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Back to the land - smallholders of the region

Back to the land - smallholders of the region

Poitou-Charentes has its fair share of smallholders and small-scale producers, so we decided to profile five of the talented and hardworking people who have managed to transform their dreams into a practical reality. They all have entertaining stories to tell, and if you’ve ever dreamed of setting up a smallholding then their experiences will inspire you, and perhaps help you on your way... 

Case Study 1: Down on the farm

Daniel and Christine took over a long-abandoned farm which had been in Christine’s family for generations. Despite the mountain of renovations confronting them, the location, on the cusp of Vienne, Charente and Deux-Sèvres, seemed perfect for what they had in mind: an organic market garden. Full bio (organic) certification doesn’t come overnight, though, and one of the first tasks was planting mixed native-species boundary hedges, both for shelter and to prevent wind-borne contamination from pesticides and other non-bio farming practices nearby. Next came cultivation of the land, using not diesel power but the time-honoured ploughing by man and animal – the motive power in this case being the powerfully-built baudet du Poitou, often called the Poitevin donkey. They can be, shall we say, ‘sensitive’, but tireless patience on the part of Daniel and Christine’s son Paul eventually overcame the animal’s initial reluctance. A working partnership forged, the furry tractor was rewarded with some female company, which resulted in the occasional baudet foal being seen around the paddock.

While the family worked the land, Daniel began another project to strengthen the bio ethos, namely the construction of a traditional four-à-pain for baking organic loaves for sale alongside the farm produce. Construction of the stone and brick-lined structure, in a huge barn adjoining the farmhouse, required determination, coupled with Daniel’s penchant for painstaking research. Traditional wood-fired baking is an art, but the bread proved an immediate success.

Soon the oven was followed by a small machine for milling flour, plus a dedicated preparation room.
In many ways theirs is a personal success story, but Daniel and Christine are well aware that their approach requires continuing hard work, with the involvement of the whole family. Recent refinements have included a reservoir to provide a dependable water supply (pumped overnight from a borehole) for irrigation, and a poly-tunnel to protect against winter frosts.

But a loyal and supportive customer-base for their organic produce has rewarded their commitment and proved that there’s a healthy and growing demand for good quality, sustainably produced food. 

FIND OUT MORE
You can buy Daniel and Christine’s hand-baked bread on Friday mornings in Civray market from 10.30-12.30 and (both bread and seasonal organic vegetables) in the market hall of Couhé-Vérac (86) on Friday afternoons 4.30-7pm. Local home deliveries by arrangement: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

fromagerie-blanzay-smallholdingCase Study 2: If you were expecting goats’ cheese...

In theory the last thing Poitou-Charentes needed was another cheese producer, but when Grégoire Masse opened for business in spring 2009 he had something untypical in mind. In a region celebrated for its goats’ milk cheeses, Grégoire is now one of just four producers of fromages de vâche.

What’s more, the cows are Normandes, thought to have been introduced by the Vikings and normally found in northern France. Grégoire’s father had kept them among the family’s herd in southern Vienne, valuing their docile temperament and rich milk, whose quality outweighed lower yields compared to the ubiquitous Fresians.

“To make things viable we avoid costly industrial feeds, which means limiting the herd to only what the farm’s 40ha of pastures can support by grazing or providing our own hay or cereals (for cold- or dry-weather periods). We’ve also found that by milking only in the mornings, instead of twice-daily, we no longer waste energy chilling the evening’s milk overnight only to heat it again for cheese-making.

You can taste the results of our natural approach in the richness of the milk, which adds flavour to the cheeses...” says Grégoire. “When we took the first samples to the market in Poitiers we had to convince people that we’re actually making them right here in the region.”

