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Imagine your city healthy and edible ...
Imagine all the urban centers of Europe planted with vegetables and fruit ...
Imagine a time when consuming local and ethical food was not a choice but the usual lifestyle ...
We are talking about the early 1800s.
Urbanization and the advent of industry profoundly changed society over the course of the nineteenth century. The peasants of Paris strived to survive, developing a production method even in their city crops: the bio-intensive vegetable garden.
Let's go back together a bit of history, going to understand where this method has its roots. But be careful! We are not simply talking about the agriculture of the past: we are talking about the cultivation of tomorrow.
Paris in 1800: the industrial revolution and city peasants
At the beginning of the nineteenth century there were major changes in society which also involved agriculture: the advent of the industrial era and the invention of the train made it possible to transport vegetables and fresh fruit quickly over long distances. Thanks to this it has gradually become easier and easier free from the conception of seasonal products, taking advantage of the delicacies of more southern regions.
The industrial era it brought with it fantastic new technologies, but it endangered the existence of urban farms. This has completely transformed the agricultural model and our society.
TO Paris, the great capital of Europe, the farmers had to reinvent agriculture in order to survive. In recent years, a much more competitive way of doing business was born, the result of extraordinary ingenuity, many of the technologies used today in agriculture descend from that period. About 200 years ago the urban peasants of Paris invented the bio-intensive method.
Curiously, as old as it is, the bio-intensive garden still responds well to the needs of the modern world today:
- It allows you to produce a large quantity of vegetables without the need for chemical additions;
- Produces highly nutritious foods;
- Regenerates the soils and allows carbon to be stored in the soil;
- Thanks to tools developed in the last 15 years, the cure is largely manual, freeing agriculture from its dependence on oil;
- Today scientific studies and the experience of an increasing number of farms demonstrate its economic viability;
- At the time and still today, farmers are supported by local and supportive purchasing channels.
But let's go back to 1800. There was still no internal combustion engine, no pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. The use of chemical nitrogen was discovered at the end of the century. Books by famous Paris farmers 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. The books written by peasants throughout the 19th century are very instructive. They explain in detail all agricultural practices, from working the land to harvesting. They also describe another very important issue 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.
Going through these pages reveals how it was already possible at the time to produce naturally. All things that we forget nowadays, in which chemistry rules.
Lots of horses: lots of fertilizer
In 1800 horseback riding was used a lot and in the city there was a particular concentration of these animals. Think the streets of Paris were traveled by over 100,000 horses per day. Each of them generously offers about 30 kg of manure per day ... Imagine the mountains of steaming manure to be cleaned, every day of the year!
Several days a week the approximately 4,000 urban farms of Paris carried a load of vegetables to the neighborhood market. They returned in the evening: the vegetables sold and with the cart full of horse manure. The manure was then mixed with straw, creating a nice pile.
Nowadays, the wealth of a farmer is measured by the model of tractor he prides himself on driving or how big the shed on his farm is. At the time, however, people preferred to watch how big his dung heap was which, being the only fertilizer, was synonymous with abundant production. The pile was therefore deliberately placed at the entrance of the company, 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 a fertilizer.
Little space: intensive cultivation
Paris, like all cities, was already in constant expansion at the time. Unlike out-of-town peasants, intra-wall farms had limited space for cultivation. For the first time in agriculture the issue of the scarcity of space arises.
For this reason, in the bio-intensive method, the vegetables are grown very close to each other. The plants are combined in an intelligent way, for example the sowing of carrots with radishes allows you to optimize space. When the radishes are harvested the carrots begin to sprout. With such an association, the farmer saves not only space but also precious time. But these cunning were still not enough.
Producing even in winter
Think of how our urban farmers did to produce in the winter without having plastic greenhouses available ... They were the fathers of the greenhouses: although glass greenhouses had already existed for years, their use was reserved only for royal gardens.
Thanks to the first industries, the peasants were able to buy glass bowls to place over the plants, thus protecting them from the cold. Each plant has its own bowl. To allow the plants to breathe, these bowls were opened during the day and closed at night. Mechanically? No! By hand, one at a time ... The farmer who had the most counted 4000.
But it doesn't end here: in addition to the bowls, the night, the crops were covered with mattresses of branches. Don't make strange expressions, you know this technique more than you think. Today we do the same with non-woven fabric!
Thanks to industrial progress, a few years later it became possible to purchase windows, used instead of bowls. Much more comfortable, for the time. Today we make extensive use of plastic and iron arches to create large greenhouses with automatic opening. So lucky! It would not be conceivable to work as many hours as in the time of the industrial revolution.
The peasants of the nineteenth century realized that it was not enough to isolate the crops, it was also necessary to heat. Fortunately, Paris abounded with fresh manure. The farmers had the brilliant idea of using it to create "warm beds". A technique used until 1970-80 by farmers all over the world. The idea is as simple as it is fantastic: pile the right amount of fresh manure by mixing it with the right amount of straw. This creates a warming pile, knee high. Add 15cm of fatty earth, et Voilà! You will get a completely natural heating for 4 months, after which the pile will be transformed into compost. Great!
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 genuineness these farmers have made Paris a self-sufficient city in the production of vegetables for about 100 years. Not content with satisfying the capital, they exported the surplus to England. Today, however, Paris has 3 days of food autonomy!
For about 20 years, the bio-intensive method has been rediscovering itself again!
As in the past, farmers put their minds at the service of society and invent new ways of producing. Jean-Martin Fortier explains this well in his book “Successfully growing organic”. In France, "la ferme du bec Hellouin" has carried out numerous scientific studies in collaboration with the agricultural university of Paris and demonstrated the incredible productivity and viability of this approach. They tell their story in the book “Miraculous Abundance”. Pages that are easy to read but which increase the desire to become farmers.
There are many others around the world who open new farms or convert family businesses with the bio-intensive. Even in Italy we are more and more numerous to 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 gardening techniques you can read this nice article.