MUD AND MAGIC
Louisa and Stuart Hallewell are living ‘The Good Life’ running an organic pig farm in Midi-Pyrénées. Scheenagh Harrington shares their success story
Cover story Find out how one expat couple are living ‘ The Good Life’ in Midi-Pyrénées
One of the many reasons people move to France is the search for a better quality of life; somewhere they can be more self-sufficient and feel closer to nature. That was certainly the aim for 44-year-old Louisa Hallewell and her family, who moved from Oxfordshire to the countryside of south-west France in 2007, where they now run Enjouanisson, their organic pig farm. While they left in search of ‘The Good Life’, the shift in lifestyle has seen some interesting scenarios thrown their way over the years – least of which included a milestone celebration for Louisa, where the birthday girl’s plans went somewhat awry thanks to their new rural responsibilities.
“I spent my 40th birthday in a barn,” she laughs. “Everyone else was having a cracking party in the kitchen, and I was in the barn, bottle-feeding a baby lamb that had been abandoned by its mum!”
Louisa, who was a podiatrist and reflexologist before moving to France with her 47-year-old, IT worker husband, Stuart, and their two children – nine-year-old daughter Harmonie, and eight-year-old son Phoenix – admits they had thought of emigrating years earlier, but a lack of confidence with the language and hearing horror stories put them off.
Yet the notion of moving away from their UK home in Thame and living self-sufficiently in France was always
there, as she explains: “The dream was my husband’s. He didn’t want to bring the children up in the UK and he also suffered from winter sadness. There was a definite need to go and find some sunshine, and bring the kids up in a more healthy, organic, outdoor lifestyle than the one we could see in the commuter belt in England.”
A previous attempt to make the leap across the Channel went nowhere after their house failed to sell, but in 2007, shortly after welcoming their second child, events seemed to take on a life of their own. A note slipped through their door enquired whether their home was for sale.
“It wasn’t,” said Louisa. “I’d just given birth, my husband was in Ireland; I was home alone with two small babies and trying to run a business. I wasn’t really planning on selling the house at that time.”
Despite all that, she quickly came to the conclusion it was too good an opportunity to miss. “Maybe it was because I was sleep deprived, but I thought it was a brilliant idea to change country. I actually did no rational thinking about it!” she laughs.
After selling up and finally making it to French soil, the family literally put a pin in the map, rented a gîte and said, ‘right, this is where it starts’.
The quest for a greener lifestyle meant going organic, but on a reasonably small scale. “Ideally we were just going to be self-sufficient, doing a bit of ‘The Good Life’,” says Louisa. “Organic is incredibly important to us, and the whole thing of knowing the provenance of your food. The idea was to try to live this wonderful dream of me being
The quest for a greener lifestyle meant going organic, but on a reasonably small scale
Barbara Good and Stuart being Tom Good, having a few pigs and chickens and living in the sunshine happily ever after, with our babies running around being free!”
The reality, however, turned out to be rather different. As the family searched for their new home, hoping for a smallholding or similar, it became increasingly obvious that they weren’t going to find what they were looking for with local estate agents.
Luckily, they stumbled on Safer (Sociétés d’aménagement foncier et d’établissement rural), the government body for land sales in France. “We contacted them and that’s how we started looking at properties that had more than a few hectares of land,” explains Louisa. “The more we looked, the more the ideas of what we could do seemed more exciting – the dream got bigger.”
It took two years, but in 2009, the Hallewells finally found their perfect home in Montesquiou, in the Gers department of Midi-Pyrénées. Louisa explains: “We first saw this place when we first moved over to France. We had seen it for sale through an agent and said ‘Fifty hectares! No, we’re not doing that thank you’ and discounted it completely. Two years later though, we did go to view it and
the environment is absolutely stunning: 360-degree uninterrupted views of mountains and beautiful countryside. The property had been on the market for about five years, so we made a ridiculously cheap offer and they accepted it. We can see the Pyrénées on a regular basis. It makes my heart sing every morning.”
The dream was now starting to be a reality, but before they could really get up and running, there was a lot of work to do. The first order of business was to clean the place up. “It was a crazy, crazy property!” laughs Louisa. “It was extremely run down and had animals living in it all over the place. There were 40 cats, nine dogs and a pig living in the house. My mum’s words were: ‘You’re a lot braver than I thought you were’ when we brought her to visit for the first time, because it really could have been condemned!”
