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Soil conservation farming and water use: François Mandin, a farmer in Vendée, testifies

François Mandin, 59 years old, is a farmer at Luçon in Vendée, where his family has managed a farm for four generations. He is also the President of APAD, Association for the Promotion of Sustainable Agriculture. During this hottest summer ever recorded, we wanted to interview him regarding the topics of water and agriculture: the dependency of one on the other, the challenges linked to climate change and the way in which soil conservation farming can respond to them. He also spoke to us about his river, that which he carries within him and links him to the earth!

Can you introduce yourself to our readers ?

We’re four associates including my son, who work on a farm of 400 hectares in Luçon, Vendée. We practice polyculture (cereals and oleaginous crops) and Limousin cattle breeding in the Marais Poitevin region. In the 1990s, confronted by fewer resources, new environmental restrictions (irrigation, fertilisation, etc.) and increased production costs, my associates and I decided to change our production system. We also wanted to be in phase with impending societal changes. We started practicing soil conservation farming and are among its pioneers.

We also quickly felt the need to dialogue with other farmers. Therefore, we set up a regional association and became affiliated with the Association for the Promotion of Sustainable Agriculture (APAD) 12 years ago. I started by becoming the President of the APAD Centre-Atlantique for six years and then became a member of the management board of the national APAD. I’ve been the President of the national association for five years.

What is the mission of the Association for the Promotion of Sustainable Agriculture (APAD)?

The APAD was founded in 1998 at the initiative of pioneer farmers engaged in a sustainable agriculture approach. It is composed of a network of 1,000 farmers gathered in 15 regional associations. Its mission is to promote and develop soil conservation agriculture (SCA), which is a type of farming still little known in Europe but very promising for combining agricultural production and environmental protection.

We have ten employees and became a training organisation in 2017, certified Qualiopi-Qualicert. We assist farmers to change their practices; that’s our core activity.

Soil conservation agriculture consists in completely changing the agricultural system”

We also work to make known the ACS among public decision-makers at the local, national, and international levels, as well as increasing awareness among the general public about this topic. We participate in the Agriculture Show every year, for example, and intervene in schools through our teaching kits. Finally, we want to gain greater recognition for the farmers who practice this method, the products that result from it and the environmental and socioeconomic benefits provided by ACS. To do this, we created the label “At the heart of soils” in 2020.

What does soil conservation agriculture consist of ?

Soil conservation agriculture is a farm production system based on three agronomic principles that preserve agricultural production and reduce the impact of agriculture on its environment:

  • Permanent coverage of soils (with crop residues and plant cover) to preserve them. Our objective is to never leave soils bare, even during periods between crops.
  • Giving up ploughing (no ploughing or even surface tillage): ploughing the soil is destructive and causes erosion. It must be limited so that the soil remains covered and protected.
  • The prolongation of rotations and the diversity of the species cultivated. The aim is to reduce the risk of parasites by varying as much as possible the types of crops and coverage. Like human beings, soil needs a varied and balanced diet to be in good health!

Soil conservation farming imitates what nature does, as it hates emptiness !”

Nature hates emptiness: leaving fields bare during winter, subject to climatic hazards, is an aberration. Nonetheless, that’s what a lot of farmers do, with the idea that soil has to rest over winter and that weeds must be prevented from growing.

On the contrary, with ACS we seek to never leave the soil bare and, immediately after a harvest, we sow plant cover on the soil to protect it (from bad weather, weeds). Then we sow the following crop without ploughing or tilling the soil. We choose our plant cover to produce the largest amount of biomass possible, thereby competing with weeds.

We use the tools available to us, including phytosanitary products: it’s the real difference with Organic Agriculture (OB), although we have the same final goal of reducing our environmental impact. The aim of ACS is to produce food and biomass in large quantities, which is not the aim of OA, whose main aim is to reduce the use of chemicals

How does soil conservation farming respond to current problems of managing water resources in the context of accelerating climate change?