But made they are, employing skills learnt from fellow producers in Normandy, Cantal, the Alps and from Grégoire’s brother, who produces cheeses in Haute-Garonne. In addition to the classic 15kg moulded and pressed Gruyère-style meules or pates molles, he also produces more modestly-sized tommes, both mild and strong (for grating onto pasta, winter raclettes, etc.), peppered and beer-washed, plus soft cheeses including feta-styles for summer. The farm now has full bio accreditation and things are going well both in the marketplace and direct from the farm, which lies midway between Civray and Couhé.

Grégoire’s tasty ‘bleu’ is particularly popular with his regular anglophone customers (who are welcomed Saturdays between 10am and 12 noon by his English-speaking Belgian wife).

Support of a different kind proved invaluable when Grégoire and his father were building the fromagerie: “We had lots of help from our British neighbour Tim, who loves working in wood, and who built all our shelving in the cave for the affinage (maturing) stage.” The next challenge? Creating an underground cave, thereby saving more energy by profiting from nature’s own climate-control. Sustainability makes sense...

FIND OUT MORE
La Fromagerie de Blanzay, Villaret, 86400 Blanzay. T: 05 49 87 70 82 - E: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 


alpaca-farming-poitou-charentesCase Study 3: Alpaca passion


“Ooh look, llamas.” Close; but chances are they’re actually their South American cousins, the alpacas, who have a devoted (and growing) following.
Nigel and Ginny Cobb know all about this, as they run Europa Alpacas from their home near Manot in northern Charente. They set up the business to pass on their wealth of personal experience, supplying potential owners with the animals and offering support with a wide range of services such as registration, nutrition, vaccinations, disease control, shearing and more besides. They also keep a herd of around 80 and offer stud services.

Clearly, Nigel and Ginny relish a challenge. Their tentative experiment with keeping alpacas on their Somerset farm blossomed into a successful business (which saw Nigel joining the board of The British Alpaca Society) so they decided to scale things up and relocate to mainland Europe. In 2005 they moved to Spain, and established Alpacas de Andalucia. Soon Ginny was enlisted by The Spanish Alpaca Society to oversee its Health and Welfare programme and Nigel was elected as the Society’s President. Finally, in 2010 the couple relocated to France, where they now have the surroundings, climate and ease of access to the European marketplace they were looking for.

To anyone unfamiliar with the furry creatures, the alpaca sounds like a win/win choice. Despite their size they require around one-third of the grass or hay that a sheep will get through, and are pretty undemanding on a daily care basis. They’ll need shelter, but are very clean and their soft feet won’t churn up your land; great companions for other livestock, they will even protect your lambs and poultry from foxes. Finally they produce a wonderful, naturally-hypoallergenic fleece whose commercial value can only rise in line with the number of alpacas being kept (so their longevity bodes well for anyone with a longer-term view). Globally this means more home-produced natural textiles – and of course, if you’re an enthusiastic knitter then self-sufficiency is, as it were, on the cards...

For Nigel and Ginny things have obviously expanded beyond what might be regarded as a typical smallholding scale; their quest for new contacts to help improve the bloodline recently assumed a truly global dimension when Ginny jetted off to Australia and New Zealand to attend some important shows, where she found herself the only visiting European breeder. Some 20 alpacas followed her back a few months later. But for Nigel and Ginny the aim remains the same: “Our alpacas are sold at realistic prices, because we want to see the European herd flourishing, with more people able to own, breed and enjoy the many benefits of keeping them.”

FIND OUT MORE
Europa Alpacas - St Martial, Manot 16500 T: 05 45 30 18 04 E: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. www.europaalpacas.com 

 

smallholding-pigs-poitou-charentesCase Study 4: Pigging Out

If you’re considering keeping animals then you’ll soon discover that, as with every living thing, good health is everything – and genetics play a vital role. David and Lorraine Jones are well aware of this, and determined to safeguard one important gene-pool for future generations by specialising in rare breed pigs. It’s a far cry from the world of airlines and foreign diplomacy which found David and Lorraine living and working overseas before moving to France four years ago. They’re more than happy in their present surroundings, and their enthusiasm for the pigs is infectious, as visitors to the Le Logis Pig Experience, north of Niort in Deux-Sèvres, will soon discover.

