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

Living France - - Contents -

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’.

www.en­jouanis­son.fr

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

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