ACS increases the resilience of agriculture faced with climatic hazards. It’s the strength of this type of farming: by imitating the natural environment, it responds to climatic episodes in a more resilient way.

When enormous quantities of water fall on a soil that has been ploughed or tilled, all the earth runs off with the water into rivers (phenomenon of erosion), with all the harmful consequences for the rivers afterwards.

On the contrary, in a meadow or forest, for example, the water does not carry away the soil: rather than runoff, it infiltrates into the soil due to the presence of plants and a well-structured soil. It’s the same principle in a field cultivated with SCF: soil in good health and that’s well-structured (thanks to galleries left by earthworms and roots in particular) leads to better infiltration by water and limits erosion by up to 90%!

Likewise, the advantages of SCF are important regarding water shortages. A soil in good health has a “sponge” effect that permits storing water to redistribute it to plants when they need it.

It’s certainly not negligible, especially in countries where hydric stress is chronic. In Morocco for example, farmers have observed yields higher by 25 to 40% thanks to mulching their soil and SCF.

So it’s the state of the soil, whether it’s alive or not, that allows it to react differently faced with climatic hazards. Can you describe the impact of SCF on the soil and the environment?

It’s necessary to have the most biomass (crops and plant cover) per ha to be more resilient against climate change.”

SCF is favourable for biodiversity (up to 15 times more earthworms, more insects, more bees, etc.). It also stores more carbon in the soil (by increasing the soil’s organic matter content), which permits fighting against climate change.

By passing the tractor less often (since we no longer plough and we never till the soil before sowing), we also reduce diesel consumption by 60%! That means as much greenhouse gas avoided.

I’m delighted and proud when I see 1mm of black earth on the surface of my land. It means that my soil is in good health and that I’m producing plenty of environmental services.

All these agronomic and environmental advantages are observed in the field by the farmers who practice SCF, and documented by a large number of scientific references around the world.

All these agronomic and environmental advantages are observed in the field by the farmers who practice SCF, and documented by a large number of scientific references around the world.

A soil must never be left to rest: the more life there is above, the more life there is inside it.”


Is SCF recognised and promoted by public policies, territorial actors and agricultural sectors?

Soil conservation farming is a path of the future that must be encouraged and supported, with genuine development programmes everywhere in the world.

A small step has already been made, but we’re only at the beginning of this transition (only 4% of of French farmers practice SCF today).

Farmers need to be better trained, better assisted and more empowered. Many of them are already concerned with improving their practices and make great efforts to succeed, without being really appreciated or thanked for it.

That’s the challenge of the Label “At the heart of soils”: make SCF better known and acknowledged as farming that reconciles environmental protection and agricultural production.

By assisting a farmer bearing the “At the heart of sols” label through our project “Carbon at the Heart of Soils”, certified low carbon by the Ministry of Ecological Transition, a company can, in the framework of its low carbon strategy, finance the agro-ecological transition of farmers by purchasing carbon credits.

It’s a pertinent way to act concretely to act alongside farmers who take risks and adopt new practices.

The different sectors also have to reinvent themselves by obtaining their supplies of raw materials from innovative and virtuous production systems.

Finally, effective and ambitious public policies must emerge that have a global view of the system. The CAP and national and local public policies are still too hesitant, too fragmented, and fail to allow farmers to sufficiently project themselves in a genuine revolution of their production system.

What quantity of water do you use for irrigation and for which crops?

My father was the first farmer to use irrigation in Vendée in 1969. North Vendée lies at the end of the Amorican Massif while south Vendée is the beginning of the  Aquitaine Basin. Water can’t infiltrate in the Amorican Massif: the water runs off granite, forming streams and torrents that end in the sea. However, in the Aquitaine Basin, the soil is limey and the rain infiltrates into the soil to collect as groundwater. It’s a drying plain.

Under my feet lie two major limestone aquifers fed by rain that comes from the watersheds. It’s the water we use to spray our crops and keep in irrigation reservoirs before it flows on to the sea. We even had water this summer. Right now, I’ve got three meters of water under my feet.

