Claude Peguiron is one of the latest converts to organic agriculture. While the total number of Swiss holdings continues to decline, more and more of the farms that remain, like Peguiron’s, are turning their back on conventional methods.
Peguiron is stubborn – like many people who work on the land – but without the taciturn nature that often comes with it. Affable and chatty, the farmer from Mex, a small village just outside Lausanne, could spend hours giving reasons for his conversion and the satisfaction he gets from it – but also the many doubts and uncertainties that sometimes keep him awake at night.
Organic farming is defined by the international umbrella organisation, International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements, as “a production system that sustains the health of soils, ecosystems and people; relies on ecological processes, biodiversity and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects; and combines tradition, innovation and science to benefit the shared environment and promote fair relationships and a good quality of life for all involved”.
It therefore does not use chemical sprays and artificial fertilisers.
For almost two years, Peguiron’s farm has enjoyed the Bio Bud label awarded by Bio Suisse, the federation of Swiss organic farmers. In 2015, there was a 2.4% increase in organic farms. Today one in nine are certified ‘Bio Bud’.
Pequiron originally took the decision more for health reasons than out of any ecological conviction: he is extremely sensitive to chemicals used on plants.
“I would sometimes get dizzy or my glands would swell up whenever I used weed-killers or pesticides. Some even gave me nosebleeds,” he said.
Wearing a mask prevented these symptoms, but doubts slowly grew. Alarms bells starting ringing when a residue from a pesticide used by a neighbour ended up in a small pond on his farm inhabited by tadpoles. “They stopped developing overnight,” he remembers with horror.
Another time, visiting a colleague’s field that had been covered in an anti-slug chemical, he noticed a lot of dead earthworms.
“The intensive use of chemical products massacres living organisms that have been farmers’ natural allies for more than 2,000 years,” he said.
Peguiron’s wife, Laurence, has gathered reams of information on chemical products used to treat plants and has also come to a firm conclusion.
“Reading the labels on the fungicides and herbicides that my husband used frightened me. I realised we were playing God. No one truly knows the long-term effects of these products on the human body – it’s our health and that of our children that’s at stake,” she said.
The economic aspects have been studied in detail, but they are not the basis of the Peguirons’ decision.
“Yield per hectare is down a bit, but the sales prices are higher. Ultimately, with hard work and a bit of luck, you earn a bit more with organic,” said Peguiron.
However, he is disappointed by the attitude of certain industry intermediaries.
“Migros [Switzerland’s largest retailer] prefers to slash prices by buying organic sunflowers abroad. We were therefore forced to give up producing them,” he said angrily.
In his opinion, importing organic products doesn’t make ecological sense and threatens the survival of local producers.
Start from scratch
Organic farming also involves mobilising a larger workforce and therefore creates additional costs.
“I now depend on outside help for some manual weed-killing and the entire family helps out,” Peguiron said.
It was clear that all three children would be involved in the decision to go organic. His eldest son, Guillaume, 17, sees himself working on the farm later on. But bearing in mind that the property doesn’t belong to them, his parents have encouraged him to learn another trade first.
A large amount of learning was also required to cultivate 32 hectares of arable crops – wheat, rye, rape, soya and maize – and rear 50 heads of cattle, without using chemical products.
“We basically had to start from scratch and forget everything we’d been taught at farming school,” said Peguiron, explaining that the conversion was a gradual process, with the first attempts made on a plot of wheat.
“I saw I could control the weeds without using chemicals. That was reassuring.”
Weeds are Peguiron’s constant fear. “I occasionally get scared that I’ll be invaded by dock weed and thistles. You’ve got to be really rigorous, anticipate them and act quickly when there’s a problem because there’s no chemical way out. Going organic is certainly not the easy option,” he said.
In addition to these new difficulties, he has to face the gossip and jibes of his colleagues.
“I’m the first organic farmer in the village and, as a result, everyone is keeping a really close eye on my fields. As soon as a bit of grass sticks out, the ribbing comes thick and fast. Here, people are used to seeing faultlessly manicured crops lined up in order. I have to learn to not pay them much attention…”
But despite the occasional doubts, Peguiron doesn’t regret going organic.
“In French-speaking Switzerland, there’s still a lot of apprehension about organic crops, above all in farms of a certain size. Today, I can show that it’s possible to completely forgo chemicals and at the same time guarantee quality produce,” he said.
“What’s more, you have the feeling that you’re doing something good for the planet and future generations. It makes it all feel worthwhile.”
What do you think? Can agriculture really do without pesticides without humanity taking a massive step backwards? Let us know!
Translated from French by Thomas Stephens