Long-term ‘exile’ in the Lot-et-Garonne
By Emilie Dubrul
Her gaze is both lively and cheerful, with an attractive touch of determination. Her reply to the first question ‘Why this profession?’ came without hesitation, as if it were obvious: ‘For the physical side of things and the simple fact of being outside, outdoors. You have to work hard, very hard sometimes, but that doesn’t faze me.’ When you see her removing the weeds that have encroached into her borders in handfuls under a searing sun, you really take her by her word! Diane goes on to tell how, as a very small girl, she enjoyed looking for the creepy crawlies hidden underneath the leaves, how she enjoyed observing them and studying them. And even if some of them now giving her trouble, she continues to love insects. ‘A true passion’.
Background of a born activist
Diane is from Brussels. After pursuing studies in humanities and social sciences, the young graduate who grew up abroad, left to volunteer on international cooperation projects for the Belgian NGO Quinoa (NGO specialising in education and development). ‘In the Philippines, we arrived in a village of fishermen. Volunteer lawyers were explaining to them about the agriculture reform and how to go about implementing it. It was the first time that slogans such as ‘access to land’ and ‘green revolution’ had real meaning for me.’ After other trips and more enriching experiences which forged her anti-globalisation stance, Diane was recruited by Humanity & Inclusion while continuing to campaign for just causes, particularly alongside the German association FIAN, an NGO that defends the right to food.
‘I think it’s what led me to farming. Having got people to sign petitions so that people could reclaim their land and access water at any moment in time, I wanted to contribute to producing something.’
At that same time, Diane was taking night classes to become a herbalist. She wanted a diploma that would allow her to set up a workshop to transform plants into dried herbs, herbal teas, creams, gels and essential oils. ‘I grew up in Africa. My father worked in development cooperation, we were lucky to have beautiful gardens at home. Very early on, I put my hands in the soil. As for the medicinal side of things, that must come from my physiotherapist mum who always used plants to make us better.’ With her diploma in hand, the young herbalist arrived in France in the lavender distillery of Bleu d’Argens. It was a real revelation. ‘When I returned to Brussels, I did an internship in a small herbal laboratory. I enjoyed it, but I didn’t see myself simply buying plants and transforming them. I wanted to grow them.’
The call of the land
By taking short cuts, Diane Mertens met passionate, influential people who simply fuelled her desire to change profession. Through the French association Terre de Liens, the aspiring farmer learnt about the principle of business incubators and the organisation SAS GR.A.I.N.E.S. Based in Pau, this entity provides future entrepreneurs, referred to as start-ups, with land, equipment, and a human and technical network. It’s a real springboard for those who don’t have a family farm, allowing them to take on the harsh reality of the field with support from others. ‘In the business incubator, we are given training that is oriented more towards market gardening as it’s a short cycle,’ Diane explained. In the beginning, I produced a few types of vegetables to reassure them. I then planted my first aromatic plants to test the soil, to see how those plants would develop in this clay loam soil. We often think that they are more suited to limestone soils, but here, my basil and parsley plants are just sublime!’
While some people encourage her to grow Brussels sprouts, Diane only grows what she likes.
And it’s certainly not cabbages or sprouts! Others, such as Jean-Marc Parrat or Coco Badie, her gardening ‘godparents’ encouraged her to sell her fresh basil in large bunches and her pots of parsley, savoury and marjoram in the local Biocoop organic supermarkets or local markets. ‘Thanks to them, I have discovered new plants, but that it’s not easy to set yourself up and not bother others, to respect each person’s borders. I have gradually started to transform my products.’ Until she is able to ‘truly set up shop’ and establish her small distillery, the young Belgian farmer has started to produce organic olive oil and salt from the Ile de Ré (and soon from Salies-de-Béarn), flavoured with herbs that she has grown with passion.
Diane may be a farmer, but the activist in her is never very far away. ‘By having access to land, I feel like I’ve opened a door that will enable me, I hope, to contribute to the recognition of plant-based treatments. It’s a form of activism that I miss at the moment.’
SAS Graine Garrigues