Can a permaculture farm be profitable

Is Permaculture Profitable?

In Normandy, a permaculture farm in vegetable growing generates fantastic sales. Nevertheless, practice does not provide a magic formula for high incomes.

From Bettina Dyttrich

Over 57,000 euros - that is how much turnover the Bec Hellouin permaculture farm in Normandy made in 2014. And not in total, but on a small section alone: ​​on a hand-managed vegetable plot of just one thousand square meters. That is far more than is common in French vegetable growing. The number caused a stir in the alternative farmer scene - after all, the study came from the renowned national institute national de la recherche agronomique (Inra).

Object lesson for career changers

Bec Hellouin is a twenty hectare farm with many typical permaculture elements: forest gardens, hill beds, ponds and animals. The Inra examined the most profitable, most intensive vegetable growing plots, some of which are covered with plastic sheeting. Perrine and Charles Hervé-Gruyer and their employees have developed handcrafted vegetable growing to perfection. You sow and plant very densely: the carrots have hardly any space next to the radishes, but the radishes ripen earlier, and when they are harvested, the carrots can catch up. The beds are never empty and the ground is never uncovered.

In addition, Bec Hellouin benefits from the many tinkerers in France who have optimized various hand tools enormously: the soil can be worked much faster with wide, multi-pronged digging forks, and new hand seeders sow six rows at once. The flat terrain, the mildly humid Norman climate and large amounts of horse manure as fertilizer are also favorable. Last but not least, the Hervé-Gruyers supply fine restaurants, and specialties such as mini vegetables and edible flowers fetch high prices. The farm that appeared in the successful eco-document film “Demain” (“Tomorrow”) has encouraged many career changers.

No system that is self-sufficient

But as gratifying as the results of the study are, they have also led to misunderstandings. "I keep meeting people who, because of this study, think they can live on a small vegetable plot - and then pretty much come into the world," says Rudi Berli, vegetable farmer at the contracted agricultural project Les Jardins de Cocagne in Geneva. The authors of the study themselves emphasize that the area examined is part of a larger whole - from manure to the microclimate to the beneficial insects that benefit from the hedges and ponds - and not a system that is self-sufficient.

Another permaculture project shows how much success depends on local conditions: La Bourdaisière in the Loire Valley, near the city of Tours. The Swiss biologist and journalist Florianne Koechlin visited it for her new book, which she wrote together with Denise Battaglia. Its founder, Maxime de Rostolan, continued his education on Bec Hellouin and hoped for similar returns. But more demanding soils and unpredictable weather thwarted his plans. De Rostolan's conclusion: "Permaculture is not a magic formula."

Alternative to bigger and bigger companies

In addition: Many permaculture projects, especially in the mountain areas, live with a much harsher climate than Bec Hellouin and have no large vegetable patches at all. Alpine permaculture therefore often relies more heavily on berry bushes, fruit trees, herbs and animals. This creates diverse, beautiful, species-rich landscapes - but they are definitely not an economic magic formula either.

There are still no studies on the economic aspects of permaculture in Switzerland. In the canton of Vaud, a study on “microfermes” began last year, some of which were inspired by permaculture, says Alice Dos Santos from the Research Institute for Organic Agriculture (FiBL), which is organizing a permaculture conference in Morges next May. The study on Bec Hellouin will remain the reference point for the time being, which - despite all the misunderstandings - rightly encourages all those who are looking for an alternative to ever larger companies with ever larger machines.

Florianne Koechlin, Denise Battaglia: “What peas hear and what cows race for”. Lenos Publishing House. Basel 2018. 262 pages. 32 francs.

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