Agriculture as a link to others and to life

Between two milking of sheep, Hervé, landless farmer at the « Jardin est Ouvert », grants us an interview. Nothing is easy when you decide to produce differently, to ensure the flow of a diversified production without having to go through intermediaries and be at the mercy of the consumer. This seems unavoidable in order to re-establish essential links broken by the market, to give back meaning and coherence to a system where people have sometimes forgotten essential principles: those of the living. 

Kairos: What are your activities, and where do they come from? 

Hervé : At present, we work on three hectares of which 30 ares are used for market gardening and the rest is used for cattle feeding, fodder production and cereal production for the sheep herd. With these surfaces, we produce organic cheeses that we sell on the market and a little more than 80 weekly baskets for buying groups and companies that are in a form of « ethical research ». 

I originally came from an NGO background, where I worked for several years on rural development issues and worked with producer organizations. Within the framework of this work, it was very much a question of a model of small-scale production, of the family farm type, in struggle in a certain way against development policies, whether national or imported via « international cooperation », which are much more productivist models, quite destructive of the environment and carried on more fragile ecosystems than here. 

Over there, I had the feeling that they had a vision of agriculture that was sometimes much better constructed and anchored in a global analysis of society, while at the same time being subject to the same paradoxes as we are, i.e. subject to financial and food pressures that often relegate the environment to second place. Nevertheless, here in Belgium, we are beginning to see the limits of an intensive agriculture that has been going on for 100 years now. 

K. Intensive, with small farms disappearing every week and farmers going out of business and not being replaced? 

Hervé : This is due to the acceleration of intensification; I think that what is currently happening in Europe is a race; the person who is going to survive in the current model is the one who produces the cheapest. And the person who produces the cheapest in the current system is the one who will be able to mechanize the most on a larger surface. 

K. K.: So who is going to go into debt, at least for farmers who are just starting out? 

Hervé : In this race, farmers who are just starting out have no place. Those who start are those who take over the farm from their parents and continue to expand it. 

K. If he wants to survive, the conventional farmer can only expand, all the time? 

Hervé : Yes, I think so. But it is not that he « adopts the method »: we are in systems over which we do not have total control. The farmer who has 80 hectares, he works today to survive, which forces him to mechanize, to sell to some operators, to buy from others, so he is in the grip of a certain system. You can come back to the niches of proximity: short circuit, valorization, diversification, reception, which allow small structures, by creating added value, to get out of this system of large production in which it is the law of the strongest, and thus of the cheapest, which prevails. So whoever is not going to be competitive tomorrow, it’s like milk, it’s at a loss. And those farms that are disappearing, they are actually going to expand. 

K. Do you think these two models can coexist? How, in front of a consumer also attracted by « low prices », can we justify a slightly higher price for organically grown products? 

Hervé : There is a market price that represents a form of agriculture that only takes into account certain costs, and whose production has a relatively low cost compared to ours. But even this production is not profitable and does not allow anyone to make a living from it, so we must compensate for this, by premiums or by niches. In the organic sector, I and the consumers are responsible for the extra price. For me to survive, I need the consumer to pay more, which they do on the real price, but also by organizing so that I can deliver 20 families in one delivery, and making one payment so that I don’t have any accounting to manage. So we make an ethical choice by accepting to provide for our basic needs and knowing that we won’t earn much. 

K. You don’t want to oppose productivist farmers and organic farmers, both being caught in a market system that determines prices? 

Hervé : I think so. There are clearly policies that are under pressure from agribusiness, which demands low-cost food that in turn allows large-scale food processors and distributors to have low-cost inputs, which guarantees them higher margins. But they are also under some pressure to keep food affordable for the majority of the population. And this goes back much further, to the moment when, at the WTO level, States committed themselves to completely liberalize their agricultural sector, which poses real problems in terms of the power of the actors: a lobby of large-scale distribution, at the European level, well organized, clearly has more weight and influence on an agri-food system than producers, even consumers; we have consumers who ask for organic, who do not want GMOs, and yet GMOs are coming in, there are trials, the food of many cattle is essentially transgenic. 

K. In this sense, do conventional farmers have the capacity to get out of it, aren’t they a bit « chained »? 

Hervé : There are different opinions. There are fears, because you have to move from one system to another, and since these are structures that have large loans most of the time, there is a huge risk that this transition will go wrong and, if it does, that you will not be able to repay your loans. On the other hand, a farm is a system, everything is linked. You are in system A and you don’t know system B, you don’t know how to get from A to B, so there is a transition to manage, which is not at all obvious. 

K. K.: Is there any help for retraining? 

Hervé : In the Walloon Region, there is a per-hectare aid that is more important in the years of conversion. The ones I talked to, who have converted their farms and have acreage up to 40 hectares, are very happy to have done so; but it has involved a lot of changes, and they have gone through some relatively hard years. 

K. Organic agriculture is a social project, subversive, and favors short circuits and human beings… 

Hervé : That’s the original specifications, but it’s no longer the current organic agriculture, the agri-food industry is pressuring to open up these specifications. At the beginning, agrobiology had several components, including a sociological, human component. This component has totally fallen, finally the specifications have been reduced to a purely technical-agronomic part. What is happening is that we are moving towards organic business, i.e. 40 hectares of leeks, 100 hectares of carrots… But from a human point of view, sustainability, balance and food quality, these systems are not optimal. 

K. What can farmers do about it? 

Hervé : I think the question of the link is important. The problem for the consumer is that he is in his city, cut off from everything. For my part, I am convinced that the urban model is an out-of-ground model that has no future. Someone who lives in the city, in a mostly concrete environment, goes to the supermarket and the relationship he has with his food stops there; he sees nothing of what is behind it. He doesn’t know that « organic » can mean that tomatoes are produced in a heated greenhouse; that it can mean that people in socially unacceptable conditions have harvested these products at the end of the planet. And even if they know it intellectually, they don’t live it. So I think that, at our level, we have to recreate the human link and bring people to touch the earth, the vegetables, to find the essence and the importance of food and the way it is produced. Be aware that they, by buying things, have power, and give their agreement. 

