At the beginning of the year the European milk market was deregulated. As expected the industry is now in crisis. French farmers, not just dairy producers, but livestock farmers in general (beef and pork) have been blockading tourist attractions, processing plants and major routes in northern France. In our area I know of protests in Poitiers, Tours, Chambord, Montbazon, Obterre, Joué les Tours and Sainte Maure de Touraine.
A dairy herd near Preuilly.
There is a pile of barn sweepings and a hand painted sign that says 'Mangez Française' on the roundabout as you enter Sainte Maure on the D910. In the early hours of Monday morning a couple of weeks ago Simon and I were awoken by the crashing and banging of several dozen tractors, trailers and trucks rushing through town. Nobody seems to know what was going on. They might have been racing to get the harvest in before rain, but I have a suspicion these were local farmers either on their way to a protest or on their way back. Several of the vehicles stopped at the bottom of our street for some minutes but I don't know what they were doing.
A dairy herd near Charnizay.
There are lots of issues which swirl around to complicate primary production here. Farmers' representatives criticise Germany, where 100 000 cow dairy herds are allowed and until recently there was no minimum wage for farm workers (who often worked as day labourers with no contract as well). Here in France there is a minimum wage and social charges. The largest herd in the country is a highly controversial 796 animals. This one farm must be taking advantage of a loophole because herds are limited to 500 cows by law here. Farming in France is largely small scale, family run and cows graze outdoors. They cannot compete with industrial farms which keep the cattle in stalls 24/24. The senator for Camembert in Normandy, obviously a constituency with a large dairy contingent, calls German industrial and commercial practices 'industrial dumping'. And the EU/US 'free trade' agreement currently being negotiated will only exacerbate the problem. The senator also pointed out that the food industry network currently consists of too many intermediaries (who all need their cut) and not enough abbatoirs (so animals have to be transported several hundred kilometres to slaughter rather than just down the road).
Raw milk delivered to my door by a dairy farmer from a few kilometres away.
In addition, the supermarkets drive prices down. The Chinese are producing more and more milk domestically and not importing so much. One of the major French supermarkets has switched from French beef to Irish beef. Russia has embargoed EU products. It's a case of the industrial economic model versus the peasant small farm model. Industrial farms concentrate subsidies. The government focuses too much on export, which is only 10% of the dairy sector worldwide.
Charolais beef cattle near Preuilly.
Charolais is the commonest beef breed in France.
Limousin beef cattle near Chaumussay. Limousin is the second most common beef breed in France and the one most commonly raised in the Touraine.
Home cured pork ready to be cooked.
Retailers are favoured by government policy in order to boost consumerism. On the other hand, it is widely believed that we pay too little for food. Consumer spending on food has dropped from 40% of the household budget to 15%. There are many overheads in primary production that consumers are blissfully unaware of, and many pork and dairy farmers are getting less than the cost of production for their pork and milk.
After several days of shifting blockades Manuel Valls, the Prime Minister, called on abbatoirs and processors to be good chaps and pay the farmers a bit more. I assume there followed the noise of raspberries reverberating throughout France, from both sides concerned. On Wednesday 22 July the Agriculture Minister Stéphane le Foll announced a €600M emergency aid fund. Its purpose is to allow French livestock farmers to delay their tax payments and restructure their debt. Most farmers think it is a drop in the ocean and the protests continued.
A typical local piggery.
So what do I think? I think there will be a painful adjustment of the industry to bring about a better match of supply and demand. I also think that consumers need to pay a bit more for milk and meat (just a few cents per litre or kilo) in return for that price increase being passed on by supermarkets and processors to the farmers. I think supermarkets need to be honest about where their milk and meat comes from and that they should have local buyers who are enabled to do business in an ethically and sustainable way. I think consumers should have the opportunity of buying locally and be encouraged to do so.
I also think some farmers should start value adding and producing artisanal dairy lines. Others could go out of dairy altogether and start raising rabbits for meat, grow soft fruit or adjist horses (or whatever...). I'm inclined to discourage ploughing up cattle pasture to grow peas because open grassland is a disappearing resource. Keep the grassland, make hay with it if you no longer have grazing animals. Diversify, encourage farm visits and stays, network and form partnerships (if you don't want to make cheese, find someone who does). Swap the cows for goats or sheep.
Contented young pigs at a local piggery.
It seems to me that it is actually the pig farmers who have fewest choices. They could follow the lead of Peter Gott or Jimmy Doherty in England, creating a respected and quality brand for their own value added product, but in fact this is already widely done in France. Curiously it is the fresh pork market that tends not to be pursued. My butcher tells me that his supplier, a small abbatoir that works with a group of carefully selected pig farmers, cannot meet the demand for good quality fresh pork and is seeking at least 30 more producers in the area. One option, as is favoured by the Midi-Pyrenées producers, is to go down the route of Label Rouge certification (a respected and valued 'brand' in France). They could diversify into other livestock or arable, but many pig farmers have already done so. The number of pig farms has already decreased by two thirds in the past few decades. There isn't any more wriggle room.
One way or another it is important that farms are not abandoned, or subsumed by the big industrial outfits. Those farmers who have already established a local market will survive. Those that rely on supplying big processors and supermarkets are in for a really rocky time. I frequently meet young men and women who have a dream to be farmers. They don't necessarily come from a farming background and the one thing they all say is that finding affordable land and raising the capital to start is very difficult. The ones who manage to set it up work incredibly hard to establish and maintain the dream. In the main they are not fools, they are switched on and networked, and they recognise that the farm is a business as well as a philosophical choice. Some of that €600M should be funnelled towards them in my opinion, and a generational shift should be encouraged.
*************************************A la cuisine hier: Since my friend Ingrid was so kind (!) as to give me a zucchini weighing 3 kg (!!) I am endeavouring to use it up. Yesterday half of it went in Cheesy Baked Zucchini Noodle Casserole, which was pronounced quite good.