It all started in 1972. My wife Elisabeth and I were leading a quite well-to-do university existence in Amsterdam. I worked with medieval manuscripts but was more interested in the present. We were inspired by the back-to-nature movement, and visited communes in the US, then France. In 1973, we started a 25-hectare goat farm from scratch in Vachères-en-Quint, a tiny village in south west Grenoble at the foot of the Alps.
Its steep meadows had been farmed for centuries with knowledge passed from one generation to the next. But only six old people remained with no one to continue farming. The chain had been broken. The farmers had a wealth of knowledge and multi-functional wisdom: how to build a house, craft furniture, weave baskets, conserve fruit, fish and farm. This culture was so rich it should not disappear.
We asked the old peasants to teach us. We had so much to learn. We were accused of being romantic but we kept the traditions going, preserved the line, earned money from our labours, and gave employment. We turned the old to the new, and adapted it to modern times.
I wasn't always happy as a farmer. We had trouble with machinery, the cheese market, people, and we sometimes neglected our children. We made miserable mistakes. But we were building a social and solidarity economy. You cannot give up. If we all gave up, where would we be?
Today the village has four small full-time organic farms over 45 hectares: they are independent with much cooperation, exchange of land and mutual use of machinery. All the farmers in Vachères are nearly or completely tenants, including of Terre de liens. Out of the eight registered farmers, six are women.
Most of the land is for a goat farm (a couple took over our goats in 1985 adding pigs, cows and wood-chopping), and a farm producing cheese and yogurt from sheep grazing in woodlands and steep meadows. The rest of the 45 hectares is tenanted by a 500 square metre vegetable garden, and two small herb firms with wild picking and artisanal activities. In addition the herb cooperative we created in the 1980s has made the area a hot-spot for organic herbs businesses which now employ at least 150 people. The goat and sheep farms in Vachères hire an additional 20 hectares for hay and cereal production.
The sheep farm was one of the first farms to be secured by Terre de liens, in 2008. Now it is farmed by a young person, making it the third generation of farm entrants, counting us. If you look from one valley to another, there are sheep with their shepherd on the steep slopes, a sight unchanged for centuries. The chain has been mended.
But what about others who want to farm? Both EU agricultural subsidies - the more land, the greater the subsidy - and industrial farming, which monopolises land access, have combined to decrease the availability of affordable land. New farmers cannot easily buy or rent land which they need to endure the learning years. Providing starting facilities for newcomers would be a serious attempt at solving social and ecological problems.
The issue of land access had been in my head since I started farming. Once I had retired, I had the time and energy to tackle it. During the 1990s I wrote letters, I spoke to people, I visited Triodos in Holland, and the Land Heritage’s founder in the UK. If you have an idea and are ready for action, you must first find your companions.
The first group I helped found was a Groupement Financier Agricole, a citizen initiative set up in 1970s to collect funds to help young farmers work, and protect agricultural land. However, it was financially weak. In the late-1990s, I organised a workshop to create an organisation that worked for a farm’s long-term existence. There was a representative from the biodynamic movement, and one from the NEF (Nouvelle Economie Fraternelle), the green bank of France. I had found my companions.
We formed a working group, received funding from a rural organisation and we studied the possibilities. In 2003, we made a formal association with the goal of preparing financial tools. We created a commanditaire company which invests in land on the shareholders’ behalf. We spent days discussing what to call this company which would buy land to create citizen-owned ecological farms. Finally we got it, Terre de liens, land of connections.
We sought the financial institutions’ permission to start a shareholder offer. Luckily, our lawyer had worked on a similar one for social housing. We submitted our 100-page document and got our accord.
Next we had to find shareholders. Because of our social and solidarity label, investors could get tax relief. But the real return on investment was better food, better landscape, better social links, and creating jobs with purpose.
I thought, I’ll be happy if we receive €50,000 in investments. However, within a few months we had €5 million. Biocoop (a national network of cooperatives and shops) and the NEF were on board. The then-19 regions of France were governed by a coalition of greens and socialists, which also helped. Terre de liens was created under a happy constellation. Everything rolled smoothly. It was as if people had been waiting for us.
Now, I sit here at the Land Access EU conference in June 2017 aged 78 after the Terre de liens experience and a lifetime in farming. I see so many land activists, mostly young, from 17 countries, and it gives me hope.
For more information: www.accesstoland.eu/-Terre-de-liens
Lead image: Terre de liens bought Ferme de Vachères, the sheep farm (approx 25 ha) in 2008, and later Sjoerd and Elizabeth’s previous goat farm (a further 25 ha) to help secure the future of organic farming in Vachères-en-Quint.
Sjoerd Wartena is the founder of Terre de liens. Interview by Elisabeth Winkler of the Biodynamic Land Trust: https://biodynamiclandtrust.org.uk/
Video: Animal-free farming