Nourishing Ground : the Buzz about Dirt

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Multi-colored Swiss Chard growing in the Sensitive Zone, Urban Farme of Saint-Denis.
Multi-colored Swiss Chard growing at the Sensitive Zone.

Nourishing Ground : the Buzz about Dirt

THE PLAIN OF VIRTUES

Although vegetables were grown in the plains of Seine-Saint-Denis since at least the 12th century, by the 18th century this region had become the principal garden source for the increasing urban population of Paris.

Postcard of vegetable farmers in Seine-Saint-Denis

An interesting article published by the Seine-Saint-Denis Tourist Office with the Circle of Historical Studies and Research of Bobigny traces the history of vegetable farming since the 1800’s based on statistical registers of the period. At that time, the soil of Saint-Denis, Courneuve and Bobigny in the Ile-de-France region was one of the best in the country.  The registers indicate that for a total farmed surface of 1,850 acres, 1,330 acres were dedicated to vegetable crops.  Potatoes, cabbage, onions, salsify and turnips replaced large-scale farming (wheat, rye, oats, alfalfa and beets) from 1820 and large-scale cultivation roads were re-adapted with paving for market carts to make their daily route to and from the famous Les Halles market located in the center of Paris.  

Thanks to naturally humid earth, this nourishing ground was baptized the “Plain of Virtues”.  The word “virtue” referred to large vegetables grown in open fields; Milanese green cabbages with curly leaves “Large of the Virtues”, so different from the classic variety, salsify and oval-shaped onions “Straw of the Virtues” which made the reputation of vegetable producers from that period. 

These particular vegetables were raised with urban fertilizers which came mainly from the removal of mud and slush from Saint-Denis, but also from Paris to which was added horse and cow manure.  In 1912, it is reported that 80,000 horses in Paris produced 344,000 tons of manure: the endless production of manure and sludge (plant, earth residues and garbage) collected from Parisian streets was a rich source of organic matter for neighboring regions and evidently produced excellent vegetables.

Postcard showing cultivated fields in the “Plain of Virtues”

The considerable success of vegetable production in Ile-de-France is also attributed to the use of large glass bells which protected salads and vegetables with very good yields. It has been said that in 1914, the moon shining bright on six million glass bells from surrounding Ile-de-France vegetable farms enabled German airmen to spot Paris at a distance.

Although the farming population decreased during the First World War and afterwards, production remained at a good level until after the Second World War when urban development campaigns were launched which required land for buildings and transportation. 

KERSANTE FAMILY FARM

René Kersanté’s farm in 1940. Photograph displayed in the museum of the Open Farm of Saint-Denis.

In the 1920s, René Kersanté’s grandmother arrived from native Brittany and began working as a gardener in Saint-Denis.  She eventually created her own farm, delivering salads to Paris regularly, which pursued its mission despite rampant urbanization and industrialization, producing up to 500,000 salads a year with forty workers.  René joined the family enterprise in 1965, while tall housing complexes continued to grow like mushrooms around the 9-acre farm managed by the Kersanté family.

In 1983, under pressure by urban developers but still pursuing the salad production for sale to larger scale markets and supermarkets, René Kersanté received a helping hand from Mayor of Saint-Denis who incited the local government to buy the farm and decree that the land shall not be built upon.  René retired in 2016 and the city issued a call for projects.

Enjoying the fanfare, retired vegetable farmer René Kersanté poses under the disco ball in the greenhouse of the Sensitive Zone.

NATURE – CULTURE – FOOD

Despite the forecast of heavy rain, Ile-de-France Regional Council President Valérie Pécresse, accompanied by special delegates and local government officials, cut the ribbon in celebration of an unusual and elaborate tribute to agriculture. The official inauguration of the “Urban Farm of Saint-Denis” in the Parisian region of Seine-Saint-Denis on May 11, 2019 ended with a fanfare organized by the Sensitive Zone project.

President of the IDF region (Valérie Pécresse) cuts the ribbon to inaugurate the Urban Farm of Saint-Denis with Saint-Denis Mayor (Laurent Russier – holding ribbon left) and President of the Departmental Council of Seine-Saint-Denis (Stéphane Troussel – holding ribbon right).

Today, the “Urban Farm of Saint-Denis” is composed of the two winning projects: the Sensitive Zone (run by artist’s collective The Poetic PartyParti poétique) – a 2.5-acre farm in permaculture around a project “nature-culture-food” and a cultural program, and the Open Farm of Saint-Denis (run by Gally Farms) – an educational and heritage farm including animals. 

Both projects propose a hands-on transmission of knowledge about gardening and farming practices; however they diverge in the techniques employed. 

View from the Sensitive Zone looking out towards Saint-Denis.

The Sensitive Zone is directed by artist-beekeeper Olivier Darné, founder of The Poetic Party and the Concrete Honey label (Miel Béton), producing honey in the Saint-Denis area.   Darné is working with Alain Ducasse and other culinary experts on a cooking school and restaurant to be constructed next to the farm which will source the 130 different vegetables farmed using the permaculture method. 

Guest speaker Gilles Clement at the Sensitive Zone on 6 April 2019.

Darné stresses the importance of eating well and food as culture, inviting guest speakers such as renowned landscape architect and gardener Gilles Clement (on the theme “The Garden as a Political Space”) and philosopher Bernard Steigler (on the theme “The Belly as a Political Space”) to share their knowledge and insight on the theme nature – culture – food. Additionally, a weekly cultural program of music, culinary activities and artists in residence / exhibitions, incites visitors to partake in events and volunteer in the garden.  Albeit complex, the Sensitive Zone project is cleverly constructed and attractively packaged around word play and trending subjects. 

The Open Farm, run by brothers Xavier and Dominique Laureau of Gally Farms, proposes local and old varieties of vegetables originally farmed in the area alongside events and awareness workshops, corporate meeting space, apprenticeships, arboriculture and an exhibition on gardening heritage. Visitors learn about both traditional and modern farming techniques, including hydroponics, and the history of farming in the Seine-Saint-Denis area at the museum. 

Educational materials displayed at the Open Farm of Saint-Denis

Children can visit the farm animals and learn how to make bread; adults can reserve a learning session about gardening with glass bells or shop for vegetables at the boutique.  Family-oriented around traditional activities, the Open Farm presents a solid knowledge base about regional history and gardening while expressing a militant stance on industrial agriculture. 

Situated right in the heart of the “sensitive zone” of Seine-Saint-Denis, a high-density neighborhood where turmoil regularly breaks out between local inhabitants of the surrounding housing complexes, this 9-acre nourishing ground harboring beehives, farm animals, a museum, outdoor art exhibitions, greenhouses and a variety of farmed gardens, is food for the soul.

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