Thanks to the hard graft of family and friends, as well as a lot of bleach, Louisa and Stuart were able to make the farmhouse habitable in a fortnight.
“If you don’t get your paperwork done then you don’t get any subsidies for that year”
After expending all that elbow grease, it was time to shift into another gear mentally, and attack the admin that comes with running an organic farm in France. Louisa explains: “The first thing on the paperwork side was being registered as farmers, and getting our documentation done for subsidies. If you don’t get your paperwork done then you don’t get any subsidies for that year, and they’re not to be sniffed at!”
Luckily, they had local support. “An agent for Safer helped us,” says Louisa, adding: “He’s retired now, but raised six children on an organic farm self-sufficiently, living out here for 30 years. He’s a bit of a guru. There are quite a few of them out here, and they’re generally Dutch or German. Without them we’d have been floundering.”
That good relationship with their neighbours proved to be a godsend on many an occasion, with Louisa and Stuart calling on the locals for advice, guidance and, from time to time, to borrow equipment. She explains: “You come to France with this idea you’re going to create a farm and think it’s going to be fabulous because you see all these French families living the life, but they’ve been doing it for generations.
“If you don’t get on with your neighbours it’s horrific. I know people who don’t and it’s almost gang war. They have a really hard time. For us, what really helped us integrate was the fact we had two small babies and we enrolled them
straight into maternelle. I joined the school council as well.”
Louisa stresses the importance of this most social of networks, saying: “I think there’s a secret code in the countryside: if your neighbour asks you for help, then the answer is always yes, regardless of whether it’s inconvenient for you. In the UK, I think we’ve forgotten how to ask our neighbours for help, because we just expect to pay someone to do something. We’ve forgotten how to say, ‘Look, can you help me?’ and that it’s okay to ask. If you don’t do it here, you won’t survive.”
So, once the farmhouse had been made habitable, and the all-important paperwork was in place, the family were then able to welcome their first animals. “The pigs arrived about two months after we got there,” Louisa says. “I think a chicken and some chicks were the first thing to arrive, then we bought ten weaners – pigs that are about eight to ten weeks old, who had been weaned off their mother’s milk and were eating solid food.”
After letting the pigs work their magic on the area that would go on to be a vegetable patch, turning it over as efficiently as any tractor, she and Stuart made new enclosures in the farm’s woodlands.
“We’ve got 13 hectares of oak woodlands and enclosed part of it to accommodate more pigs. That same year, we bought two pregnant sows in the June. We had to build some pig sties as we didn’t have any, so we learned to do block walling.”
It turned out to be one of many lessons, some more difficult than others, that Louisa and Stuart have learned in the past few years, but when it comes to sending her beloved animals to slaughter, it’s not as much of a
“We’ve got 13 hectares of oak woodland and enclosed part of it to accommodate more pigs”
wrench as imagined.
“I’ve hardened a lot over the past six years. You have to,” says Louisa. “I have a deep respect for my animals, and I know that while they’re alive and with me, they have the highest quality standard of farm life they could possibly have. I treat them well. In return, they give me a product that I can sell, so I can live.”
She adds: “I remember the first time someone showed me how to pluck and gut a chicken. I was absolutely horrified. Now I do it on a weekly basis. It’s just part of normal life. It’s the provenance of our food. We’re making quality food to feed our family and it’s the main reason we’re here. We take pride in the fact we’ve raised really good quality food to eat. So there are lots of positives.”
As well as the Hallewell family and all their animals, Enjouanisson regularly opens its doors to local children attending cookery workshops or adults keen to learn more about the world of organic farming. “It’s been an amazing roller coaster: lots and lots of fun.” says Louisa.
There’s no doubt Enjouanisson has a long and profitable future ahead of it, selling delicious meat to a growing base of customers, both online and at various farmers’ markets. The life the family have chosen and created in France is definitely not for the work shy or the faint-hearted but it is certainly a ‘Good Life’.
These pages, clockwise from top left: contented sow and piglets; Louisa proudly selling produce at a farmers’ market; organic ham; bottle-feeding piglets; Louisa, Stuart, Harmonie and Phoenix
These pages, clockwise from top left: Stuart and a prize piglet; the idyllic rural setting.; organic sausages, young piglets finding their feet
This page: from IT worker to budding farmer, Stuart feeds his pigs