relations publiques. Adorant discuter et débattres avec toutes personnes prêtes à échanger des points de vue contradictoires, j'ai découvert quelques recettes importantes pour ne pas m'emmêler complètement les baguettes: garder une certaine distance critique, éviter les excès dans les jugements et surtout, surtout, s'astreindre à essayer de découvrir le petit truc absurde ou illogique qui peut donner lieu à une bonne blague! Je reconnais que je ne suis pas toujours très douée pour cet exercice, mais je m'entraîne dur….parfois au grand dame de mon entourage direct qui n'hésite pas à me proposer de faire des petites pauses! Je les prend d'ailleurs volontiers, parce qu'essayer d'être drôle peut être aussi éreintant que de réaliser une thèse de doctorat (oui, j'en ai fait une, incidemment, en science de l'information et de la communication). Mais, c'est aussi cela qui m'a permis d'y survivre! Après être sortie du labyrinthe académique, me voici plongée à nouveau dans celui de la recherche d'un travail! Heureusement que je m'appelle Ariane!

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