The Irish Organic Farmers & Growers Association (IOFGA) has just published this profile of our farm :
A small family farm in the Southern French Alps
and How unlikely new entrants took up organic farming !
by Agnès Fiamma and Renaud Papone
We started out, or rather stumbled into, farming rather haphazardly. We met serendipitously through a shared passion for rock climbing in the village where my (French) father retired in the Southern French Alps. We fell in love in the small local supermarket where he’d been the manager for a few years, whilst I was living in Johannesburg where I worked as a HIV AIDS researcher. Which is to say we were probably the two most unlikely new entrants into organic farming.To make matters worse, Renaud didn’t fancy vegetables, and as an extreme mountain sportsman was rather more inclined to dine on pasta !
Renaud had spent his summers with his grandfather in the Nice backcountry, where he’d been a cabinetmaker and kept bees as a hobby. He already knew he wasn’t suited to city life. We needed to find a happy medium between urban living in Johannesburg and mountain life in the village where we met. So we decided to take the long abandoned family land back into active farming, knowing nothing whatsoever other than to be humble and modest about our undertaking.
BEGINNING THE JOURNEY
We started out by getting organic certification because the land hadn’t been farmed in over a generation, and it seemed ridiculous to do anything that might pollute or spoil the land.We tried out a small experimental plot in the first season where we tested a few crops, and discovered raspberries wouldn’t grow reliably but strawberries did brilliant... so we took our courage to the French bureaucrats and managed to persuade them that we weren’t after a building permit nor a villa project ! Between the two of us we had no agricultural qualifications whatsoever to use as a means of persuasion, and consequently we didn’t qualify for any of the young farmer grant programmes available. However, we decided to take that as a blessing and not a curse, and got on with things. We had plenty of completely unrelated but useful work experience, passion and determination.
We spent the first winter plotting our planting calendars, sowing our own seedlings and pre-selling our vegetable baskets to a workplace scheme we created in one of the bureaucracies we’d had to do battle with (the adage if you can’t beat them, deliver them their vegetables was coined).The idea was to sell the harvest as a weekly subscription basket, before we’d planted it, so as to ensure we wouldn’t have to run around with harvested vegetables looking for buyers.The CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) concept had only really taken hold in France a few years earlier and wasn’t common yet in our area.We still sell the majority of our vegetable produce through CSA schemes, but they have vastly improved and grown in the intervening years.
We couldn’t find good agricultural advice in the chamber of agriculture, we were too anomalous and they thought we were barking mad.The very idea of starting out with 3500 square metres of long unfarmed land and no experience, had them convinced that we would surely starve or go bankrupt or both. Instead we went around to other small family organic farms, and found that people were already doing what we were aiming to do, and succeeding by diversifying their crops, selling directly to their subscribers, and ignoring most of the advice from the chamber of agriculture. For instance, when we were advised that we couldn’t start without investing €23,000 to buy a microtractor, we decided to buy a secondhand walking-tractor on the internet instead, and used that for the entire first year. It cost a lot more in backpain, but at least we had a year under our belt to make a much better informed decision about what we really needed, which turned out not to be a microtractor but a 50hp articulated mountain tractor which is nearly impossible to overturn.We applied the same approach to cold storage, which we waited two years to install, meaning we had to make trips to deliver produce twice weekly instead of once, but didn’t saddle ourselves with crippling debt.
We started with only one 4m polytunnel that was 35m long, which fit onto our 4m wide terraces.The very steep incline made it difficult but essential to mechanise, and the combination of a 12hp walking tractor as well as the mountain tractor with reversible steering were very welcome improvements. For our wedding, in lieu of conventional presents we had asked for truffled-oak seedlings, indigenous olive seedlings, saffron bulbs and a motorised- wheelbarrow (Rampicar), all of which we were very generously blessed with. Except the saffron, which turned out to be far too much work !
We proceeded incrementally in every aspect of the farm, when we decided to take on laying hens, we started with 20 hens, and now in our 6th year, we are about to expand to about 500. When we took on fattening pigs last year, we tried with 10 piglets and are slowly contemplating our expansion options. What also sets us apart is that when something isn’t working, we carefully analyse, assess and if necessary we will abandon that undertaking (a case in point was our initial inclination to take on bee-keeping which Renaud had learned from his grandfather, but which wasn’t compatible time-wise with growing vegetables, as the bees require the most attention at the most intensive periods of the vegetable season).
