As part of the 11-14 March Water and Climate Festival in Louvain-la-Neuve, Science Today is highlighting UCLouvain ecological transition research and researchers. Julie Hermesse, doctor in anthropology and member of the UCLouvain Laboratory for Prospective Anthropology (LAAP) and member of Louvain4Nutrition, observes agroecological transitions, particularly in Brussels.
Ten market gardeners are localising food production for Brussels. They’re ‘NIMAculteurs’, or ‘neo-farmers’ with non-agricultural backgrounds who converted to the sector. It’s an adventure that Julie Hermesse participated in for three years. In 2016, this doctor in anthropology, a member of the UCLouvain Laboratory for Prospective Anthropology (LAAP), observed these gardening systems in Brussels with the same curiosity as she had done in her previous courses of study. After Guatemala, Cuba and the Philippines, in Belgium she focused on the resilience systems of small-scale agricultural production.
‘It was very important for me as a researcher to be involved with collectives seeking solutions for agricultural practices in urban and peri-urban areas’, she explains. ‘Looking around me, I quickly found associations near Anderlecht that combined market gardening with inclusion of local actors who wanted to work the land.’
A study on and with actors in the field
Many have sought to reinvent this métier, such as those who appear in the documentary film ‘Tomorrow’ directed by Cyril Dion and Mélanie Laurent, which has inspired many. But how do NIMAculteurs manage to make their business viable and, more concretely, how can establishing such projects be supported? Prof. Hermesse began asking these questions and seeking answers three years ago as part of a participatory research activity project: Ultra Tree, funded by the Brussels Institute for Research and Innovation (Innoviris) Co-Create project. Today, her work has taken the form of a book presenting a series of portraits and tools for NIMAculteurs: Des maraîchers dans la ville, dix parcours d’installation en Région bruxelloise (‘Market gardeners in the city: ten paths to implementation in the Brussels Region’).
Specifically, she focused on two experimental plots in Anderlecht: the Graines de Paysans testing farm, where recently trained farmers test themselves before going all in; and the Champ-à-Mailles plot, for producing quality fruits and vegetables in order to raise awareness and educate the Brussels public about sustainable food.
‘We worked closely with market gardeners’, Prof. Hermesse says. ‘Reporting their hours of work, what they earned, what they felt, what they did to keep themselves going ... Aspirations often come up against reality. It’s to know why some people throw in the towel and others keep going that we conducted this research.’
The research conclusions were published last November, with specific tools to support market gardeners and allow them to self-assess. ‘We created a guide that provides keys for strengthening the viability of projects’, Prof. Hermesse says. ‘As a result of the research, a basic guide targets very specific questions such as how to think about collaboration with other market gardeners or associate volunteers with the project.’ Another tool: a compass of viability, which helps position oneself in relation to the compromises to be made in order to maintain the project over time, and to assess room for manoeuvre, work arrangements and possible external support.
‘The Good Food strategy launched in the Brussels Capital Region counts on local production of 30% of the unprocessed fruits and vegetables consumed by Brussels inhabitants by 2035’, Prof. Hermesse says. ‘To fulfil this ambition, it’s urgent to discuss specifics of the agroecological transition in urban and peri-urban areas.’
Once the Ultra Tree project was completed, Prof. Hermesse launched other research projects in the circular economy sector and in partnership with ULB colleagues. She supervises a PhD thesis within the framework of the CONECI project, which addresses giving a second life to materials, the idea being to study the circularity of everyday objects such as household appliances and clothing in order to compile neighbourhood reports about their use. The research has just begun, with the PhD student visiting second-hand stores in Brussels.
In Molenbeek, the second project supervised by Prof. Hermesse is taking root. ‘There were problems with wood waste on the streets’, she explains. ‘By developing solutions that contribute to neighbourhood living, we have, in collaboration with a ULB team, thought about how to use this abandoned wood.’ In 2017, a carpentry workshop was set up in the Heyvaert district to rework wood and restore its value. ‘Everyone can come here, without having to show their papers, it's open and free of charge’, she says.
Also funded by Innoviris, these two projects are ongoing.
A glance at Julie Hermesse's bio
A doctor of anthropology at UCLouvain, Julie Hermesse first earned a degree in sociology. Her path led her to a PhD thesis entitled ‘Hurricane Stan: When Landslides Unveil Environmental and Cultural Transformations. Ethnography of a municipality in the altiplano mam of Guatemala’. This experience led her to continue her career in agroecology: she is a member of the FNRS Interdisciplinary Contact Group for Research in Agroecology and a member of the UCLouvain Laboratory for Prospective Anthropology (LAAP).