I think it’s advisable to keep the surplus water of winter before it reaches the sea so we can use it to continue producing biomass all year round. We spray all the crops that need it: corn, soya and a little sunflower in summer, durum wheat, soft wheat in the spring.

“Our capacity to irrigate is our harvest insurance.”

Any farmer that is sure to have water can combat extreme temperatures and avoid certain catastrophic drops in yield.

The cost of irrigation is increasing. It’s in the interest of all farmers to be as water thrifty as possible, independently of environmental pressure.

With SCF, we seek more varied crops. We have also slightly staggered sowing dates. For these two reasons we need less water to irrigate crops in summer, when water is scarcer. For example, this summer we didn’t need to irrigate our soft wheat.

What’s your viewpoint on irrigation basins?

I don’t speak of “basins”. This term didn’t exist two years ago! When someone talks of a basin, you can be sure they’re against it. One has to think of irrigation reservoirs intelligently.

Although it’s important to project oneself into the future to take into account the long-term impact of our decisions, it’s also necessary to think in terms of the present. Today, there’s enough water in certain regions to store reserves and irrigate. It allows us to use the water stored when the environment is short of it. Doing so allows us to have the most crops possible, and which in turn favours the water cycle by way of evapotranspiration.

It’s this virtuous circle that has to be preserved: no water, no plants; no plants, no water!

For 15 years, I was responsible for managing the water in the Marais Poitevin watershed in the area of Lay. I participated in the works aimed at creating the storage reservoirs. I’ve always said that our agriculture must be consistent with environmental stakes. Here, fortunately we built these reservoirs because today we can think intelligently about distributing the water between different uses, given that the management of this water is not privatised but falls under the responsibility of the regional authorities. However, optimisations could be introduced to encourage sobriety (staged pricing and volume, for example, more personalised training and advice, etc.).

I can’t talk about the situation in other regions, however. I don’t have the information. But in any case, I’m certain that implementing readymade solutions without analysing the territory and adapting to local reality is a recipe for disaster.

Having water is the guarantee of a virtuous circle of production. We need France to be as green as possible because that is what ensures evaporation and rain in summer.

In agriculture, all types of weather are good but they mustn’t last too long: there have to be dry, wet, cold and sunny periods, but not too much or for too long. And at the right time. However, we’re going through long droughts and episodes of heavy rain. Farmers often follow recommendations given by technicians in a standardised way on the basis of centralised decisions and statistics. However, farmers should choose their actions (types of crops, sowing dates, treatment dates, types treatments /fertilisers, and irrigation) in close relation to their local conditions and areas. In certain areas, it’s not logical to grow certain crops that require too much irrigation, for example. Depending on the year and situation, it’s illogical to store excessive quantities of water. It’s this adaptation to the terrain and its diversity that give strength to French agriculture and which we cannot lose.

There’s no global miracle solution regarding water and agriculture. Decisions have to be made locally.”

What is your personal relationship with water and rivers?

I’ll answer that question by talking about our farm. It has the particularity of being between the Marais Poitevin, a wetland, where the sea stopped 2,000 years ago, where we raise our cows, and a dry limestone plain. Just a few steps from each other, I’m in an area that has to be irrigated and an area where there’s too much water. Vendée is a region where humans have built everything, by building polders and dikes where, 500 years ago, there were only marshes. My work as a farmer is to adapt and also change in order to produce.

“Water, it’s about geology, soil, rock. The farm lies between two worlds: the Amorican Massif and the Aquitaine Basin.”

Here in Vendée, we have two rivers that flow into the Atlantic Ocean: the Sèvre Niortaise, between La Rochelle and the Vendée coast, and the Lay, which is the department’s main coastal river. As for the River Vendée, it flows into the Sèvre Niortaise. My favourite river is the Lay.

Rivers and agriculture are linked. When you’re a farmer, you’re obliged to be interested in water. Our farming results depend on it and the way we choose our methods has a direct influence on water resources.

@crédit photo Sébastien Champion

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