"I view urban agriculture as a wonderful Trojan horse," says Nicolas Brassier, owner of Peas&Love, an urban farm that has expanded to seven sites across France and Belgium in the past two years. Brassier and his business partner Maxime Petit, an agronomist, share the idea of using urban agriculture to bring food production closer to the people who eat it while at the same time helping urbanites to connect with their agricultural heritage. But they also hope it will do something else at the same time – help to make cities nicer places to live by reintroducing nature to these concrete jungles.
To do this, the duo developed a concept where residents pay a monthly subscription for access to an urban farm with a combination of individual allotments, shared growing spaces and a broad range of activities around food production and transformation. The farm is cultivated by employees and subscribers, who contribute and harvest in their free time.
"Our yields are not so high (30-40kg per sq metre) compared with indoor farms, that tend to have faster cycles as plants receive light 24 hours a day," says Bassier, who spent a decade as an entrepreneur before making a 180-degree career change to urban farming. "But we rely on the natural environment for lighting and have strong logistic constraints, as our farms are located on hotel or shopping centre roofs." (A Nasa indoor farming experiment managed up to six harvests of tomatoes a year compared to two in natural conditions.)
The key to Peas&Love's idea is making use of space that would otherwise be barren. At first glance, cities might not seem to have much available land for farming among the asphalt, pavements and buildings. But the flat roofs of many commercial buildings in cities are space just waiting to be cultivated.
Although the "fields" are somewhat fragmented, the members of one roof garden in the heart of the 15th arrondissement, the densest residential neighbourhood of Paris, seem happy with their allotted 1,200 sq m (13,000 sq ft) of growing space when I joined them there in late October. And so was I when I picked the last of the very flavourful strawberries they had been growing high above the busy streets below.
The Peas&Love story is emblematic of a growing French movement to address the aging population of farmers and the disconnect between young people, produce and producer. Half of the rural farmers in France will reach retirement age within the next decade. At the same time, citizens grow more interested in their diet and the Covid-19 crisis revealed an urgent need for greener urban environments.