You are on page 1of 4

SIX

Draw Me a Farm
Do as much as possible for and as little as possible against.
Gilles Clment1

n October 2006, the organic Ferme du Bec Hellouin was officially born.
We took on the role of farmers with absolute navet. Neither Perrine
nor I had ever stepped foot in an agricultural school. We had never
even visited a commercial organic farm! We imagined that our farming business would be an extension of our previous years family garden. The gardens
would just be bigger. We did not measure the gulf between achieving family
food autonomy and making a living from selling our agricultural products.
We continued working on the site wed begun developing in 2004. Our
business was growing almost exclusively out of a 1.8-hectare (4.4-acre) area
that surrounds our cottage at the end of the Bec valley. We chose to put down
roots in the rural tradition. Over the years, we added buildings all made by
local artisans using local, recycled materials: stone, wood, bricks, tile, clay. I
admit to a passion for old stones, and I took enormous pleasure designing
and building these structures. The store at the entrance of the farm and
some shelters were all planned and the sites were prepared before we
attacked, from 2009 to 2011, the huge construction site that became our
ecocenter. The construction had no apparent order. Rather, it followed a
carefully studied disorder, in the orchard that extends north of the river.

A Farm, Like a Painting


Like John Seymour, Lucien Poudras unknowingly influenced the genesis
of our farm. Born into a family of small farmers, he became an artist late

39

Miraculous Abundance
in life, painting the rural Brittany of his childhood, a country that
remained very traditional coming out of the war, in the 1950s.2 His works
from that era are imbued with a poetic charge that touched me deeply. I
walked for hours in his paintings. They depict a rural wooded landscape,
interlacing fields and farms, valleys and tree lines, woods, streams, fields,
and pastures. A landscape that shows the beauty of the shrubs, coppices,
and fruit trees. This Breton countryside is intensely inhabited: All men,
women, and horses are at work; children participate in the work of adults
or hunt fox; an old man is bent over in the garden, a grandmother is milking her cow.
The paintings resonated deeply with me because they evoked similar
scenes from my childhood. We spent many of our holidays in Vende at
our aunt Marie Thereses house. During the 1960s, the Vende had not yet
been damaged by bulldozers. We would set out on bicycles to fish in the
Lay creek. Small meadows carpeted with buttercups were pure wonders.
The Paris child I was passed some of the finest moments of his life along
that creek, watching the sunlight play across running water, observing the
small, minnow-like gardons swimming in the water.
My paternal grandfather had a house in Dorlisheim, a village in Alsace.
Whenever I heard horse hooves there, I ran toward the fence at the far end
of the garden, climbing to watch as a heavy horse passed by, pulling its cart.
It was the neighboring farmer on his way to work in the vineyards, which
blanketed the whole width of the hillside. One day, I jumped the wall and
went to explore the vineyards. I climbed along the narrow pathways in the
middle of rows of vines, hands sticky with the juice of peaches picked along
the way. At the top of the hill, the view stretched far away across a rural
landscape drowned in the summer sun. Workhorses sometimes appeared in
the vineyards. Nestled in the valley was the village, and its massive farms.
Much later, my grandfathers house was sold. I returned one last time,
struggling to find the village of my childhood in the maze of expressways.
At the edge of the park I climbed the wall. No more horse, of course, just a
wide paved road and beige houses smartly lined up in front of their sidewalk
in a subdivision. Dorlisheim today is almost fully connected with the suburbs of the city of Strasbourg. Farmland is disappearing rapidly in France,
drowning under tar and concrete. We lose the equivalent of one French
department every ten years.

40

Draw Me a Farm
I have always been pulled to these memories. They have influenced our
course. Perrine and I began, without being aware yet, the construction of a
very unusual type of farm in the world today: a microfarm where everything is done in sync with the rhythm of life.

A Mosaic of Ecosystems
La Ferme du Bec Hellouin is designed like a paintinga sort of living,
three-dimensional one, with vibrant colors and sunlight, wind, river, and
clouds. As in a Poudras scene, there are no straight lines, but many sensuous curves interlacing orchards, pastures, gardens, and ponds. And
everywhere, there are fruit trees, by the hundreds.
Our first goal has been achieved: This tiny territory is home to a wide
diversity of intimately intertwined species. We created an edible landscape.
It surrounds, nourishes, and protects us. Enveloped by our hedges and our
trees, we are immersed in a life that feels very secure. Each year, as this
microcosm begins to mature, I find more of that feeling of well-being that I
experienced in tribal communities. A synthesis occurs gradually. We set out
with our children, basket in hand, and pick berries, fruits, and flowers randomly as we walk, just as the canoe in the Amazon filled up with good
things as it navigated the river. It is as if there is a hint of the virgin forest in
our Normandy countryside.
Giving sway to beauty seemed an obvious choice. Beauty is a food as
essential as bread. Without it, the soul atrophies. Traditional farms from
every continent were beautiful, simple expressions of their landscape.
Today, they too often resemble factories. Burdened by the workload and
weight of loans, farmers resign from their role as guardians of the landscape. We are the only animal species to uglify, massively, the surface
of the earth.
Our approach was essentially intuitive: We spent a lot of time observing
and listening to what resonated with us before altering the landscape. Later,
as we received visits from many agronomists, we came to understand that
this highly diversified agroecosystem, created with aesthetics as a top priority, is also highly productive because of the exchanges among all those little,
interrelated circles of trees and crops, allowing them to get the most out of
the services rendered by their ecosystems.3 Without knowing it yet, we

41

Miraculous Abundance
instinctively implemented many of the principles of agroecology and permaculture. Productivity was somehow given to us as a bonus, a good surprise
revealed over the years.
Our visitors feel good about this human-scale farm that so closely
resembles those depicted in our childrens books. (We all have a small farm
trotting in our imagination.) Almost invariably they tell us, This is paradise! Do they know that the ancient Persian pairidaeza, the root of paradise,
means garden? Our collective unconscious remains marked by images of
the rural life of yesteryear, back when humans, plants, and animals all lived
very close to one another. This is what we need to survive in a concrete
world that does not meet our most profound needs.
In the summer of 2006, we had no idea where our adventure would take
us. I felt the same pinch in my stomach as I felt before embarking on an
ocean crossing. Our goal then was simply to live happily and peacefully in
our gardens and feed a few dozen families with the best possible products.

42