photoreportage

La Petite Foire de Semel

The 'little fair' of Semel is explicitly designed as an alternative to Belgium's big agricultural fair at Libramont, and takes place each year on the same weekend as its larger rival.

It's a relaxed and friendly event that mixes demonstrations of traditional farming and craft techniques, and opportunities to sample and buy organic local produce, with debates on agricultural policy and practice. The organisers present themselves as anti-agribusiness ('Towards ethical, peasant farming'). Representatives of Monsanto should probably stay away. Hard-core participants camp overnight and are invariably charming. The food is wonderful, but everyone is expected to wash their own dishes.

I offered my services as a volunteer photographer for the weekend and had a fantastic time. Almost everyone I encountered had an interesting story to tell and was willing to be photographed without striking a pose.

Harvest at the Ferme du Hayon

I spent a large part of yesterday afternoon aboard a combine harvester, gathering in this year's harvest of Marc Vanoverschelde's organic wheat crop in the rolling farmland of Belgium's Luxembourg province, close to the French border. A few week's ago, I photographed the many varieties of wheat and rye in Marc's experimental plots. Now the wheat in the main fields was ripe, and the race was on to get it in before the threatened rain arrived. (In fact, it never did.)

Riding in a combine harvester is a bit like sailing in a small and very noisy trawler boat – you roll unsteadily through a sea of wheat, unable to see the bottom. The difference, of course, is that instead of pulling a net, this boat pushes a giant hair-clipper along the ground ahead of it, swallowing everything it cuts down, storing the grain and shitting everything else out behind.

At the controls, Marc was extraordinarily attentive to every movement and every noise. From time to time we stopped so that he could climb down to check the grain hopper or dislodge a clump of wheat straw that was choking the intake. Marc's son Rémy came with a tractor to empty the grain from the harvester and take it back to the farm. Later, his friend Francis, who had been bailing straw in another field, came to see how Marc was getting on.

Now I just need to spend a couple of hours cleaning the dust from my cameras.

La Ferme du Hayon

This weekend, we drove out of Brussels to the village of Meix-devant-Virton, near Belgium's border with France, to visit the Ferme du Hayon. For several years we've been buying Marc's excellent flour (not to mention his beef and potatoes) but this was the first time we had visited the farm. It's a lovely, quiet spot, set in rolling countryside. The farmyard was full of children, with swallows darting in and out of open doorways and windows and dogs sleeping in the shade under benches.

We'd been invited to a guided tour of the farm's experimental field, where Marc and his colleagues are growing small test plots of around 50 ancient varieties of wheat and rye. Cultivation is entirely organic and highly labour-intensive, with weeding done by hand. As part of the Li Mistère network, the Ferme du Hayon aims to select the varieties best adapted to the local soil and climate and to reintroduce them, developing techniques such as wide-spaced planting to optimise resistance to disease and 'laying', and thus yields.

It was wonderful to see a whole field of wheat as tall as me – something I remember from my childhood. I am hoping that I'll be able to go back for the harvest in a few weeks' time.

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