K. Do you make baskets for people who live in cities? 

Hervé : Mostly in the city, there is a strong demand. 

K. To address the production model on your farm, can you describe the balance that governs it? 

Hervé : I don’t have a fixed system that I could have experimented with over a period of time. I try to have a system that ensures a certain stability, with an output, that is to say everything that comes out of the surface: your crops, your meat, your products, etc., while trying that the land, despite this output, is maintained at its same level of fertility. Among these methods, I practice the use of manure. It is a sustainable system which is that of the polyculture-breeding: the breeding which not only values a part of your cultures but in more brings back inputs: all the manure reconstitutes 

the humus and value of your soil. 

K. K.: You work by hand, manually. For example you milk the sheep twice a day for 7 months, that’s a big job! 

Hervé : It is rational in our case to do it by hand, I’m not saying that if I had 60 ewes or if I were older I could still do it, so we have to be flexible about this question of mechanization. But I believe that milking by hand gives a better quality. I think, for example, that the machines bring problems of mastitis, my ewes never had any. 

K. I feel like we keep coming back to the same thing: the biggest productions involve the machines, and swallow up the small farms. Should there be more small farms? 

Hervé : It depends on what we want. Today, society is making a choice, that of having low cost food available for the cities in the big stores. This is the consumption model. The model you are talking about is not realistic today because people are concentrated in cities. So if you have a lot of small farms everywhere like mine, how are we going to do the distribution for 11 million people, it’s not possible. This model is the model of the time when people were split up everywhere. There are models of production, distribution and consumption, and these three are linked: you cannot move one without moving the others. If in the future, cities expand and we return to a network rather than a core, this will be possible. 

K. What do you think about urban agriculture? 

Hervé : Nothing at all. I don’t believe in it… well, yes, you can produce things but I don’t believe in the city model, let alone the city farming model. The city is a model that has been enabled by cheap carbon. Tomorrow, if it becomes expensive, or even if there is no longer any, we know that there will be problems feeding the cities and getting the products to them. The logistics that make the producer far from the consumer is only allowed because there is cheap carbon. 

In Montreal, there is a guy who covers tunnel buildings, everything is hydroponic(1) and it produces a lot. It produces in optimal conditions from a technical point of view. But I think at some point you have to go down to the level of your interiority and ask yourself if it makes sense: Does it make sense for you to grow tomatoes in an inert substrate on the roof of a shack in the middle of the city? For me, what makes sense is to have a piece of land, to work it to keep a relationship with what lives, and to be in an environment that lives naturally, to see nature express itself next to me and to see this magic. 

K. To come to the relationship with the buyers… what do you call them, the clients? 

Hervé : We call them « groups ». In our system we have a permanence, I bring the vegetables in bulk, I put a list with what each one must take, and each one weighs the vegetables. Generally speaking, they are quite tolerant, so I have much less loss than if I were to deliver to an actor who is within the current product appearance standards. 

K. There is a huge game of appearance, and a huge amount of work to do with people on that level as well. It’s amazing this disgust of nature, a slug in a salad is a good sign! 

Hervé : There is a distaste for nature, I think. There is a mental construction of reality that no longer takes into account this living and natural part and the fact that we remain an animal. There are a thousand examples of things that are less and less natural. I think about maternity, childbirth, the systematization of C‑sections and epidurals… you can have women telling you that breastfeeding disgusts them. At some point, a mental construction takes precedence over a physiology. If we go back to breeding, we can see that some mares do not come into heat anymore because they have never been bred; they have only lived through artificial insemination. There are losses of maternal instinct: if you always pull the young and the mothers no longer have the opportunity to nurse, to have contact with their offspring, at some point the animals no longer care for their young. So we see with the animals that when we cut ourselves off from the living, the living programs the end. A breed that no longer comes in heat is a breed that self-destructs. The living has a logic and if you go against this logic, the living brings death. In organic farming, we go towards rustic breeding, we try to have animals that are resistant, we produce less but we manage. In the industry, production is maintained with artifacts, with pharmacopoeia, with boosters, but it is destructive. We should return, I believe, to the understanding of what the principles of life are, if we want to continue to have living systems. 

K. Do you see a conscious change in the buying groups? It’s a bit of a de-indoctrination job? 

Hervé : No, I’m not sure it’s going to happen. What happens is that an emotional bond is created with these people, and little by little you give information that passes, in the process of information-awareness-mobilization. Once this link is created, we don’t talk about customers, producers, or prices, we are together. And that transcends the market, because the problem is that the market opposes a producer and a consumer via a price, the first one wants more, the other one less. And here we are in this logic of opposition and suspicion. Here this thing is swept away, we no longer talk about the price, we talk about money but more about how to make it viable for me, and how to make it not too heavy for them. So we are partners, more than consumers/producers. I never use the word customer, they are subscribers, groups… We recently celebrated the end of the season, we met in a café with the two groups. 

K. It’s amazing how everything comes back to the same thing: the essential link between human beings, which in the end has been destroyed by the market that atomizes individuals. In a big store, you take a product as if it was self-generating. 

Hervé : (laughs). The circuit and distribution are not visible. With the connection — to your body, to others, to the living — people, too locked up in mental and material concerns, rediscover to what extent there are things that are the very essence of life, like the body, food, the relationship with the living. What you sometimes find out too late, when you are sick. 

Interview by A.P.

Notes et références
  1. Voir pages 18 et 19.

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