Interview of Frederic, from the French company Topager
It’s in the middle of a worksite and under the rain that I met Frederic in the new vegetable garden of a luxurious hotel near the Eiffel Tower the 25th April of 2014. This vegetable garden has been grown up by the company he created one year ago with a friend, Nicolas Bel, Topager. Under my umbrella, there was also my friend Céline met by chance the same morning at the « La faim des terres » conference. We were lucky to also meet Lucie, Frederic’s college who is educational project manager.
For our first encounter, we interrupted Frederic and Lucie at the heart of the action: they were receiving enormous farmland sack (composed of green wastes produced locally), ingredient at the basis of their little cuisine: the realization of vegetable garden on the roofs.
This interview allowed us to better understand the meaning that can take urban agriculture – through the concrete example of an innovative company – and its links with big issues such as the connection between urban people and nature, city biodiversity, education to environment, methods to cultivate in the city…Keeping in mind the fact that more than 53 % of the world population live in urban areas, those issues will be critical to answer the question of “how to Feed the planet” raised by Universal exposition 2015.
Have a nice reading!
Frederic, in a few words what is the story and activity of Topager?
Our adventure started at the end of 2011-beginning of 2012. Specialized since seven years on the roofs and wall revegetation, I was preparing my thesis for the National Museum of Natural History in Paris. With a friend, Nicolas Bel, also very interested by those subjects, we decided to launch an experimental research project on the roof of Agroparitech School (Paris Institute of Technology for Life, Food and Environmental Sciences).
We created the association Potager sur les toits (vegetable gardens on the roof) with as main objective the realization of scientific experiences to compare different urban cultivation systems. Concretely, we wanted to understand which type of land and which methods were most adapted to make urban vegetable gardens on roofs.
What did those experiences conducted at Agroparitech involve?
In particular, we compared the evolution in time of the yield of some vegetables crops (for instance tomatoes) depending on whether they were planted on vegetable garden bed filled with compost bought in a shop, which are mostly composed of inert substance (peat) and of chemical fertilizer, or in beds composed of green waste made up of various strata. Moreover, we tested the bed with or without earthworms. Results: from 30 at first they multiplied to 100 a year later, it means they liked it! A synthesis of the experiences results is available online on the Agroparitech website.
What were in a few words the main results?
The results showed clearly that the best yield was reached by vegetable garden bed filled with green wastes, the results being even clearer with earthworms. We also noticed an increase of the yield with time for those beds, because the soil was alive. On the contrary, beds with soil bough in shops were decreasing in time.
How did you go from the association Potager sur les toits to the company Topager?
The project carried out on the roof of Agroparitech immediately got an important media coverage. It was certainly a sign of the growing interest and needs on these issues. The association still exists, but in 2013, Nicolas and I decided to create in parallel a company in order to respond better to the requests.
One year after the creation, how is going Topager? How many are you?
The company is going well, and various projects are in progress. We are 4 working full time.
Could you give us a concrete example of Topager activity through the worksite of the hotel where we are now?
- The project involves the realization of a vegetable garden/orchad/garden areas on the in garden of the restaurant hotel that will be able to supply it with fresh foods.
- 400 M2 of vegetable garden, and 200 M2 of orchards.
- 50 types of vegetables and fruits (example: persimmon, figs, cherry trees, raspberry bushes) and aromatic plants, in total 250 of plants in the garden.
- The area also haves some biodiversity zones: nest-box, installations to favour the crossing of wild animals, opening of log for the insects and bees.
- There will be a particular work done with the restaurant to make compost heap with the restaurant wastes.
- The service also includes training and support of the persons in charge of the maintenance of the vegetable garden. In that case, the gardener will be handicapped people who are working in an adapted company.
- We had a last minute demand: there will 6 laying hen at the end of the garden (we are building a luxury henhouse ! They will eat also the waste of the restaurant that cannot be composted, and make an excellent fertilizer.
Will the restaurant become auto-sufficient?
On some products the hotel restaurant will be able to get its supplies from the vegetable garden (for instance the mesclun salad), for other products, like courgette, the restaurant will have to get its supply from outside. But the objective is not to reach auto-sufficiency.
What other projects are you working on or already achieved ?
- Pedagogic vegetable garden for the Chaville convent.
- A farm roof project that could supply for a Community-supported agriculture group with a person working there full time. To reach a balance in the budget, the farm will also organize pedagogic workshop and training.
Are there some pollution problems for fruits and vegetable on the roof ? Particularly we have in mind the impressive particulates air pollution of Paris in March 2014?
During the experience of Agroparitech, we made an analysis of pollution residues in the sustratum and on the fruits and vegetables. The results showed that the level reached in terms of pollution by heavy metals was 100 time under the norms defined by the European Union. The results are available for consultation on the Agroparitech website.
Are your vegetables certified organic?
Our vegetables cannot be certified organic because there are not cultivated in open ground. But Topager is following the main principles of organic agriculture, and even try to go further: no chemical inputs (keeping in mind that green waste given by the city can sometime have chemical inputs), biodiversity promotion, use of rare and old seeds…Topager has bought seed from Kokopelli, la ferme de Saint Marthe or la bonne graine (structures that are selling those type of seeds in France). At the scientific level, we want to let accessible a maximum of information, we defend open source.
Who are your clients and according to you, what are their main motivations?
Our clients are mainly coming from the private sector. For them the external communication aspects are essential. When our clients are linking their project to a catering service, the motivation can also be to have some fresh and quality products that you can be taken when needed.
What do think of the importance given to technology in urban farming?
A priori, I am not against using technology, but within the framework of our research and experiences, we often noticed that some methods can at the end have a counterproductive impact on the environment. For instance, in the case of hydroponics (definition “ubset of hydroculture and is a method of growing plants using mineral nutrient solutions, in water, without soil”), it is often necessary to use material which are coming from afar, often plastic made, for a yield not always superior.
Last question, how would you define the philosophy and objectives of Topager?
The idea to product more locally is at the basis of our project, our objective is to participate to grow closer urban people to the land, that children growing in the cities can be able to see how grow vegetables. Urban agriculture allows to make people aware of environment and agriculture issues, the two of them being indissociable, with a particular accent on biodiversity issue. The main interest is to raise awareness of the people living in the city showing us concretely what it can means in terms of biodiversity, life of soil, ecosystems.
The objective is not to feed everyone. Indeed we even ask ourselves the question at the Parisian scale: according to our research, if there were vegetable gardens on every roof of Paris, it will be possible to feed 220 000 people, which mean only 10 to 15 % of the population. So there is no competition with normal farming. Urban farming can be complementary at the production level, in terms of quality, in order to have fresher products, and at the esthetic and pedagogic levels.
However in some countries, the production issues exist when talking of urban agriculture, for instance Madagascar or Haiti. The nutrition issues can also be determining. For instance in the US, where urban agriculture can help some cities to educate to a more sustainable nutrition, also more affordable, like in Detroit.