Old Fashioned Couche Chaude Reaps Vast Tomato Crops

Grown Without a Drop of Water

Pascal Poot is a French farmer unlike few others. On the stony, arid and seemingly infertile slopes of his farm near Lodève (Hérault) he grows highly prized tomatoes in abundance without water, fertiliser, pastoral care or pesticide.

His ancient farming technology fascinates French biologists and agricultural specialists who are working to preserve the varieties of seeds he has developed over the years (which include the Poire jaune and Noires de Crimée tomato varieties) along with his ancient and little-used farming methods.

For it is the latter especially that are considered to be a striking success illustrated by the fact that his farm’s soil is so dry and undernourished that the 50-year old oaks on it remain stunted, and gnarled, struggling to reach the height of your average local.

Pont de la Bourse in Lodève (Hérault) not too distant from Pascal Poot’s miracle tomato farm. (Credit Ninane – Wikipedia)
Couche chaude as used by a Brittany farmer

On the day that Pascal Poot showed Thibaut Schepman, a Rue89 writer, around his farm some 50 kms from Montpellier in the southern Languedoc region, he unpretentiously recounted how his thousands of tomato plants, unwatered despite a lengthy drought, unsupported by canes, unpampered by human hand and absolutely without any pesticide or fertiliser, were producing up to 25 kg of tomatoes each.

The secret, he told the journalist — visiting at the end of winter as the farmer prepared to sow his seasonal crop — ¨lies in the seeds¨ but also in the methods used.

Known locally as the couche chaude or warm layering, the technique is very old but almost lost in today’s intensively farmed agribusiness world.

Farmer Poot, 57, who left school aged 7 – is entirely self taught and started working by raising goats and growing chestnuts before turning to his current  passion running his «Conservatoire de la tomate». Here he specialises in producing seeds sturdy enough to grow abundantly in tired and farmed-out soils of the type found in arid, poor regions.

The warm layering method involves placing the seeds

collected and prepared from last year’s crop, into layer upon layer of decomposing manure in a greenhouse where the temperatures soon reach 70 degrees C , then leaving them for several days until they  germinate.

This was the same technique used by 19th century Paris vegetable gardeners and one which enabled them to harvest melons in the centre of the capital at the end of spring. Today it allows Farmer Poot to geminate thousands of tomatoes, peppers and aubergines on his farm in a carefree fashion.

This website claims that the method was in fact developed by a food supplier to King Louis XVI who had demanded the man learn to grow asparagus that he could serve year round to his guests irrespective of seasonal constraints).

Manuel pratique de la culture maraîchère de Paris. This book explaining the layer method was the bible of Paris market gardeners of the day (Credit Screen capture)

Once the germination stage is over says Pascal Poot, he just plants them out and ignores them until harvest time.

Sharing his secrets he told Rue 89: “Most of the plants we now call ‘weeds’ are plants such as amaranth or couch that were on the table in the Middle Ages… I have always maintained that if they are so resistant today it is precisely because nobody took care of them for hundreds of generations.

“Everyone is trying to grow vegetables by protecting them as much as possible, on the contrary I am trying to encourage the plants to defend themselves. I started to plant tomatoes in this stone-strewn field 20 years ago at a time when there was not a drop of water to be had.

“Most people think that if you do that the plants will all die, but this is just not the case. In fact, almost all plants in my first crop survived. However the tomatoes produced were ridiculously small. The way round this I found was to collect the seeds from those tomatoes and plant them the next season. At that stage I began to see real tomatoes, around 1 or 2 kg per plant and then I discovered that if I repeated the process over the next couple of years, the outcome was formidable.

“At first everyone around here thought I was crazy but after a while my neighbours saw that I had more tomatoes than they did, and better that I never suffered any mildew attacks. They also noted that my crop cost less because it required no water and no fertiliser. People started talking and some time later the scientists and researchers started visiting.”

One of these was Bob Brac de la Perrière,a biologist, plant genetics expert and coordinator of the environment association Bede.

He told Rue 89: “At the end of the 90s, when we were leading a fight against GMOs, we said we needed to be finding alternatives, so we started producing an inventory of farmers who were producing their own seeds. We found between 100 and 150 in France.

“But the case of Pascal Poot is unique. The least one can say is that he is a man of considerable independence of spirit who follows his own rules and to my knowledge there is absolutely no one else in the field like him. He selects his seeds against a background of great difficulty and stress for the plant, which in turn makes them extremely tolerant, improves their quality and taste and also, because they are more concentrated, their nutritional value. On top of that he grows hundreds of different varieties, very few farmers have such a vast knowledge of the species they cultivate.”

Researchers are only now beginning to understand the biological mechanics behind Pascal Poot’s method and success, says Veronique Chable, a specialist in this subject at INRA Rennes-Sad who has been doing research into the farmer’s selections since 2004: “His basic principle is that we should grow the plant in the conditions in which we would like it to grow. This is something we have forgotten, but it has long been part of good farming sense.

“Today, this is called the inheritance of acquired characters, and clearly there is a transmission of stress and the positive characteristics in the plants over several generations.

“It must be understood that DNA is a very pliable carrier of information, it is not only the genetic mutation that causes the changes, there is also an adaptation, for example involving genes that are dormant but can be reanimated.

“A plant makes its seeds after it has lived through a cycle, so it retains certain acquired aspects. Pascal Poot exploits these characteristics extremely well … genetically his plants are not very different from any others but they have an impressive ability to adapt.”

This adaptability also has commercial value. During the Rue 89 reporter’s visit, several people called Pascal to order organic seeds which he sells to several outlets, including Germinance.

Kevin Sperandio, a seed craftsman at Germinance, explains: “The fact that Pascal Poot’s seeds are adapted to a harsh and difficult environment means they have a tremendous capacity to adapt, for all regions and climates.

“We do not have the means to do this kind of testing, but I’m sure if we did do one comparing a hybrid variety produced by Pascal Poot with your classic organic seeds it would be those of his tomato conservatory that would get the best results “.

In part his seeds are sold illegally, because they are not listed in the official approved catalogue of species and varieties of vegetable , the GNIS- Groupement national interprofessionnel des semences et plants (National Interprofessional Group of Seeds and Seedlings).

This irritates Pascal Poot: “One of my best varieties is the Gregori Altaï. But it is not listed in the catalogue, perhaps because it is not standardised enough for them. Many varieties are like that. Last autumn, Graines del Païs were subject to an inspection by the anti-fraud squad which alleged they found nearly 90 contraventions in their catalogue.

“This principle on which the authorities work, is that you are only allowed to sell seeds that produce fruits and vegetables that are all the same seeds that will always give the same results in any location. For me that is the exact opposite of how plants and seeds flourish their cycles are based on their continuous ability to adapt. The current rules about seeds amount to producing clones but what we are in reality seeing are zombie seeds.”

Story: Ken Pottinger


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