Creating a sustainable hub for rural innovation in a traditional farm
At the heart of the Namur Province, Alexis de Liedekerke and two other co-founders have set up Froidefontaine Farm,an agricultural hub that combines innovation with tradition to provide a blueprint for how rural societies can flourish in the future. “We see the farm as a prototype, somewhere to experiment, a living laboratory if you will, on the lookout for sustainable solutions for agriculture and society. We base our approach on three pillars: nature, human and agriculture,” Alexis explains. This project is now being supported by the 2020 Ashoka Impact Programme to refine its goals, scale up its Research & Development activities, and attract more partners.
As a bio-engineering graduate, Alexis met many motivated young people who told him how difficult it was to start farming. “The barriers preventing you from creating your own job in this sector are huge. They include access to property, access to finance, mastering the skills... And once you’ve been through all that, you end up in a low-paid job”. Around this time, Alexis’ uncle was looking for someone to take over his farm following the retirement of the previous farmer. It was a perfect opportunity: “We picked up where they had left off, but with a clear intention to find a model enabling young farmers to establish.”
The Froidefontaine team wants to maximize biodiversity on their farm and develop a rich and diverse , through good agricultural practices and ecological zones. Little by little, they are working on adopting agricultural practices that use what can provide in terms of ecosystem services rather than external inputs. That means putting in place agroecological practices that promote the use of biological soil fertility, and capture carbon in soil and perennials. They also want to contribute to the finding of solutions that enables farmers to evolve their operations towards net .
When it comes to their second pillar, , they take a two-pronged approach. Firstly, by offering a range of to anyone interested in the development of society, but also of themselves. To do this, they are collaborating with Schumacher Sprouts, another project selected for the 2020 Ashoka Impact Programme. Secondly, by and welcoming visitors to the farm to show them what exists in terms of agricultural alternatives. “We want to attract kids and companies, to show them what we do, to inspire them to become better consumers, better citizens and, most of all, play an active role in the necessary transition of the agricultural and food industries.”
The third and final pillar focuses on sustainable . Alexis believes that tomorrow’s agricultural sector needs to benefit from as many producers as possible. The fewer producers there are in the countryside, the more fragile the food system will become. To address this, Froidefontaine has launched a that brings small rural entrepreneurs together so that they can collaborate, share costs and offer a wider range of products. Through activities, Alexis and his team continuously seek innovative ways to enhance the farming system, ranging from reducing the impact on climate, to new legal structures for farms and alternative sources of finance.
To take the next steps in developing Froidefontaine, Alexis faces two major challenges. On the one hand, it’s a balancing act between taking the right decisions to develop the farm whilst sticking to the holistic, systemic approach of the three pillars. Alexis summarizes this: “We need to spread our energy and our concentration across all of these activities at once, so that we can showcase a systemic vision of what the farm has to offer.”
On the other, iteration and prototyping cycles take longer in the agricultural sector and demand a lot of upfront investment: “This slowness is a key strength of the project. Taking time to reflect, develop new ideas and then find the right partners to develop the farm’s infinite potential. However, slowness is also its greatest weakness. Things move so slowly in the first few years that revenue is scarce even though huge investments need to be made, especially in the buildings.”
Under the Impact Programme, the team is being supported to address these challenges. “The programme helps us because it imposes deadlines that we must follow. This forces us to concentrate on our goals. One of the first takeaways was that we don’t have sufficient resources to expand this project as much as we’d like to!” With clearer, realizable goals, the Froidefontaine team can attract the investors and partners they need; those that share the values and vision. When we meet potential partners we say, ‘Come and build the farm with us so that we can develop its potential and make it into something greater than anything we might have imagined.”
Alexis’ future vision for Froidefontaine is clear: “I see a farm that is bursting with life: diverse biological life in terms of fauna and flora, and an active social life with people interacting on a wide range of topics... People learning and leaving the farm inspired and motivated to build a better world, be it in their individual sphere (such as their own homes and their consumption habits), or in their political decisions or the strategy they develop for their projects or company. I hope to co-build a farm with healthy economic activities as well: agricultural activities in full throttle, food production in constant evolution and a plethora of entrepreneurs. We will leave no stone unturned. Every corner of the farm will be used to produce something or to preserve the natural habitat. I see a farm that is blooming.”