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Havelock vegetable farmers extol the no-till method

Keith Scott

Expecting a typical vegetable farm, first time visitors to Les Bontés de la Vallée in Havelock are often confused by what they see. Wild sumac, milkweed, and berry bushes dot the uneven landscape. Willows and birches sprout everywhere you look. Piles of compost rot in odd places, and ponds croak with frogs and toads. The vegetable fields — 23 of them in all — sit at odd angles relative to each other and to the rest of the terrain, each of them separated by still more willows and milkweeds.

In all, it gives the feel of a disheveled, unkempt workplace — or not a workplace at all, but a wilderness interspersed with vegetables, buildings, and equipment.

This look is no accident, however. Les Bontés de la Vallée owners François D’Aoust and Mélina Plante have tended this land carefully since 2007. Their goal with the farm is more than just to produce vegetables. “I was looking for ways to reproduce what I saw in nature, and to stop polluting waterways and phreatic zones, among other things,” D’Aoust said. “In my research, I discovered a method called natural farming and I started my first gardens with these principles.”

Biomimicry and natural farming, D’Aoust explains, are concepts increasingly used by farmers around the world, especially in the United States, to reduce the impacts of agriculture on both local and global environments. Through biomimicry, farmers like D’Aoust and Plante strive for a kind of agriculture that, like nature, regenerates important resources like soil and water.

When he first started farming 13 years ago, D’Aoust said, he didn’t understand natural farming well enough to run a successful natural farm. So he grew organic vegetables by the conventional method and experimented with regenerative agriculture on the side. “As the years went by, I saw my soil degrade rapidly,” he said. “Four years ago, I felt I had to make the big jump. I understood I couldn’t transition slowly or softly. I decided to stop working the soil entirely.”

D’Aoust’s regenerative methods are experimental for the Valley and few growers in the world, he said, have tried it with vegetable crops. “It’s a totally different approach,” D’Aoust said. “At the moment, I’m very inspired by what’s being done with big field crops like corn and soy. It’s a complex process but in short, before each [vegetable] crop, I plant cover crops, the most diverse I can find. My soil is always covered. Afterward, I finish by crushing and choking [the cover crops] and then I plant my vegetables in that.”

The farm has been somewhat of a mystery in the Chateauguay Valley since its inception, but interest is growing. For starters, Les Bontés de la Vallée over the seasons will be the subject of a documentary by award-winning filmmaker Carole Poliquin.

A timely development

Farmers around the world and here in the Valley are no strangers to the interconnected problems of soil compaction, erosion, nutrient loss, and runoff. Likewise, the ever-increasing need for inputs of soil, fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide is often a strain for farmers and the environment alike.

Solutions might be closer at hand than we think, D’Aoust said. The corn and soy farmers who inspire D’Aoust cover their soil in order to maintain its health and avoid run-off and erosion. This practice “mimics” nature in the sense that, in nature, the soil is rarely exposed to the elements as it is in intensive agriculture, where tilling produces short bursts of organic energy before depleting the soil.

 

Mélina Plante and François DAoust of Les Bontés de la Vallée began raising vegetables on their land in Havelock more than a decade ago but say theyve seen the soil fertility improve since deciding to make the big jump to biomimicry and natural farming PHOTO 2019 Courtesy of Les Bontés de la Vallée FB page

 

Ideas like this aren’t necessarily new, but their resurgence is timely. According to the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization, one-third of the world’s soils have been “degraded,” mostly by agricultural and industrial activity. This means that their ability to store and release nutrients like phosphorus and calcium have been compromised, and that their ability to retain water, regulate groundwater levels, and filter poisonous natural and artificial contaminants from the water are all diminished.

A big part of this is due to intensive tillage, says D’Aoust and many others, including the Natural Water Retention Measures (NWRM) project of the European Commission. It states that “Intensive tillage can disturb the soil structure, thus increasing erosion, decreasing water retention capacity, [and] reducing soil organic matter through the compaction and transformation of pores.”

On the other hand, “no-till farming,” the NWRM says, “increases the amount of water that infiltrates into the soil and increases organic matter retention and cycling of nutrients in the soil. In many agricultural regions it can eliminate soil erosion. The most powerful benefit of no-tillage is improvement in soil biological fertility, making soils more resilient.”

Healthy soil also sequesters carbon that would otherwise end up in the atmosphere as greenhouse gas, which contributes to an increasingly and dangerously warming planet. The Living Soil Symposium (LSS), an advocacy and research organization based in Montreal, states that “soils contain two to three times more carbon than the atmosphere, which is comprised in live organisms, in dead organic material, as well as in inorganic (or mineral) material.”

This is no small drop in the bucket. Healthy soils keep the planet’s climate in check. Both the LSS and D’Aoust feel strongly that biomimicry and regenerative agriculture, if done right, will be an important part of the solution to global warming.

It’s alive!

In nature, D’Aoust said, soil regenerates itself thanks to the interconnected lives of plants and micro-organisms. “Fertility is created in situ, because the plant and the soil are parts of an ecosystem. The plant takes energy from the sun and it gives it, through its roots in the form of sugar, to the micro-organisms in the soil.” Micro-organisms and fungi build the underground structures of life, i.e. nutrients, water, and decomposing matter, that allow more plants to grow and other systems, such as groundwater and the world’s climate, to thrive.

Although tilling produces short bursts of energy, it also disrupts this underground web of life and its regenerative cycles. “It’s like a bulldozer going through a city,” Plante said. D’Aoust elucidates: “It’s as if nature creates a city underground, with roads and passages. Everyone finds their place in the city. But if you come with tools, it’s like a hurricane came through. After that there’s no more exchange network.”

The more diverse the network, the better, he said. This explains the look of Les Bontés de la Vallée: it’s a thriving ecosystem as much as it is a vegetable farm. The willows, milkweeds, frogs, and insects all help provide an ecosystem that self-regulates, he said, reducing the need for pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers.

Although some farms around the world have been successful — even profitable — with this method, conventional farmers may well be skeptical. “Farmers have their recipe,” D’Aoust said, “and it works. People aren’t likely to deviate from it unless they are absolutely convinced that they need to. For farmers, farming is, above all, a way to make a living. Their work benefits everyone, but if things don’t work out, the losses are on farmers’ backs. This is not a context that favours the kind of fast change we need.”

Given the increasingly short supply of phosphorus and the fact that nitrogen-based fertilizers are, according to a study published last year in the journal Nature, significant greenhouse gas contributors, living soils could offer farmers a new way forward.

D’Aoust is a humble man, but he’s not afraid to point out his agricultural successes. Despite the challenges he faces running an unconventional farm, he’s proud to note that biomimicry has resulted in his crops having fewer diseases and weeds. To boot, his inputs are next to nothing. “I’ve succeeded in growing crops without fertilizer, without adding anything,” he said. His soil also retains water better as its biomass increases.

“It’s encouraging that the economic gains are most apparent in the big field crops [like soy and corn]” he said. “Farmers in the region could all adopt these systems. [Regenerative farmers] have fewer expenditures on pesticides and fertilizers. This could be a monumental gain for the quality of the environment.”

You can learn more about Les Bontés de la Vallée on the website www.lesbontes.org.

 

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