Can Paris keep its farms?

The Saclay plateau, near Paris, is reputedly France’s most fertile agricultural land. But proximity to the capital makes the land ripe for development

Taste of Paris … Saclay farmers could try to target local markets, pushing out vegetable imports. Photograph: Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty

The wind blows across the Saclay plateau, drawing patterns in the barley fields. Nadine Vilain walks along the track, pointing out what will be left of her farm. Of the existing 40 hectares, only 13 will soon be spared from new developments. Route Nationale 118, which cuts across the plateau on its way to Paris, 15km to the north-east, runs close to her fields. Beyond the road various new university buildings are going up, the forerunners of a science and technology cluster.

About a dozen farmers are still working on the plateau. Five of them will probably be affected by the projected cluster, according to the Terre et Cité conservation group; only two, according to EPPS, the publicly owned organisation co-ordinating the project to build a university campus, a science park, thousands of homes and a rail link.

Like Vilain, and her daughter Elodie, who is poised to take over the farm, the other farmers are likely to lose a substantial part of their land. But Antoine du Souich, head of sustainable development at EPPS, maintains that it will all balance out in the end, with land given up by retiring farmers being distributed among those who remain.

What bothers the farmers most, here and elsewhere in the Paris area, is the uncertainty over the future of their land, which is constantly under threat from advancing urbanisation. “Three years ago I bought a combine harvester. Then I lost 30 hectares, so it will take longer than planned to pay off the investment,” says Emmanuel Vandamme, one of those affected by the cluster project. “If they want to take the fields, then so be it. But not a little bit at a time.” Several farmers are convinced there are plans for agriculture on the plateau to be completely phased out. According to an EPPS report, almost 1,000 hectares – a quarter of the area under cultivation around Saclay – has been lost since 1982. But until now building has been patchy, with no overall direction. Most of the farmland is now protected by a bill passed in 2010 fixing guidelines for the development of greater Paris.

Setting aside the amount of land to be protected, the key issue now is how best it should be used, so close to a major European city. For the time being coexistence between farmers and city dwellers is often difficult, with ramblers trampling crops underfoot and harvesters disturbing the sleep of nearby residents. So everyone is keen to find ways of bridging the gap between the two communities. The Saclay plateau is reputedly France’s most fertile farmland, with wheat yields substantially higher than the national average. But other markets beckon.

A pioneer in this field, the Viltain farm allows customers to pick their own fruit, vegetables and flowers in its gardens. Charles Monville raises organic poultry. An Association for the Preservation of Peasant Farming now runs a weekly vegetable box scheme. This summer Les Jardins de Cocagne, an organisation that specialises in market gardening, is taking over a farm once operated by the nuns at Vauhallan abbey.

The whole of Vandamme’s 230-hectare farm is now organic, and he bakes and sells his own bread. “I’m not fighting the bulldozers because I know we’ll lose. I prefer to adapt,” he says. “On the plateau we should do more to join forces and make ourselves useful to surrounding residents. We could flood the local market. When there’s no more oil they’ll be really glad to eat Saclay vegetables rather than stuff imported from Spain or Chile.”

This article originally appeared in Le Monde

Author: Angela Boris
Source: The Guardian



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