The island of Quéménès, near France’s northwest coast, is in many ways a desolate place. The waves of the Atlantic Ocean crash against its shores, and bad weather lashes across its treeless land in winter. And at just under a mile long and some seven miles from the mainland, the island could seem to be a daunting place in which to live – let alone run a working farm. However, that’s exactly what one family have done over the past decade.
So what would make someone leave their old life behind to spend years as the only inhabitants of an isolated island? Well, David Cuisnier – who, along with his wife, Soizic, and their two kids, is one of the soon-to-depart current tenants of the island – explained to the BBC, “Coming here was an act of glorious folly. But it turned into the most wonderful adventure. We developed the farm into a successful business. We raised a family. It has been unforgettable.”
This is not the first time that farming has been practiced on the island, though. From 1953, for instance, a farmer called Henri Tassin apparently ran a profitable farm there harvesting seaweed. He had also raised livestock – not unlike the Cuisniers. During this period, the island had been home to 30 people. But by the time the Cuisniers arrived, the island had been abandoned for 25 years.
The Cuisniers won their place on the island after replying to an advertisement placed by the country’s Coastal Protection Agency. In return for living there, they agreed to look after the island and run the farm in a profitable way. And now it seems that it’s another family’s turn to become the island’s caretakers.
Living on an island barely a mile long that’s inhabited only by birds, seals and farm animals might seem daunting. But the Cuisniers, who moved there in 2007, now live in relative luxury when compared to their first six months on Quéménès. Back then, you see, they had no running water or electricity.
Those first weeks on the windswept island must have been very challenging indeed, and the evidence backs this up. One of the earliest entries in the family’s blog describes trying to take a simple shower. “We opted for solar heating skillfully crafted with 5-liter water cans surrounded by a black trash bag,” the account read. The post also included the following observation: “In April the sun cannot heat a can of 5 liters of water, even cleverly placed in a black bag.”
Of course, cold showers aren’t the only trials that the intrepid Cuisniers have had to deal with, either. From facing weeks-long storms and hungry rabbits to generating enough income from their farm to pay the rent, life on the island for the family definitely hasn’t been easy. So ingenuity and a positive attitude have proved to be essential.
“One year we lost a whole potato crop because of rabbits,” David Cuisnier told the BBC. “But luckily we’d diversified with other activities, so we just got on with it, and eventually the hard time passes. Just like in winter, when there is bad weather, you stay warm by the fire till it’s over.”
The Cuisniers have certainly seen their share of bad weather as well. In 2014, for example, the island experienced a “salt fog.” David describes this as being like a sandstorm but made up of salt sucked up from the sea by the gale-force winds. Not something in which anyone would relish farming.
Meanwhile, in 2008, a year after the Cuisniers had moved to the island, another storm had brought with it a macabre discovery. Walking along the beach alone, David had actually found four skeletons that had been unearthed by the ferocious waves. The most likely explanation seemed to be that the remains belonged to unfortunate sailors killed in a shipwreck and washed ashore years earlier.
Another grisly incident was when Soizic Cuisnier accidentally sliced off her finger tip. As a result, the local emergency services were likely really put to the test. They proved very efficient, however, as within 20 minutes a helicopter-ambulance had arrived.
Despite all the difficulties, though, David and Soizic said that they thrived on the island. As well as creating a profitable farm, they also added two children to their family. And during their time on Quéménès, they’ve made plenty of changes to the landscape too. For instance, Soizic told the BBC that it had been overrun with thorn bushes and ferns when they arrived.
Yet not only have the Cuisniers successfully farmed potatoes, but they also grow organic cereals and take advantage of their island location by harvesting seaweed. In addition, they raise livestock including sheep. And for half the year they also run a guesthouse for people interested in experiencing life on Quéménès themselves.
Quéménès is, in fact, part of a rich and diverse ecology. “There are a lot of islands here which are nature reserves,” Soizic told the BBC. With that in mind, then, the Cuisniers aimed to combine “a successful business with the environment.” All their energy is produced on the island itself from wind turbines and solar panels. Furthermore, no synthetically compounded fertilizers or pesticides are used on their crops.
Fresh water on Quéménès, meanwhile, is supplied by rainwater from a well. Any waste water is cleaned through phytoremediation, which means using vegetation to remove impurities in order to minimize pollution. And even the toilets on the island make use of sawdust rather than precious water.
As for the agriculture itself, although growing Mona Lisa potatoes and selling them online has been an important source of income for the Cuisniers, they once viewed seaweed cultivation as the future. In fact, they had plans to set up a factory on the island to process the seaweed into edible products such as pickles. But unfortunately the water on the island was not up to French food production standards.
If there’s one issue that the Cuisniers have not had to deal with on Quéménès, though, it’s loneliness. “The fact is we live in modern times,” they explained. “From the farm we can see the mainland and the other inhabited islands. We have the internet. We have constant visitors. Never once have we felt alone!” And that’s no doubt a heartening revelation for the future occupants.
There are a number of reasons why the Cuisniers are leaving the island, however. Firstly, they have been in a dispute with the Coastal Protection Agency over rent. And that’s a battle that they don’t wish to continue. “We work, we live, we are happy with what we do, but we do not want to fight,” the couple told Le Telegramme. Then there is the matter of their children’s schooling.
David and Soizic are also keen to start their own seaweed-collecting enterprise using the experience that they’ve gained on the island. “We’ve given our time and energy to Quéménès for ten years. We want to think a little about us today,” they explained.
But will the Cuisniers feel sad to leave their island home? “These ten years of our lives have been amazing,” Soizic told the BBC. “But if we’ve decided to go, it’s because we have new plans. So yes it’ll be emotional; it’s a chapter of our lives ending. But not sad.”