Profitable and Ecological Small-Scale Farming

French Permaculture Farm is a Model for 21st Century Agriculture

by BC Farms & Food  -  Permalink
February 28, 2018

Le Bec Hellouin Farm in Normandy is a model of how small-scale biointensive farming can drive economic development and produce greater yields than industrial agriculture. Combining the age-old techniques of Parisian market gardening, biointensive farming, permaculture, and edible forest gardens, La Ferme du Bec Hellouin shows how small farms can be profitable and sustainable on as little as one quarter acre of land.

Aerial view of Le Bec Hellouin Farm, an example of profitable and ecological small-scale farming.

Le Bec Hellouin Farm in Normandy, France, uses biointensive permaculture methods such as ponds, island gardens, terraces, a forest garden, and raised hot beds to increase farm production and profitability.

Starting a New Career in Farming

In October 2006, Charles Hervé-Gruyer, a world sailor and educator and his wife Perrine, an international lawyer, left their careers behind and officially started a small organic farm on a site they’d begun developing in Le Bec-Hellouin, a beautiful township in France’s Normandy region.

In their new life, the couple wanted to grow their own food, become more self-sufficient, and make a contribution to society and nature. Although they lacked agricultural training, they set to work on their 1.6 acre property (later expanded to 4.6 acres) adjacent to the famous Bec Abbey. Over the next two years, with the help of friends and volunteers, they transformed their scenic property into a working organic market garden. Their unique farm soon drew ecotourists. Yet despite the farm’s varied produce and growing local fame, Charles and Perrine were physically exhausted and running a financial deficit.

“Our life as organic farmers was nothing like our initial dream,” Perrine and Charles wrote in their book, Miraculous Abundance. “We never imagined it would be so hard—working so much at the limit of our strength … never a moment to contemplate what we created.”

They began to look for a new approach to make the farm financially successful while still staying true to their original goals of farming in tune with the natural environment. Incorporating the wisdom of successful sustainable farming pioneers, as well as practices from 19th century Parisian market gardeners and growers in other parts of the world, they would create a new model for farming that would reach far beyond their small homestead.

Discovering Permaculture

Perrine Herve-Gruyere works in the chicken coop inside the greenhouse at Le Bec Hellouin farm. The farm is an example of profitable and ecological small-scale farming.

Perrine Hervé-Gruyer in the farm’s greenhouse. By situating the chicken coop inside the greenhouse, the birds can roam freely and fertilize crops. The flat roof of the chicken coop provides space for additional raised beds.

In 2008, they discovered permaculture. Permanent Agriculture or “permaculture” is an agricultural system developed by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the 1970s. Permaculture calls for modelling a farm as closely as possible to natural ecosystems. This requires careful analysis of a site’s topography, wind and water patterns, microclimates, energy flows, and soil types. Specific techniques of permaculture include permanent raised beds, companion planting, mulching, composting, seed conservation, nitrogen-fixing ground covers, multi-layer plant communities, and orchards all integrated into one year-round growing system. As Charles and Perrine searched for examples of how to integrate permaculture into an efficient and successful market garden farm, they discovered the work of three innovators in successful sustainable agriculture.

Biointensive Farming

The first was John Jeavons of Ecology Action, based in Willits California. Starting in the 1970s and continuing into the present, Jeavons and his associates explored, tested, and documented the minimum amount of land necessary under biointensive cultivation to provide food and fibre for one person for a year. It proved to be about 370 square meters (about 4,000 square feet).

Four Season Growing

Hot beds surrounded by hay bales at Le Bec Hellouin Farm, an example of profitable and ecological small-scale farming.

Hot beds built in the style of 19th century Parisian market gardens, hold a thick layer of manure at their core. The decomposing manure warms the soil to 20ºC (68ºF).

Their second mentor, Eliot Coleman, an influential American market gardener, perfected a system of growing during all four seasons. At his farm in coastal Maine, Coleman developed ways to cultivate fresh crops throughout the long cold winters. Ironically, he received his inspiration from the 19th century Parisian market gardens which grew almost all the vegetables for a city of a million people using biointensive four-season growing methods. Parisian market gardeners used the abundant manure from the city’s horses and built raised hotbeds covered with glass cloches to keep growing vegetables warm all winter.

