Oxford Real Farming Conference – Part Two

Day two of Oxford Real Farming Conference (ORFC) 2018 saw me attend my most inspiring talk of the conference, the chance to hear Perrine Herve-Gruyer of La Ferme du Bec Hellouin talk about using permaculture and bi-intensive methods to be highly productive farming on a small-scale.

I admit to not knowing of this Normandy garden before the talk, but the brief description in the programme made going to the talk entitled ‘Miraculous Abundance: One Quarter Acre, Two French Farmers and Enough Food to Feed the World’ feel essential to me. I should note that title is also the title of Charles Herve-Gruyer’s book on their story of making Bec Hellouin a global success story.

Ms Herve-Gruyer spoke of their ethos being a combination of production and presentation, through using various small-scale, organic, and natural methods in combination with revived forgotten techniques from history (such as practices from Parisian gardens in the 19th century).

The market garden is not big, but produces a lot of food. It is 20 hectares in total, but currently only 1500m2 is used for production and over 800 crops are grown on the farm. And the results speak for themselves, with academic researchers studying their methods and yields finding one-tenth of a hectare at Bec Hellouin cultivated with their bio-intensive methods yields produces equivalent to one hectare of a large mechanised farm.

bec hellouin
Pic © La Ferme du Bec Hellouin (https://www.fermedubec.com)

Hearing Ms Herve-Gruyer speak so eloquently and passionately about the success, and learning experiences, garnered at the farm was really inspirational. It really showed what can be achieved on a small-scale using such methods and also gave me some ideas to think about when it comes to my growing over the coming years. And the pictures proved Bec Hellouin is not only productive, but also immensely beautiful. It felt a real treat to hear this talk and I do intend to go get the book for further learning.

Another highlight for the second day at Oxford Town Hall was a lively talk on the market opportunities in the UK for sustainable herb cultivation. To sum up there does seem a lot of scope for UK growers as the industry attempts to become less dependent on imports.

Those in the culinary, cosmetics (including Lush, who were represented on the panel), and medicinal sectors are on the look-out for sustainable suppliers – so there is real demand out there. Indeed the likes of sage, primrose, chickweed, nettle, wheatgrass and hawthorn were mentioned by name as being wanted to be ethically sourced by large companies.

However, there are key issues, including drying and steam sterilisation, which seems to harbour growers from scaling up their businesses to grow more and supply in-bulk. On a positive note there is definitely a lively and passionate bunch of herb growers and enthusiasts who want to fill that demand void and ensure UK companies’ source more sustainable herbs from home-based growers.

A total of over 50 talks were held throughout the two days and Oxford Town Hall. You can read my reflection on day one of ORFC 2018 here.

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