Agriculture: cultivating respect for the land and difference

“It’s a real village next to the village”, proudly exclaims Marc Jermann, the director, welcoming visitors to the Saint-André institute, nestled in Cernay (Haut-Rhin), at the foot of the Vosges. More than a residence, this real place of life, with its post office, its church, its houses, has been welcoming nearly 500 children, adults, retirees and as many nursing and administrative staff for decades. Created in 1891 by the Sisters of the Cross, a local congregation, the structure has long also had a farm to meet its food needs while providing activities for its residents. 140 hectares of arable land at the service of a new – and dual – mission: the promotion of agroecology and inclusion.

A Laudato si’ inspiration

Since the end of the 1990s, the nuns have handed over to the association Adele de Glaubitz which manages, with them, nearly forty establishments in Alsace. The institute’s farm was then entrusted to a local farmer to grow wheat and corn and thus provide an additional source of income. When the man announced his retirement ten years ago, the question of the future of the farm arose. Religious and laity, challenged by the encyclical Laudato si’ of Pope Francis (in 2015), give themselves time to reflect. A meeting with Marie Balthazard, local coordinator of the association land of ties which accompanies installation projects for producers in agroecology, causes the click. A common ambition emerges: to restore real coherence to this agricultural structure, to move from a huge surface of monotonous and impersonal cultivation, especially for the residents who walk there, to a place of life, shared work and natural biodiversity. .

Eight carefully selected farmers – stockbreeders, market gardeners, cereal growers – signed the contract on June 28 that commits them, brought together by the desire to develop this site differently. Nearly 8 km of hedges will be planted, not to mention many trees, with as many participatory projects involving volunteers and people with disabilities. A circular economy is invented here, starting with a healthy rotation of plots: the grazing of farm animals on temporary meadows provides natural fertilizer that benefits other farmers and market gardeners while regenerating the soil. Rapeseed, ancient wheat, rye, clover, vegetables of all kinds are now produced organically. What to inspire other farmers in the region? “It’s interesting to create such a project so that it can be duplicated elsewhere, emphasizes Marie Balthazard, while in the next ten years nearly 20% of useful agricultural land in France will change owners.

A shared living space

For the eight farmers, already active in the region, the Saint-André farm is also a personal adventure. Because everything remains to be invented in terms of joint decision-making, sharing of equipment and sectors to be developed. “It will take me two or three years to properly appropriate the originality of the project, confides Jérémie, in charge of 50 hectares of cereals and vegetables. The time to get to know each other well and find the right agreement, on production or irrigation management. Without forgetting the encounter with the world of disability. For Xavier, a former company executive converted into a market gardener, this dimension is also the strength of the project: “I am delighted to see people with disabilities sometimes coming to lend me a hand. These lands once again become a living area, with links that are woven through shared work. And in contact with nature that flourishes, people affected by autism, for example, can find peace and security. “Little by little, the neighbors here are becoming partners,” says Xavier. The founding nuns of the place could not have said it better.

Recipes for success

A caring congregation

The managers of the Saint-André institute wondered about the future of their agricultural land. They considered it a heritage worth preserving from real estate speculation and decided to invent a new shared project on the site.

A stimulating agreement

The collaboration between the nuns, the lay association they created and a militant association like Terre de liens has made it possible to cross confessional and non-confessional networks in the service of the common good.

The meaning of patience

The promoters of the project visited other farms and existing reception centers to identify what could be adapted to the Saint-André institute.

The quest for funding also makes it possible to meet professionals who can help structure the call for tenders.

Agriculture: cultivating respect for the land and difference