How French organic farming embraces the unconventional
The FT’s Harriet Agnew visits what will be the world’s largest rooftop farm and a company growing strawberries and herbs in shipping containers. In the French countryside, she explores a chateau farm that shuns pesticides and ploughing, but is more accommodating to weeds and old machinery
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Here in France an agricultural revolution is under way and organic farming is booming.
You understand that instead of fighting against nature you might want to use nature.
But this revolution is not just happening on traditional farms. It's an urban movement too.
We only use 10 per cent of the water that would be used to produce exactly the same thing elsewhere.
I'm here to meet the French farmers behind this revolution and to find out how organic farming is taking hold in the EU's largest agricultural producing country. 15 metres above street level in the 15th arrondissement of the south of Paris sits what will be one of the world's largest rooftop farms, Agripolis. It's an oasis in the French capital where Pascal Hardy is tending to an empire of fruit and vegetables.
Urban farms can produce fruits and vegetables in a very healthy way with no pesticides.
Local residents can also rent parts of the farm, and even during the current pandemic there has been no slowdown in demand.
And that was a sign. They want to grow. And we are off every day also. Can you build this, but just for me, for individuals on their balcony, for example.
And that's the real trend we feel. They want to grow themselves.
A half hour north of the city a company called Agricool has taken its version of urban farming indoors. Hey, you.
Hey, how are you?
I'm fine. Welcome to our farms.
So farming like on earth. And we are growing here strawberries, herbs, and greens without pesticides. Let's go inside our farm.
Great. Let's have a look.
Yeah. Here is for you.
Gosh, thank you.
It's not for you, actually. It's for the plants, because you know, you have to be...
What it? To save the plants from the pollution that we're bringing in?
Exactly, because it's a controlled environment.
OK. Guillaume Fourdinier has raised 30m euros in funding to develop technology that produces strawberries and herbs all year round inside containers. Produce that only ever travels a maximum of 20km to reach its destination. And how did you come up with the concept of Agricool?
I've been raised on a farm. It was really important for me to get back to that, you know, way of life and show that it can be possible to get that quality of food and responsible food, even if you are in a big city.
Getting the technology right is the most important part of the ecosystem they've created.
Most of the technology we use in-house and we had to design it from scratch. So we get 90 per cent less water use, renewable energy. So we get the capacity to produce more with less.
According to the French government, nearly 9 and half per cent of all farms in France are now involved in organic farming. And just an hour south of the city a French chateau owner is working with nature to grow her organic business. Hi, Valentine.
How are you? Valentine de Ganay is leading a sustainable food production project to transform the 500 hectares of land that she and her family own at Chateau de Courances. The organic side of her approach means she shuns pesticides.
It's no pesticides, and that's been the case since 2015 for the kitchen gardens and since 2018 for the fields.
Is this purple basil?
Purple basil, lemon basil. They all have different... coriander, you can eat the flowers.
But she's also practicing conservation agriculture, a farming system that minimises soil disturbance.
In the conservation what is considered evil is ploughing, is working too much the ground. We have stopped ploughing for the last five years. Sometimes we sow the wheat, or barley, or whatever in the weeds.
She also believes our expectations and preconceptions of agriculture need to change.
We are so used to thinking that good agriculture is clean fields, the same plants on hectares and hectares. I'm turning my back to that.
Valentine freely admits her approach to agriculture is an unusual one.
I am considered by many people like a mixture of extremely naive and extremely pretentious, which I probably am both, but I think I might succeed nevertheless in some little bits also by accident.
My last stop at Valentine's is with her lead farmer, Bruno Saillet, who's just finished harvesting some grain. He tells me that what sets them apart from other organic farmers is that the low energy sustainable methods used here can be scaled up more cost effectively for more sizable crops.
Revenues for organic produce here in France are predicted to reach 15bn euros by 2022, between rising consumer demand, an increase in production, and land use for organic farming. In France this industry is building momentum.