Mountainside Permaculture

Finally, the third pioneer in sustainable agriculture was Sepp Holzer, a strong-willed Austrian family farmer who devised a highly-productive terraced permaculture farm on steep mountainsides, 1,500 meters (4,900 feet) above sea level.

Biointensive Permaculture in Practice

With permaculture, biointensive farming, and four-season growing as guiding principles, Charles and Perrine developed their own approach. They redesigned Le Bec Hellouin Farm to include biointensive raised beds and island gardens surrounded by ponds. They also created a highly-productive edible forest garden with fruit trees, shrubs, berries, ground cover, and edible vines. On the farm’s slopes, they shaped ten small terrace gardens, which benefited from a warmer microclimate. Productivity and environmental restoration soared.

Ponds on the farm promote biodiversity. This is a model for profitable and ecological small-scale farming.

Ponds at the farm bring a diversity of beneficial birds and insects. Island gardens (such as the one shown, center) with spiraling raised beds draw up nutrients from the wetland’s fertile mud.

By incorporating nature into their farm, Perrine and Charles reaped the benefits of natural interactions between ecosystems. The wetlands and woodlands brought a diversity of pollinators, and provided natural pest management as aquatic birds, frogs and snakes went into the farm to eat crop destroying slugs. In addition to the wildlife, these natural areas enhanced farm productivity in numerous ways. The fertile mud that concentrated in the bottom of the ponds provided good fertilizer for raised beds. Nettles, comfrey and burdock, which grew in wild abundance, supplied a mineral-rich mulch for growing crops. Trimmings from the forest garden made good woodchips.

The Study: Quantifying the Productivity of a Quarter of an Acre

In 2010, a team of French government agronomists visited La Ferme du Bec Hellouin. Amazed by the abundance of this unusual farm and its potential as a model for post-industrial agriculture, they proposed a multi-year study. The study sought to answer these questions:

1. Using the farm’s biointensive permaculture techniques, how much economic performance could be obtained in 1,000 square meters (about one quarter acre)?

2. How much work would be required to achieve this performance on 1,000 square meters?

A single farmer, using these techniques and no machinery except hand tools on one quarter acre, could generate approximately $84,000 dollars gross sales per year.

Results: The Benefits of Biointensive Permaculture Farming

The study began in the fall of 2011, with intense record keeping and analysis of all actions in the growing test areas. It continued for the next three years.

The report was released in 2015. In it, researchers found that a single farmer, using La Ferme du Bec Hellouin techniques on 1,000 square meters (one quarter acre), with no machinery except hand tools, could generate approximately $84,000 dollars (CAD) or $66,700 (US) gross sales per year. The take-home profit after all expenses amounted to about $29,000 dollars (CAD) or $23,000 (US) per year. This outcome would require about 43 hours of work per week (30 hours on site, and 13 hours on administration) with four weeks of vacation per year.

The researchers did not quantify the environmental performance of the farming techniques, but did note a very large increase in the diversity of beneficial insect and bird species on the farm. (Article continues below video.)

Video: Introduction to Permaculture at the Bec Hellouin Farm
(by L’Ecole de Permaculture du Bec Hellouin)

21st Century Model for Small-Scale Agriculture

La Ferme du Bec Hellouin remains an evolving farm-laboratory for microagriculture. The farm quantitatively demonstrates that biointensive permaculture can be financially successful, while generating significantly more food than industrial agriculture for the energy expended. As Perrine notes, “Natural ecosystems generally produce twice as much biomass per hectare than our cultivated agricultural systems.”

Le Bec Hellouin Farm’s methods are a map to the productivity and human employment needed to feed the world in the post fossil fuel era. They are also an example of how, in agriculture, we can begin the long effort to rehabilitate our ecological relationship to the natural world.

“In these unprecedented times of ecological and social crises, as we enter a period of declining energy that will shake the very foundations of our civilization,” Charles and Perrine wrote in their book, “permaculture helps us imagine a future rich with an abundance of essential goods—simply because it is inspired by nature, which has always been able to generate overflowing ecosystem vitality, even in resource-poor settings.”

