6 November 1998


We scanned the faces at Nice Airport and, among the rich and famous arriving for the Cannes Film Festival and the Monaco Grand Prix, spotted our daughter Joanna.

She was glowing with health and very brown but looked slightly out of place in a T-shirt, jeans and work boots among the beautiful people with their designer clothes and perfect make up. Even more incongruous was the short, wiry figure with grizzled beard and wild hair standing beside her. This was Pierre Fabre, Jos boss and our host.

Joanna was spending three months in France with the Leonardo da Vinci Programme*, an EU-funded scheme which allows participants to experience agricultural work in other European countries. It is administered in the UK by the NFYFC.

After an intensive two-week language course in Brittany, the UK individuals went their separate ways and Jo was dispatched on the long journey south, to an organic farm in the tiny village of La Sagne, in the French Alps.

Halfway through her stay, my husband Murray and I were to spend a few days there. The buzz of the airport and the frenetic pace of the city were quickly left behind as we climbed into the mountains; after an hour and a half of hairpin bends and spectacular but dizzying views, we arrived at the village which, at 1200m is the highest altitude that is inhabited in this part of the Alpes-Maritimes. Here the tarmac road ends and becomes a rough sheep track. There are no shops, restaurants or bars within walking distance, but there was street lighting and several houses had satellite tv.

At the Fabre home we met Pierres wife, Dany, who is a social worker based in Grasse, and their two daughters, Joana (14) and Coline (10). We immediately felt at home with them and, despite a few language problems, there were some lively conversations around the dinner table before we crossed the village street to Pierres parents former house, where we slept.

This was also Jos sleeping quarters during her stay. It was very quaint, just like houses in the Heidi story, with wooden steps leading to a tiny galleried bedroom. Although Jo was alone in the house, the door was never locked, in fact I dont think any of the village houses were ever locked up.

The farm itself is a 50ha (123 acre) organic vegetable and sheep farm, with most of the revenue coming from the production of fruit and vegetables. Pierre inherited half the land and purchased the remainder 14 years ago. Since then he has created the plots and paths. He also developed the irrigation system using mountain water sources with a succession of basins and valves and a network of pipes. It quickly became apparent that his maths and physics degree had been fully utilised here, it is an amazing feat of technical and engineering skill.

A wide variety of fruit and vegetables is grown, the main objective being to produce successful crops with minimum detrimental effect on the environment. Harvesting is mostly between June and October with some crops being seasonal and others available continually. The produce is distributed from Grasse, an hours drive from La Sagne, to several specialist customers.

There are also 24 beehives. The organic lamb is much sought after with customers willing to pay a high premium for a quality product – we were told that the herbs and flowers which grow on the Alpine meadows where the sheep graze, give the meat a distinctive flavour.

Rabbits are bred for meat and kept in portable runs to help with weed control between the fruit bushes. It appears that some financial support is received from an independent organisation rather than the government but to some extent the farm seems to be almost like a research centre for organic farming. A system of agro-environmental analysis is in place and Pierre spends time each evening recording all information on computer for future reference. He also spends an average of one day a week at meetings and is involved in work for other agricultural organisations.

I am afraid that we went to the French Alps with pre-conceived ideas, expecting to see subsistence farming on barren, stony land. How wrong we were! It quickly became apparent that we were seeing a highly-efficient and well-organised operation run by a person who cared passionately about what he was doing and strove to balance his commercial activities with the effects they had on the environment. Judging by the diversity of wild flowers, butterflies and birds in the area, it was

hugely successful.

As for Joanna, she came home feeling that there is a place for organic farming, particularly in the developing world, with proper training and water being the key to alleviating poverty in rural areas. She found her time in France a very rewarding experience and learnt not just about another language, country and culture but most of all, about herself.

Ann Baird

*The Leonardo Da Vinci

vocational training initiative offers two-week language/cultural courses and 12-week placements with host families in France, Holland, Ireland, Denmark or Germany. Applications for 1999

scholarships close Feb 1, 1999. Applicants will be required to attend a selection interview and complete a report on their experiences. Details will be available shortly. Inquiries

on a postcard to Janine Jones, YFC Centre, NAC, Stoneleigh Park, Kenilworth,

Warwick CV8 2LG

Left: Joanne Baird in the doorway of her lodgings at La Sagne high in the French Alps. Above: The organic vegetable plots on which she worked.

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