It’s a two-pronged affair, the first of which offers taster sessions for a grounding in pig-keeping essentials – breeding, raising, feeding and housing, with optional hands-on mornings for small groups with Berkshire and other rare breed pigs (and rounded-off with a Bangers & Mash lunch). For a more hands-on experience there are weekends and mid-week breaks working with Berkshires, Gloucestershire Old Spots, Tamworths and Oxford Sandy & Blacks, plus feeding and caring for young piglets. Also included are a roast pork supper and a night’s accommodation.

Their venture has been a great success, says Lorraine: “We’re not really selling pork. Originally we just wanted to enjoy good food and keep a couple of pigs, but it grew when we realised how threatened certain breeds had become. The Rare Breeds Survival Trust classifies Middle Whites, for example, as ‘vulnerable’, with 300 registered in the UK. We have some here now, plus other breeds of which many people were unaware until they discovered us, along with our nine Berkshire boars. Modern volume pork production is far removed from people’s lives, so they’ve never seen pigs before – raising animals like these not only produces better quality food, but actually helps ensure their survival.”

David and Lorraine’s weaner piglets are in great demand, visitors see the animals in all stages of development, and to get the message across to a new generation, they’ve also talked about their work to a group of French 15/16 year-olds. Future plans include a small farm shop and working with Bien-
venue à La Ferme, which promotes farm holidays – perfect, since Le Logis also offers comfortable B&B accommodation. As for advice to anyone considering setting up with animals, Lorraine says: “Get registered, work with your Chambre d’Agriculture – and get to know your local vet.” 

FIND OUT MORE
David and Lorraine Jones, Le Logis, 79220 Cours. T: 05 49 75 52 89
E: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
www.lelogisfrance.com

 


hog-roast-poitou-charentes-farmingCase Study 5: Animal Magic

Jim and Kay Giddings provide an object lesson in how to base a successful business based on the animal smallholding philosphy. Their working home is a lovingly-restored farmhouse set among 15 acres in southern Vienne which gave them just what they needed to fulfil a dream of keeping free-range animals. As Jim recalls, “Back in the UK we had both been working for 20 years or so, and had come to the conclusion that we were outdoor people trapped in an indoor lifestyle.

We needed a change, so we went on a course in Chester to get a grounding in the kinds of animals you might consider keeping, then looked at properties in France from the Gers up as far as Poitiers. We settled on this particular spot as it was affordable and offered the ideal balance between sunshine and rainfall for keeping animals.”

Like others before them, Jim and Kay also planned to offer holiday accommodation, thinking they would live in the farmhouse and create gîtes in their outbuildings. “We’d underestimated the renovations costs ..”, says Jim, “and ended up with the house finished but the gîtes less so. So in summer the house gets let, while we’re in a barn-conversion.” The choice of animals also evolved: “We looked at sheep, poultry and pigs, and ended up with all of them, and more besides. Pigs are great to keep – we love seeing the piglets playing, and so do visitors. Sheep are important to us, too. We heard that alpacas will protect a flock against predators, and we’ve never lost a lamb to a fox. Geese, on the other hand, are just aggressive to everyone, so they went!”

Eventually it all worked out: “We do summer holiday lets to families with small children, who love getting close to the animals. Free-range meat is expensive to produce, so we sell-on most of the piglets and lambs, the rest going in the freezer for us and for our farmhouse restaurant, which runs outside the letting season. Kay spent much of her previous working life in a catering partnership, so it was logical for us.” Jim’s hog-roasts also proved popular: “People enjoyed them here and started booking me to do birthdays, weddings and other events. We always knew it would be important to be flexible, balancing everything to make it all work.”

FIND OUT MORE
Jim & Kay Giddings, La Foret Meriget, 86510 Chaunay. T: 05 49 36 32 83. www.laforetrestaurant.fr

 

Published in Living Poitou-Charentes in 2013  © All rights reserved