A century ago there were over a hundred farms in and around Paris producing fruits and vegetables for the city’s markets. Today, aside from community gardens, there are only a handful of working farms in the immediate suburbs of Paris. One of them is La Ferme Ouverte, located at the end of metro line 13 in Saint Denis.
Up until two years, this was still a family-run farm dating back to the recently-retired owner’s great grandparents. When they purchased the land, the suburbs of Paris were still predominantly rural, but starting in the 1960s highrise apartments began surrounding the four hectare farm, and airplanes on the way to and from Le Bourget airport fly overhead every few minutes.
When the last owner retired (his daughter took over a larger farm in the countryside), the City of Saint Denis purchased the land to ensure it would remain agricultural, and have leased it out for 20 years to two companies, Parti Poétique (who created a permaculture farm called Zoone Sensible), and Gally Farms, who created La Ferme Ouverte. You might already know Gally Farms, which are famous for their “pick-your-own” farm in St-Cyr-L’Ecole, near Versailles.
Galley Farms Revival
Galley completely renovated the space to make it both a working farm, a market open to the public, and an educational center with tours and activities. The main barn has been redone to show the history of this farm, as well as farming in the Ile de France over the last century.
Historic Farm Methods
A short film compiled from video taken in the early 1960s and some historic equipment kept on display shows how the farm was run, including the glass “cloches” used by the thousands in the fields to protect the seedlings, and the straw and manure stacked beneath glass panels (“old windows, essentially” says our guide) to maintain a warm growing temperature and protect the vegetables from the elements.
Today the farm uses more modern methods of growing, including tarps to keep out insects and protect the fruits and vegetables from crows and hail. They aren’t certified organic, but our guide says they only use chemicals if absolutely necessary to preserve a crop. They also grow much of their produce in the greenhouse.
Our guide Antoine, one of the six full-time workers on the farm, explains how the system of growing tomatoes requires only a small bag of soil, and a direct drip water system that includes all the nutrients the plants need.
There are also these enormous herb “trees” that are grown without any soil at all; water is circulated up through a pump to the top and drains back down. Both of these methods are used by many rooftop gardeners in Paris now because they don’t weigh as much as huge planters.
This sign describes the many different growing methods on display in the Agri-Lab at the main Gally farm in Saint-Cyr-L’Ecole.
Activities & Classes
La Ferme Ouverte hosts many activities, including breadmaking (the lower table is for kids) and apple juice making with a vintage press. There are a few sheep, goats and chickens running around in open pens at the center of the farm. They’re used as lawnmowers and composters for the bruised produce, but mainly are there for the visiting school kids to pet.
The market is open to the public with a combination of the fruits and vegetables from La Ferme Ouverte and some extra produce brought from Gally’s other farms.
To tour the Ferme Ouverte facilities or participate in the workshops you can find the schedule on their website to sign up (if your French isn’t that great, don’t be shy, they’re very nice and there’s usually someone there who speaks some English).
You can also sign up for the tours through #ExploreParis, who offer them in English (sometimes) or French, for under €10. The next one coming up will be for the permaculture farm next door at La Zone Sensible (pictured below).
A Note of Caution
If you’ve never been to Saint Denis, you should know it’s one of the poorest suburbs of Paris; you wouldn’t want to be walking around there alone after dark if you don’t know where you’re going. But the farm is located just 5 minutes’ walk from the St-Denis-Université metro station (line 13), along a main road where there are always a lot of people. You can also take bus 253 or 255 from outside the metro station just two stops, getting off in front of the McDonald’s…you can see it in the background in the photo below (the green door on the right is the entrance to the farm). Just be cautious that you might stick out as a tourist and use common-sense. Wear casual clothes (you’re going to a farm, after all) and take an Uber if you’re nervous.
La Ferme Ouverte
114 ave de Stalingrad, Saint Denis
Open Mon-Fri 4-6pm (Wed from 2pm), weekends and holidays 10am-6pm.
Entrance is €4.60 for adults, €3 for students