Contact : Laurent Thierry, owner
Location : Doussard, Haute-Savoie
Sector : Agriculture
Date of creation : April 2016
Date of analysis : May 2020
Maturity of the project :4 years of existence including 2 years of cultivation and many projects to come in the future therefore under development.
An educational vegetable micro-farm in permaculture
The project to create a beaver vegetable garden was born in 2016 in response to a call for projects from the Annecy community of communes. It proposed to make 2.3 hectares of land available (without financial support) in an extension zone of vineyards on the edge of the Vernays artisanal zone (Doussard).
The project to set up a permaculture vegetable micro-farm on these premises was originally carried by three people from a citizen transition group intended to help agricultural projects for healthy food. 2 years later, due to a lack of financial means and time for 2 of the project leaders, Laurent, the current manager of the farm, is the only one to remain in the project. After 6 years in a design office with a water and sanitation technician’s diploma, Laurent wanted to reconvert and followed several trainings (organic market gardening in 2016-2017 and permaculture in autumn 2017) to obtain the necessary expertise for the technical development of the project, in addition to his numerous readings on the subject. He also joined a business incubator in 2018 for 1 year and a half to help her in the management of the farm.
The beaver garden was born by being placed under associative status, with an associative board of directors helping to set up the farm until August 2017. Laurent was unemployed for the first 3 years of the project, until he made the Beaver Garden his business in March 2019. He has recently been joined by a new associate and hosts on a fairly regular basis woofers who participate in the development of the farm.
In terms of surface area, as the project is intended to be on a human scale, a smaller area was occupied than planned: 2.3 hectares were originally made available but only 1.4 were kept afterwards. At present, 0.8 unused hectares are mowed by a farmer and it is the last 6,000 square meters that go into the design of the vegetable garden, with 1,500 square meters under cultivation.
– 15 000€ of investment for the project
– 0.6 hectares of occupied land (out of 1.4 hectares available)
– During the year, it’s 10 months of work and 7 months of cultivation.
– A 40aine of varieties of cultivated plants (around 30 different vegetables cultivated and 10 fruits/small fruits)
– 40 baskets of 2 to 14 kg of fruits and vegetables (depending on the season) sold at 12€ in AMAP/week/7 months
– Turnover: 15 000€/year (objective of 20-25 000€ in the long term with more development)
Permaculture consists in developing a sustainable environment, both at the human level, with a social dominance concretized in pedagogy, exchange and mutual aid around the Beaver Garden, and at the ecological level, with a respect and imitation of natural ecosystems. In Laurent’s conception of the project, the production and sales process is optimized to minimize the environmental impact, engage a social approach and produce more efficiently.
At the beginning of the project, the Beaver Garden recovered tarps from a horticulturist less than 50 km away who no longer had any use for them. In the Vernays area, wood shavings from the ONF and shearing by 4 professionals, 3 of whom are based in the Vernays area, are also recovered on a regular basis.
With the sale of baskets via AMAP, the farm offers a service: one basket per week of seasonal fruits and vegetables at a fixed price, not a product: one kilo of a specific fruit or vegetable for example.
The farm offers fresh, local and organic products that respect the natural cycle of the seasons. They are also products associated with a farm that is under the sign of ecology, which aims to preserve and improve the state of biodiversity as well as to respect the soil.
Unsold fruits and vegetables are valorized in jars, spreads or jams. The transformation is done by a local actor.
Listen to Laurent present permaculture with the video at the bottom of the article!
With the project of a permaculture farm, Laurent’s initial intention was to shake up his way of thinking, beyond his professional reconversion. And this requires an alternative way of life, at the social, economic and environmental level, simply to be sustainable.
In this project of permaculture and conception of sustainable environment where the social aspect takes all its importance, the network which gravitated at the beginning around the project leaders helped enormously in its conception. During Laurent’s permaculture training, the organization of the vegetable garden was once again redesigned with 36 additional “brains”.
In the Beaver Vegetable Garden, the farm practices market gardening on living soil with organic mixed farming without ploughing, without any mechanization and on permanent beds in order to avoid compaction, preserve the quality of the soil and increase the quality of production. The only interventions are mulching or planting of plant cover.
Crop management is done using a table of favorable associations so that the plants protect each other from pests.
The farm also respects the natural cycle of the seasons to produce its fruits and vegetables, which is why it only produces over 7 months of the year.
In permaculture, because of the will to reproduce or at least get as close as possible to natural eco-systems and to be more resilient, each element fulfills several functions (e.g. mulching allows to hide, protect and feed the soil).
Conversely, each function must be fulfilled by several elements (e.g. irrigation is ensured by rainwater supply, network water and also by the ponds provided on the farm). This is also reflected in the diversification of the supply of new seedlings: 1/3 of the seedlings are purchased and the remaining 2/3 correspond to seeds that Laurent grows (including a very small part of clean seeds).
