Imagine your healthy and edible city…
Imagine all the urban centers of Europe growing vegetables and fruits…
Imagine a time when eating local and ethical food was not an option but the usual way of life…
Let’s talk about the early 1800s.
Urbanization and the advent of industry profoundly changed society during the 19th century. The peasants of Paris, to survive, fought, develop a productive method also in their crops in the city: the bio-intensive garden.
Let’s review a bit of history together to understand where this method comes from. But be careful! We are not only talking about the agriculture of the past: we are talking about the agriculture of tomorrow.
Paris in 1800: the industrial revolution and the peasants of the city
At the beginning of the 19th century, there was major changes in society it also affected agriculture: the advent of the industrial age and the invention of the train made it possible to transport fresh vegetables and fruits quickly over long distances. Thanks to this, it became easier get rid of the notion of seasonal products enjoying the delights of the regions further south.
industrial age it brought with it fantastic new technologies, but it endangered the very existence of urban agriculture. This has completely transformed the agricultural model and our society.
In Paris , the great capital of Europe, farmers had to reinvent agriculture to survive. During these years a much more competitive way of doing things was born, the result of extraordinary ingenuity, many technologies used today in agriculture come from this period. About 200 years ago, Parisian urban farmers invented the bio-intensive method .
Interestingly, as old as it is, even today, the bio-intensive garden still responds well to the needs of the modern world:
It makes it possible to produce a large quantity of vegetables without the need to use chemical inputs;
Produces highly nutritious food;
Regenerates soils and helps store carbon in the soil;
Thanks to the tools developed over the past 15 years, care is largely manual, freeing agriculture from its dependence on oil;
Today, scientific studies and the experience of a growing number of farms demonstrate its economic viability;
At that time and still today, farmers are supported by local and solidarity purchasing circuits.
But back to 1800 . There were still no combustion engines, no synthetic pesticides or fertilizers. The use of chemical nitrogen was discovered at the end of the century. Books by famous peasants from Paris explain how impossible it is to produce tasty food with the use of synthetic fertilizers. Instead, they recommended the use of horse manure , considered by them the best for growing vegetables. Books written by farmers throughout the 19th century are very informative. They explain in detail all farming practices, from tillage to harvest. They also describe another very important subject for the proper functioning of the factors: social organization. Very interesting and also available for free in the Google library, they represent real windows on the past… for those who can read French.
Browsing through these pages reveals just how much it was already possible to produce naturally at that time. Everything that we forget today, where chemistry reigns.
Lots of horses – lots of fertilizer
In 1800 horse riding was very popular and in the city there was a special concentration of these animals. Think the streets of Paris were covered in more than 100,000 horsepower per day . Each of them generously offers about 30 kg of manure per day… Imagine mountains of steaming manure to clean up every day of the year!
Several days a week, the approximately 4,000 urban farms in Paris brought a load of vegetables to the neighborhood market. They came back in the afternoon: the vegetables sold and the cart full of horse manure. The manure was mixed with straw, creating a big pile.
Today, a farmer’s wealth is measured by the model of tractor he boasts of driving or the size of his shed. However, at that time people preferred to look at the size of their manure pile which, being the only fertilizer, was synonymous with abundant production. Therefore, the pile was deliberately placed at the entrance of the farm, clearly visible to all.
How times have changed…
Before being placed on the ground, the manure was composted for several months and then used as fertilizer.
Small space: intensive culture
Paris, like all cities, was already in constant expansion at that time. Unlike the farmers outside the city, the farms inside the wall had limited space for cultivation. For the first time in agriculture, the issue of space scarcity was raised.
This is why, in the bio-intensive method, the vegetables are grown very close to each other. . The plants are cleverly associated, for example by planting carrots with radishes, the space is optimized. When the radishes are harvested, the carrots begin to sprout. With such a combination, the farmer not only saves space but also valuable time. But this trick was still not enough.
Produce also in winter
Think of how our urban farmers produced in winter without plastic greenhouses… They were the fathers of greenhouses: although glass greenhouses had existed for years, their use was reserved only for royal gardens.
Thanks to the first industries, farmers were able to buy glass bowls to place on plants protecting them from the cold. Each plant has its own container. To allow the plants to breathe, these bowls were open during the day and closed at night. Mechanically? Do not! By hand, one by one… The farmer with the most had 4,000.
But it doesn’t stop there: in addition to bowls, in the evening, the crops were covered with mattresses of branches . Don’t make weird expressions, you know this technique more than you think. Today we do the same thing with non-woven!
Thanks to industrial progress, a few years later, it became possible to buy windows, which were used instead of basins. Much more convenient then. Nowadays, we widely use the plastic and iron arches to create large self-opening greenhouses. What luck! It would be unthinkable to work as many hours as during the industrial revolution.
19th century farmers realized that it was not enough to insulate the crops, they also had to be heated . Fortunately, Paris abounded in fresh manure. The farmers had the brilliant idea of using it to create” heated beds “. A technique used until 1970-1980 by farmers around the world. The idea is as simple as it is fantastic : Pile the right amount of fresh manure and mix it with the right amount of straw. This creates a whole lot of heat, up to the knee. Add 15cm of loam, and There you go ! You will get all-natural heating for 4 months, after which the pile will be composted. Awesome !
Today we use gas, oil or electric boilers to achieve the same result.
The rediscovery of the bio-intensive method today (and tomorrow!)
Thanks to their passion and authenticity, these farmers have made Paris a city that has been self-sufficient in vegetable production for about 100 years . Not content with satisfying capital, they exported the surplus to England. Today Paris has food autonomy for 3 days!
For twenty years the bio-intensive method has been rediscovered!
As then, farmers put their minds at the service of society and invent new ways of producing. Jean-Martin Fortier explains it well in his book “Cultivating Biotechnology with Success”. In France, “la ferme du bec Hellouin” has conducted numerous scientific studies in collaboration with the Agronomic University of Paris and has shown the incredible productivity and economic feasibility of this approach. They tell their story in the book “Miraculous Abundance”. Easy-to-read pages that increase the desire to become a farmer.
Many more around the world are opening new farms or converting family businesses into bio-intensive businesses. Also in Italy, more and more people have realized the advantages of this approach compared to conventional cultivation.
A nice hat on your head and a smile on your face to feed our communities today, thanks to the sustainable agriculture of tomorrow.
For an introduction to bio-intensive horticulture techniques you can read this beautiful article.