As far as crops, we grow everything from basil, green, fava, borlotti and butter beans, beetroot, broccoli, kohlrabi, kale, Chinese, curly and ordinary cabbages, carrots in various colours, romanesco and white cauliflower, celery and celeriac, swiss chard, eggplant, fennel, figs, garlic, spring yellow and red onions, potatoes, quince, tomatoes, lettuces, strawberries, a dozen varieties of squash, melon, mesclun, spinach, in total more than 30 varieties. We focused on heirloom varieties that would do well in our mountain area with cold, snowy winters and hot, dry summers.We wanted our vegetables to stand out and for people to be pleasantly surprised every week when they unpacked their basket, for them to stand up and take notice of them. We felt we had succeeded when people phoned back asking what the flying saucers were (pattypans), and texted cheeky questions on how to use the feather dusters (purple kale.)
We joined an ALCOTRA-funded project to reintroduce and multiply heirloom varieties from mountain regions in Italy and southern France.We were a pilot site for testing orphaned varieties of green, purple and chocolate coloured peppers, eggplants and tomatoes that were resistant to blossom end rot.To keep people guessing we grew golden turnips, banana coloured zucchini, purple coloured green beans that were much easier to spot than their green counterparts.We were careful to keep a balance with classic varieties that we hoped everyone would recognise and enjoy.We came to the frustrating realisation that root crops were really hard work in our heavy clay-limestone soils and that we desperately needed more space.
After the end of the first year we were fortunate to have two retired local (non-farmer) landowners offer some of their land to lease.They’d both known and respected Renaud’s grandfather so once we’d proven that our work ethic was up to his legacy, we were able to lease two nearby fields, adding one much-needed hectare in the flat river plane at the bottom of our valley. Root vegetables would grow beautifully in the sandier soils and potatoes were much less effort.The carrots would finally be lovely and straight instead of tangled and clenched.
Incrementally, each year, we would add one or two polytunnels (4m diameter), and take one experimental idea to fruition. We now have 11 tunnels, some resounding successes and a handful of memorable failures.We proceeded very modestly, for example by crowdfunding our second henhouse.When the olive harvest failed completely in 2014, we still had the previous year’s olives soaking in brine, and we knew we would need to make up for the lost income, so we decided to try our hands with pigs. Free range organic pigs make up less than 1% of production in France, so we were fairly confident that we would find plenty of demand.
MARKETING OUR PRODUCE
We would sell everything through the same subscription base or through short supply chains, directly from farm to table, leveraging the existing networks we had already established.This last season, to take on a new challenge, we taught ourselves about French intensive farming methods and converted most of the fields and polytunnels to permanent raised beds, using Eliot Coleman and Jean-Martin Fortier as models.We had spent the winter studying For tier’s YouTube videos and reading their books. Next year’s challenge may well be to organise all this chaos a bit better !
In our first season, we had encountered interesting local farmers who raised sheep for meat and cheese-making, a family of olive growers and a couple of professional beekeepers. Along with the two other local vegetable growers we started a small cooperative of 8 organic producers.The idea was to make organic food available up in the mountains, mainly for people who had to drive to Nice to find anything organic to eat.They had banded together into workshops about how to feed themselves organically in our rural areas.There was growing local demand but nowhere to buy directly from several farmers, meaning consumers had to go around to all the various farms. Over six years, the Bio d’Ici (Local Organics) coop evolved into an indoor farmer’s market which is now open year-round, and sells vegetables, meats, breads, cheeses, eggs, honeys, olive pastes and oils, fruit, wine, beer and essential oils. We have expanded it to include a few non-organic farms with the ambition that they will convert as they see the many advantages organic farming presents.
We think the secrets to our modest success have been our approach to modern, open farming, and our willingness to revisit our practices at the end of every season.When something hasn’t worked, we’ve stopped growing it, and quickly put something else in its place. When beekeeping proved to be too time-consuming and its peak periods overlapped with those of the vegetables, we decided to keep the surviving hives but not waste any more effort on trying to grow their numbers.
The other source of great pride is that almost all of those we have employed as our farm labour have gone on to set up their own farms and even started a seedling business.We have become an incubator for other small farms and an unofficial but well regarded training site.The umbrella organisation to our community- supported agriculture schemes supported a mentoring scheme which allowed new entrants to be advised by more established farms and we have helped quite a number through field walks, farm visits and study exchanges. Our conviction has always been that ; the more small family organic farmers the better, and being a somewhat endangered species, we need to give each other all the help and support we can muster despite our hectic seasons and workloads.