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Science shows how permaculture could be the sustainable future of farming

Lush Times columnist and founder of Permaculture Magazine, Maddy Harland describes how a French Farm that provides a healthy income for three people - and locks up more carbon than a conventional farm - shows a practical way to reduce climate change.


La Ferme Biologique du Bec Hellouin is known as the 'miraculous abundance' permaculture farm run by Charles and Perrine Hervé-Gruyer. It is comprised of 20 hectares of land in Normandy, France, yet only one hectare is bio-intensively managed as an organic market garden. The rest is pasture, woodland, forest gardens, orchards and wild places. Despite this, the farm supports at least three people.


Usually one French farmer requires 120 hectares of land to earn a living. This is a revolution! How do they achieve such healthy yields whilst maintaining a tapestry of rich natural habitats and generate employment?


In the market garden, the Bec uses a number of methods: Eliot Coleman’s biointensive gardening that enables market gardeners to grow food all year round. They have a variety of raised beds, mounds or hugelkulturs - which are no-dig raised beds, often filled with rotting wood that helps them retain moisture - hot raised beds under cover and polytunnels. They also use companion planting and plant their beds densely, inspired by la culture maraîchère (market gardening) practised in Paris during the second half of the 19th Century.


Beyond the intensely cultivated one hectare garden, there are forest gardens designed with edible and useful trees, shrubs, herbaceous perennials, ground cover, and roots. The plants fill every niche of the canopy and there are silvi-pastures (grazing under trees) for the horse and poultry.


Charles and Perrine enhance the biodiversity of the site wherever possible, creating new habitats by planting of trees and digging of ponds. Only the woodlands are left relatively ‘wild’ but the aim in all 49 hectares is to leave as much to Nature as possible.


All of these elements are framed by the organising principles and ethics of permaculture design. Many people assume that permaculture is ‘organic gardening with Nature’, especially if it involves mulching, but it is so much more than that.


Permaculture is an innovative framework for creating regenerative ways of living. It is a practical method for developing ecologically harmonious, ethical, human-scale, and productive systems. So yes, permaculture can be used to design gardens and farms, but it can also be used to design communities, enterprises and conservation projects … any endeavour that aims to be ethical and Earth- and people-friendly.


Charles and Perrine also use permaculture design to help them be as energy efficient, Earth-friendly and productive as possible. What is outstanding about the farm is that all the work has been scientifically tested.


Recent studies have revealed high productivity, strong economic yields and biodiversity, plus the capacity to sequester carbon in the soil that draws down carbon dioxide: a win-win result and the Holy Grail of farming in the 21st century.


Charles says, “We started with very poor soil, and this study shows that it now has exceptional qualities, only with the use of local organic matter. Organic carbon locked up in the soil increases by more than 10% each year! The minerals are very high too.”


A New Focus on Permaculture Research


The Insitut Sylva and Université de Liège in Belgium recently released their research at Le Bec in an academic research paper entitled Influence des pratiques de la Ferme du Bec Hellouin sur la fertilité et la matière organique du sol (2017).


Taking into account the year of cultivation of each plot on the farm, we can calculate the organic carbon storage rates of each different section. The forest garden (mixing trees, shrubs and vegetables and fruit) has a storage rate of 1.57 tonnes of organic carbon per hectare, cultivated per year, and an average annual increase of 2.96% which is more than seven times the target of ‘4 tonnes per thousand’.


The raised bed area including hugelkulturs shows an increase in the mass storage rate of 2.93 tonnes of organic carbon per hectare, cultivated per year, an average annual increase in stored carbon of 5.16%, which is almost 13 times the ‘target’ of four tonnes per thousand. (according to the French National Institute for Agricultural Research, an increase of four tonnes per thousand of the global organic carbon stock would stabilise concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, thus halting climate change.


And the biointensive raised bed area has the highest storage rate of all. Its organic carbon stock is the largest - despite the more recent date of cultivation. The annual mass storage rate is 5.90 tonnes of organic carbon per cultivated hectare, an average annual increase of 10.41% in the stock, more than 26 times the target of 4 tonnes per thousand. What these figures prove is that the farm’s growing techniques have a very high potential for storing organic carbon in soils.


So what else do these incredible statistics suggest? The Bec has the potential to take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and lock up carbon in the soil and biomass, reducing greenhouse gases and making it an .important and highly practical way of creating planet-cooling growing systems which are a viable alternative to fossil fuel-hungry, polluting industrial agriculture.


In addition, the farm demonstrates that we can support more people on the land, regenerating rural economies, whilst using no chemicals and pesticides, and still leave big spaces in which Nature can thrive.


This really is the future of farming.


Charles and Perrine’s book, Miraculous Abundance, describes how they set up their farm. For more information visit:


Maddy Harland is the co-founder and editor of Permaculture magazine – earth care, people care and future care – and the author of Fertile Edges, one of the books we featured at the Lush 2018 Summit

Photo credit: Don Wood


Many people assume that permaculture is ‘organic gardening with Nature’, especially if it involves mulching, but it is so much more than that

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