What is agroecology?
Agroecology is a science applied to food production that uses agronomic and ecological knowledge. It studies the functioning of ecosystems in order to produce food more sustainably. Although the term agroecology is relatively old (Bensin 1928), it only emerged and became meaningful in the 1980s through research on agricultural systems in Latin America. Contrary to typical agronomic approaches that aim to mass-develop standard solutions, agroecology considers that each agricultural production issue requires a solution that is often highly contextual, differing according to the terroir, but also from one plot to another on the same farm.
This science also sees agriculture as a cycle where every element can be reused, with animals and leguminous plants feeding the soil, and “weeds” and “pests” becoming aids to agricultural production. Politically, agroecological movements emphasise food sovereignty and security, rural development, and farmer autonomy. Agroecology does not reject mechanisation but promotes small-scale mechanisation that can be easily appropriated and repaired to avoid dependence on technologies that can deprive farmers of their autonomy.
Agroecology entails several concrete benefits:
- the preservation of biodiversity and agrobiodiversity (diversity of crops and animal breeds);
- healthier soil by developing practices that maintain or improve the fertility of cultivated land (crop rotation, use of compost, etc.);
- increased resilience to climate change (better water and resource management, carbon storage, and reduced greenhouse gas emissions throughout the production chain);
- promoting consumption of local goods and facilitating food sovereignty;
- less fuel is needed for tillage and crop spraying;
- the agricultural system becomes self-sufficient with regard to inputs (fertilisers, pesticides, animal feed, etc.), in particular through mixed farming systems.
The Camargue is an area that lends itself well to this type of approach already adopted by a number of farmers.
Agroecology: possible responses to current and future challenges
Based on the observation of the importance of agricultural environments for biodiversity, and conversely the importance that biodiversity can have for agriculture (production and regulation services, in particular), we have chosen to develop a research-action strategy involving farmers as much as possible in the development of projects, as well as management and restoration actions on their farms (installation of nesting boxes, restoration of hedges, etc.). This work concerns both upstream and downstream sectors. The production concerned ranges from vineyards to cereal production (and associated crops) and livestock farming, with a particular interest in approaches that combine mixed plant farming and livestock farming.
The Tour du Valat is developing this work on different scales, from operations on our two estates (the Tour du Valat and Petit Saint Jean) to the entire Mediterranean Basin..
Action research with our partners in the Rhone Delta
We have identified important issues to which agroecology can provide solutions: the decline in biodiversity in agricultural environments, soil salinisation, and water management and quality. The Tour du Valat has initiated several research-action projects on these subjects with its partners.
With support from Alpina Savoie, Biosud, the Fondation de France, the French Ministry of Agriculture and Food Sovereignty, as well as our technical partners – INRAE, Agribio 04, Groupe Chiroptères de Provence (Provence Chiroptera Group), and Solagro – we have worked with 15 organic farmers on 90 plots representative of the diversity of the Camargue landscape (open fields, hedged farmland, etc.) On these plots, we initiated monitoring of birds (spring and winter), chiropterans (bats) and dragonflies and damselfies to better understand how to adapt our landscaping recommendations for hedges, grass strips and canals, to the specific characteristics of Camargue biodiversity.
This research was written up in a thesis “The Role of infrastructure and agroecological practices for biodiversity conservation in field crop systems in the Camargue“, defended by Pierre Mallet in 2022. This work will continue with support for around thirty farms using agroecology methods in the Camargue.
Soil salinisation and water management
Due to the longer period of rotation of rice grown after other crops, the smaller area of rice grown, and the farmland converted to intensive market gardening, water inflows through irrigation have sharply decreased in the delta, with a possible impact on soil salinisation, as well as on the natural environment. To better understand this phenomenon, determine its extent, and propose practices to combat salinisation, a thesis was started in the autumn of 2022, in partnership with INRAE, aimed at conducting hydrosalinity modelling of the Camargue and its biodiversity. The models, grouped together on the Maelia platform, will enable us to improve our knowledge of the hydrosalinity system, but also to engage in discussion with the community of stakeholders concerned (rice growers, local ranchers, managers of natural environments, fishers, etc.).
Supporting agroecology in the Camarguee
More generally speaking, we communicate with agricultural stakeholders in the Camargue, the French Rice Center, the Chamber of Agriculture, Agribio 04, Arvalis, as well as with the Camargue Regional Natural Park, to support the farms in their experiments on how to change their practices (e.g., soil conservation) or the replanting of hedges, in order to better understand the obstacles and opportunities at stake in this agroecological transition.
And at the Tour du Valat
Multi-crop mixed farming on the Tour du Valat Estate
We are developing a multi-crop mixed organic farming project, with plant production on the Faïsses land (20 ha of fallow land on the eastern part of the Estate), and innovative management of the bull and horse herd in conjunction with the management of natural environments.
For crop production on the Faïsses, we plan to divide the crop area into two parts:
- one part that reproduces the long but traditional crop rotation plan used in the Camargue (rice, wheat, alfalfa);
- one part with experimental crops.
Rice will be grown simultaneously in both areas due to the configuration of the land in a single hydraulic islet. In the same spirit, the bull herd is being reconfigured to be smaller and have less of an impact on some of the land on the Estate. Finally, we are considering setting up an open range farm for horses on a few hundred hectares on the northern part of the Estate.
Concerning downstream production, we still have a limited view, but direct sales will be preferred, as well as working with partners who have a philosophy that is compatible with our own commitments.
Agroforestry viticulture on the Petit Saint-Jean Estate
On the Petit Saint-Jean Estate, a 101-hectare estate made up of pine forests, marshes, vineyards, meadow orchards, agroforestry and pastures, our work is fully in line with the Tour du Valat’s agroecological experimentations, with the major ambitions of optimising water use, limiting the use of non-renewable inputs and resources, boosting agricultural and environmental performance, and experimenting with different ways of adapting to climate change.
Our aim is to make the Petit Saint-Jean Estate a showcase example of what can be done on other farms and organisations in terms of soil life and the use of crop auxiliaries such as chiropterans. An economic study will be carried out to assess the profitability of our approach in order to share it and promote its interest to the farming profession.
Overall, we will seek to draw inspiration from agricultural dynamics that emphasise active hospitality for biodiversity (practices and systems), such as Réensauvager la ferme or Paysans de nature. These organisations are pioneers in terms of agroecology and a major source of ideas and concepts that can be appropriated and developed by integrating them into the Camargue context.
With the support from our partners, and on the basis of our work, many solutions are emerging, helping agroecological projects to gain momentum in the region. The geographical situation of the Tour du Valat, and its many scientific and technical resources, seem to be a good way of contributing to strengthening the agroecology movement, on a wider scale than that of the Camargue delta. Our aim is not to impose any practice, but rather to share the know-how we develop with other agricultural stakeholders on both sides of the Mediterranean.
 A study that combines theory and practice while developing general knowledge about a subject.
 Low-input livestock production that does not seek high individual productivity per animal or per unit of land area