In 2017, Masami-Charlotte Lavault created the first Parisian flower farm, 1200 m2 of biodynamic farming, 40 rue du Télégraphe, just above Belleville.
A TRAVEL BAG
I was an industrial designer for seven years, I wanted to unravel the mystery of objects. A heater is quite fascinating, people draw molds, others work on pouring cast iron into it, and so on until it heats a room in an apartment. But more often than not, in design, one becomes one of the small hands of the industry, which helps to mass produce the useless. One day in London, the extent of the problem became clear to me. We had to design a collection of leather bags for men, my boss asked me to design – without spending more than 25 minutes – a large travel bag. I gave him back my drawing and out of curiosity, asked him how many bags like this one would be made from one cowhide. He thinks for three seconds and answers: pffff, one?
I knew that thousands of them would be produced, based on a drawing that I had made poorly, clearly very poorly done. I was at the end of my rope, I felt that it was absolutely impossible to take one more step. I had to leave this job immediately, and if possible, to do exactly the opposite. Without experience and knowing no one in the countryside, I searched in the middle of winter, then found a farm in Morocco, it was there that a new life would begin.
Even here, on the roof of Paris, it’s very hard, all it takes is another heat wave to take over the city, followed by a few hailstorms and everything is destroyed, it’s part of the natural order of things, so I adapt to it, while doing my best to do the best possible.
The first times I went up here to see the quackgrass meadow (which I would have to tear off by hand) and had to cross the cemetery to reach it, it was so strange to imagine that every day I would walk along these graves before I went to grow my flowers.
The farms where I worked in Japan have an altar for sake, water, salt and incense offerings for the ancestors or spirits of the place, in one of these farms, we greeted the dragon every morning and evening before leaving, we thank him for letting us work and harvest the fruit of the earth. In this garden, I don’t have an altar, and I don’t think there is a dragon, but there are people, many people. Paris is of an incredible historical density, and we are here at its peak*, this quality has configured this place in a unique way: a huge covered reservoir dominated by a water tower; the Commune has passed through there, it is also from here that during the French revolution, the first long-distance messages started: through the telegraph.
THE PARIS FIELDS
Until the 19th century, the Ile de France and all of eastern Paris were an agricultural area, the Maraîchers station does not bear this name by chance, a part of the history of agriculture took place here and the methods described and published at the time are now reverting to us**. The Parisian vegetable growers managed to produce very intensively, in organic form – there was no other choice – from tiny surfaces. Eliot Coleman, one of the great masters of organic farming, clearly claims his very strong attachment to their work. If I am the first to have created a flower farm in Paris, it is only since almost a century and a half.
85 to 90% of the flowers we buy today in conventional florist shops come from countries such as Kenya, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Colombia, and soon India and China, the last countries to embark on the floral adventure. The climate of the equatorial belt is ideal, 12 hours of day and night, constant heat, perfect light, flowers grow all year round, without heating or lighting the greenhouses. Since the 1970s, while the major consumers remain the countries of the North, almost all of the production has left them for the countries of the South. These low-cost flowers travel thousands of kilometres by cargo plane or refrigerated truck, but their cost is multiple: human on the spot, the new producing countries offering little protection for women and children who do the hard and precise work of floriculture. This human cost is reflected in the former producing countries, in Ile-de-France, one of France’s three major floricultural regions along with Brittany and the PACA region; between 2005 and 2015, 50% of registered floricultural farms closed, which is a free fall. Add to that the environmental cost, the use of chemicals being poorly regulated in the South, and flowers, very sensitive to insect and fungal attacks, a Kenyan rose contains about 147 chemicals more or less banned in Europe, and groundwater is polluted, in addition, also in Kenya, these poor flowers, which are extremely water-hungry, are gradually drying out Lake Naivasha, whose level has been dropping visibly since horticulturists have been gathering on its shores. Despite this, the carbon footprint of a rose grown in a heated and lighted greenhouse in Europe remains much higher than that of a Kenyan rose.
I didn’t buy flowers before growing them, they were too expensive for me, and knowing that they were dirty, I wasn’t really tempted.
Flowers are sold in Holland, in Aalsmeer, the world centre of horticultural trade, where more than 50 million stems pass through every day. Peonies from the PACA region, cut at the bud stage and then placed in a cold room, will arrive in Aalsmeer, where they will be almost immediately sold at auction, and then flown to Dubai, New York, or Rungis, the flowers thus describe absurd loops.
Flowers are not the only ones embedded in these loops, and Coline Serreau’s film, Solution locale pour un désordre global (Local Solution for a Global Disorder), offers very accurate ideas. Relocating, producing in a more traditional, mechanised way when it makes it possible to reduce costs and payrolls, all this while respecting the resources at our disposal; of course, there are many difficulties, particularly when it comes to dealing with public prices that are almost unattainable, because they have been artificially reduced so much, but this seems to me to be the only way out, nothing very new, but this is crucial today.