Miraculous Abundance

Miraculous Abundance, a book by Perrine and Charles Hervé-GruyerPerrine and Charles describe their journey in sustainable farming at La Ferme du Bec Hellouin in their book, Miraculous Abundance: One Quarter Acre, Two French Farmers, and Enough Food to Feed the World. A hands-on vision of a positive sustainable future for farming, this inspiring book is worth every minute of the time it takes to read it.

Miraculous Abundance
One Quarter Acre, Two French Farmers, and Enough Food to Feed the World
by Perrine and Charles Hervé-Gruyer
Published by Chelsea Green Publishing, 2016
Photos reprinted with permission of Chelsea Green Publishing.


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9 Responses leave one →
  1. 2019 May 22
    George Orser permalink

    Unless those are miniature greenhouses and very small buildings, the picture of this interesting homestead shows a parcel much larger than 1/4 of an acre.

    • 2019 May 22
      BC Farms & Food permalink

      1/4 acre is the size of the test plot used to study the productivity of their farming methods. The farm itself is much larger.

  2. 2019 January 30
    Tara permalink

    The Farm is lovely and I admire their hard work and determination. My hubby and I have the same dreams and we started a small scale farm 3 years ago on 1/2 acre. We are taking this year off to regroup as we too have found it very challenging to get above the red. We also had a baby the same year we started farming which was extremely challenging to say the least.

    Costs are prohibitive and we are at a point where we can’t afford to farm. I live in BC, Canada and land is impossible to purchase as housing costs here are out of control, so we were leasing some land. We moved our farm closer to home last year and the new land owner took 50% of our profits (that’s another story) and this put a huge dent in our financials and our ability to farm the following year (2019).

    I don’t know how to farm without going significantly into debt. Because land is so expensive, owners with land available want high lease costs to compensate for land worth. $1,000 a year for a lease is a lot when you only made $6,000, and half of that went back into the farm! I don’t feel safe farming other people’s properties when you can put years of hard work into the land to have it turned around and sold to the highest bidder. It’s uncertain.

    Your article says the profit was $29K for a year of farming. Is that a good profit in Paris? In Vancouver, BC , there is no way you could survive off that. I think farmers need to be subsidized to make a real living which is unfortunate as we all need food to survive. We need to make $80-$100K take home in order for it to be profitable here. Not sure how to make that happen!

    • 2019 January 30
      BC Farms & Food permalink

      Using the intensive techniques described in the article, the farmers at Le Bec Hellouin were able to make a profit of $29,000 (CAD) per quarter acre, or $116,000 (CAD) per acre. That amount might allow for a sustainable income, even in the high-priced Vancouver area.

      As you note, not being able to buy farmland is a significant obstacle. The ability to develop permaculture features, soil fertility, and forest garden plantings are key to the success of this farming model. Without land ownership or a long-term (lifetime) lease on farmland, a farmer has little security. A farmer’s labour and cost investment in land and soil improvements can be lost in a moment. We discuss these vital issues further in the article, How We Can Regrow Sustainable Agriculture in BC.

      • 2019 October 9
        Alin permalink

        Just to be sure I understand … the profit is 29K/quarter acre/with 30 hours of work in a week …
        So one person could have only 13 hours of administrative work for 1 acre, but it will need 120 hours of physical work (3 farmers) to have the 116k/ year per acre …
        I am wrong ?
        Thank you

        • 2019 October 9
          BC Farms & Food permalink

          A straight conversion of the data from the 1/4 acre used in the study to 1 acre would be: approximately $336,000 (CAD) gross, $116,000 (CAD) profit, 52 hours of administration, and 120 hours on site, with 4 weeks of vacation per year.

          The study concluded it would take 43 hours of work per 1/4 acre. So an area four times that size would, as you say, take more farmers. It seems possible that you could reduce/combine some of the 52 administrative hours when farming an acre.

          This interview from Regeneration International with Perrine Hervé-Gruyer explains more about the study and the benefits of this model of farming.

  3. 2018 April 8
    Dave Friend aka Mr. Organic permalink

    Yup, a great informative, educational and ‘there is hope’ article !!


  4. 2018 March 6
    Bob Maxwell permalink

    Wonderful!! This really gives me hope.

    Thanks so much for writing this.


  5. 2018 March 1
    D J Clark permalink

    Great article! A book that has gone on my ‘to read’ list.
    Thanks BC Farms & Food!

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