A French agricultural high school has turned its focus to organic farming and agro-ecology in the département of Haute Garonne. Agro-ecology is a concept promoted by the French Ministry of Agriculture that seeks to combine economic, environmental and social performance, reduce the consumption of energy, water, fertilizer, pesticides and veterinary medicine, and to work in tandem with natural mechanisms instead of fighting against them.

The school, located near the city of Toulouse, has used the concept to go in a direction that allowed them to reduce their pesticide use by 50% in five years and to attract more students interested in changing modern agricultural practices.

On the 40 hectares (about 100 acres) the school possesses, various trials are taking place to test different alternatives to pesticide use: mechanical weeding, biological methods, low-volume treatments and many others are helping the school find new ways of solving old farming problems.
The school converted half of its territory to organic farming in 2000 and the rest switched over to agro-ecology six years ago. “Agro-ecology taught on a blackboard doesn’t work, you have to throw yourself into it,” explained Frédéric Robert, a teacher of agronomy and head of the agro-ecology program at the school. A new teaching system was put in place that not only allows the students to lead the way in the tests at the school, but provides them with the opportunity to work with interested real-world farmers from the surrounding areas to find solutions to reducing pesticide use.

“It’s co-constructing knowledge. We don’t just tell them, ‘this is how it is,’ it’s up to them to learn through their projects. The students are now going much farther than just learning about agronomy: They’re discovering how to carry out and present tests and how to advise farmers,” Robert added.

News of the program’s success has spread, he said, which gives the school important visibility in the region. Some agricultural organizations and many regional farmers have expressed interest in forming a partnership with the program because of its success.

One student, Sophie, estimated to have affected between 1,000 and 3,000 hectares (between about 2,500 and 7,500 acres) of farmland with her project that mobilized in favor of agro-ecology with local co-ops and the agriculture chamber. “If the trial programs carried out by students convince the local farmers, that success is carried out on all of the farmer’s land the next year,” Sophie said.

For more information about France’s efforts in agro-ecology, check out these links below:
2015: One Year of Agro-Ecology
2013 and the Development of Agro-Ecology
A Roadmap for the Development of Agro-Ecology