Before Anne Hidalgo became mayor, my project was retooled four times, I think, it took her presence and her very strong and beautiful vision for it to be accepted. Flowers in the city is quite marginal, urban agriculture focuses – logically, on the nutritious, with a return to this very old idea, the resilience of cities. If Rungis were to be blocked, on strike or under attack, Paris would have three days of autonomy, which is very little, it would inevitably produce very serious riots. Our supermarkets are always full because people work there day and night, and we never suspect that Paris is on food perfusion. The big dream of urban agriculture is to restore the cities’ food autonomy. In Europe and in the northern countries, development occurred in the industrial era, back-pedalling is complex, but the solutions that emerge are all the more original because they are constrained, for example, with the vegetable garden on the roof of the Opéra Bastille, but in a more global perspective, it is a question of including agriculture and ensuring that the plant is concomitant with mineral in cities whose demography is exploding, as well as in future urban expansions.
I chose flowers over vegetables in the city for the love of these creatures, but also because urban agro-food is much more complex. At the beginning of the 19th century, there was a flourishing agricultural area here, then industry took its place, depositing its heavy metals, as on 90% of urban soils, mercury, lead, a little arsenic. The ban on producing food there is formal, it suits me perfectly, my project is quite different; cities contain countless similar places, to be developed in an agricultural way and transformed into fresh and green lungs.
Beyond my personal sensitivity and ecology, the flower is placed, among legal cultures, in the most lucrative per square meter, ideal for small, urban and polluted areas.
From seedling to bouquet, if hollyhocks take up to two years to develop, other flowers reach maturity after 6 months; generally, human/plant gestation lasts about nine months. After industrial design, it is an immense relief to give all my working energy to something that does not last, this constitutive fugacity of the flower delights me, faced with the immense biological mission they carry, as the sexual organs of plants. We are currently (in July) in a field in full puberty, covered with flowers and plants that are trying to reproduce, it is vital for the fauna and flora to occupy places en masse, and I do not cut them aggressively, at the florists we see flowers with huge stems, it means that the plant has been cut to the level, here the surfaces are too small, I cut shorter and more gently, from my twenty echinacea, there, I only take four or five, to allow the rest of the plant to flower and thus enjoy a continuous flow of flowers.
Perfume is one of the natural attributes of flowers, but some have others, such as colour or shape, to attract insects. The commercial criteria are quite different: stem length, head size, and vase durability, but 90% of wildflowers do not pass the test, stem too short, head too small, they fade in one day. A centuries-long process of genetic engineering was initiated in 1670 by the Dutch with small flowers with small heads from Turkestan. In 400 years of handling, they have become vigorous giants, all identical and with large heads – 60 cm of stem for 10 to 15 cm of head: our tulips. But if you think you’re increasing biodiversity by creating a field of flowers in the middle of Paris, that’s not quite true, I destroyed a biotope by weeding (by hand) and then imposing new plants. They are very diverse and I am going slowly, but agriculture contains an obvious part of violence, in floriculture as elsewhere, original botanical seeds are rare and cut flowers, mostly human work. I prefer independent seed companies and wild seeds, which complicates my work in such an exciting way.
A couple of magpies settled here long before me, I am their human. At the beginning of the season (March-April), when their babies are born, they are very aggressive, their attacking cry welcomes anyone who points the tip of their beak – a cry they have abandoned as we become more and more ” acquainted ” with each other. Their sense of territory is precious to me, March and April being the time when I sow, the soil and greenhouses are full of seeds, and birds – that’s their job – tend to want to eat them all. The magpies help me to preserve my seedlings. Their aggressiveness diminishes as their young grow, and their protection is less and less necessary to me, our rhythms are in harmony. In mid-season, they allowed two pairs of pigeons to park here, the small birds, titmice, sparrows, will return, but for the moment, it is impossible, they are posted and observe, there, from the edge of the tank, and there, on the other side, towards the building, when their teenagers join them, the number increases to 4 or 5. They also hunt cats, which I love, but this prevents them from scratching the earth to bury their poop, and their pee smells very, very strong.
Besides the magpies, bacteria are a great help to me. I learned on a farm in Okinawa, an island in sub-tropical Japan, to grow with microorganisms. Farmers, who produce fruits and vegetables, have set up tanks filled with ocean water in a field, where myriads of bacteria grow quietly. I was able to bring back a strain and thus create my own breeding of microorganisms, the fermentations take place in my bedroom, where the temperature is particularly favourable. This summer, I am finally starting to harvest native microorganisms using small bacterial traps, and in the fall will start the hunt for cold weather specimens.
The soils on which we live and work suffer, as if they had taken antibiotics for 50 years, they have major digestive problems and fungal infections, like a human being. A wise doctor would advise you to take Superlevure, a little probiotics, my approach is identical, I use these bacteria as probiotics for the soil, so a virtuous circle is born, which from the soil extends to plants, from plants to animals, and ultimately to humans. It is not a miracle solution, but rather a humble and very economical gesture, in the face of problems such as desertification and global warming, linked to the intense upheavals we have inflicted on the soil, the cost of which is exorbitant. I am thinking of the English expression “there’s nothing such as a free lunch” which means that nothing is free. When you buy a bunch of flowers for 5 euros, at the foot of the Carrefour cash register, its real price is hidden, someone pays upstream, the producer, the people and the land he exploits. The bacteria and probiotics I give her are one way to repay our debt to the land.
Plein air Paris By appointment only.
* In the public domain.
** Practical manual of market gardening in Paris, by J. G. Moreau and J. J. Daverne.*** There’s nothing like a free lunch.