The farm makes 90% of its sales with the baskets distributed each week through the network built by Laurent. The baskets are delivered to two local distribution points (less than 15 km away). The size of the baskets is not standardized and varies from 2kg at the beginning of the season to 14kg at the beginning of autumn (for an average of a little more than 4kg per basket).
Surplus production (200 to 300 kg spread over 3 months in high season) is disposed of in a local Biocoop.
The farm also sells 400 to 800 jars per year. These are spreads of all kinds (such as potato jam) made from unsold products (200 to 400 kg of cucumbers, zucchini, tomatoes and squash mainly) processed by a specialized local company.
Laurent has recently started trading on the markets and it looks promising.
Direct sales at the farm have also been set up, with a first system of pre-order and payment via website or application.
– On the energy level, consumption is zero on the farm (no access to electricity) and a solar water heater to heat the water for the shower on site is to come.
– In terms of soil preservation, the farm does not use any polluting artificial inputs.
– The permaculture system is accompanied by a desire to enrich the local biodiversity with flowering hedges and the installation of ponds still in the planning stage.
– The recuperation of organic matter via local craftsmen (mowing and wood shredding) saves resources.
– The sale of fruits and vegetables is done locally (baskets distributed less than 15km away and resold to a local Biocoop).
For consumers of AMAP baskets, the price is particularly advantageous: at 12€ per basket with an average of a little over 4kg of fruit and vegetables per basket, the price per kilo is around 3€, which is very competitive compared to the organic fruit and vegetable market.
Laurent also employs a local processor to produce his jars and creates value at the territorial level.
In a classic intensive monoculture system, the nature of the work on the plants varies according to the seasons and the development cycle of the plants but remains the same over relatively short periods of time (1 week of harvest for example), which can quickly make it a very repetitive and uninteresting work for the employees. Conversely, in permaculture, with many crops to manage and a smaller company size, the tasks are quite different. In one day, Laurent, his new associate and the woofers don’t have time to get bored!
With woofing, it is also an opportunity to go beyond an economy with a salary duty to move towards an economy of knowledge and sharing.
Necessary initial factors :
– The land was made available through a public call for tenders for a reduced initial investment (no rent or purchase of land).
– The collective: a project built by several people and supported by others to move it forward
Factors necessary to maintain the project :
– Project leaders with a minimum financial reserve (the current manager has had 3 years of unemployment) for the start of the project with little or no remuneration. Today, after 2 years of activity, the remuneration remains below the SMIC for the manager (around 600€ per month), which is only viable because he practices sobriety in his lifestyle.
Factors necessary for the development of the project :
– In spite of the absence of initial training for Laurent in the fields of market gardening and permaculture, he was able to follow 2 trainings which gave him the necessary expertise for the project.
– Another necessary factor is a development adapted to the geographical context of the floodplain with cultivation on mounds and a project to develop ponds nearby.
Beyond the current crops and recent agroforestry plantations (the first peaches are expected in 2021), many projects are underway or to come to develop the vegetable garden:
– Hop cultivation has recently been set up, with the aim of supplying local brewers.
– Mushroom culture trials have been conducted but have not yet been conclusive. In order to work better, it would require an investment of 2500€. The project is envisaged in the relatively short term, as this culture could be beneficial to compensate for the low income in winter.
– An experiment on vermicomposting is planned in 2021 on a 2m*30m bed. The soil obtained will be mainly intended for sowing in the year 2022.
– In the vegetable garden, a poultry farm is also planned, with the introduction of hens at first (the deconstruction of a caravan to transform it into a mobile henhouse is in progress) and then of Indian runner ducks, which are particularly effective against plant parasites (slugs, small insects, weeds) and sources of natural fertilizer. At the same time as setting up the farm, Laurent wants to be able to live on site, which is not the case today. This implies in particular to install an electricity network which is not yet financially accessible.
– In the longer term, the vegetable garden should be completed by the development of ponds nearby. These will allow the creation of a micro-climate to accommodate the fauna and flora and will serve as a water reserve.
Laurent would also like to develop the reception and pedagogy around the vegetable garden for groups of handicapped people, children or for social reintegration.
On the marketing side, the market is a promising avenue. Laurent hopes to further develop direct sales and picking on the farm.
It is a farm that grows a large number of crops on a small surface area (0.6 hectares), a rare phenomenon when we know that the average size of farms in France is 65 hectares. Management can be complicated in terms of manpower and financial resources.
But the farm is moving in the direction of permaculture, for an ever-increasing biodiversity, both in the crops and around the farm. The farm uses ecological production methods that do not stop at organic or market gardening on living soil, but go further, especially with the beneficial combination of crops.
It is a farm that seeks to develop a pedagogy and a welcome, whereas it could stick to production and sales.
The Beaver Vegetable Garden gives us many keys to understand what permaculture represents, a concept that is often blurred, both in the production method and in the way of life of the manager and management of the farm.