Friday, 31 July 2015

The Merde Hits the Highways (and Boulevards)

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.
500 farmers committed suicide last year in France, a higher number of deaths than in any other sector. One farmer's representative I saw interviewed pointed out that the direction of subsidies was a matter of political will. She observed that actors are subsidised in France, but the system is stacked against the small livestock farmer. She also suggested that it doesn't have to be the farmers who are directly subsidised. Consumers can be subsidised in ways that can help farmers. The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was 'reformed' 2 years ago, but nothing much changed. The subsidies still go to the big producers, not to small scale farmers and not to those producing vegetables (ahem...I assume this is a round about way of saying that cereal producers get the bulk of the subsidies).

Limousin beef cattle near Chaumussay. Limousin is the second most common beef breed in France and the one most commonly raised in the Touraine.
Nevertheless, one former dairy farmer I saw interviewed said that he made the decision a few years ago to switch his production to legumes. He now grows peas and lentils and makes more out of 1 ha of land than he made from the entire farm when it was a dairy.

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.
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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.

11 comments:

  1. I personally could afford to pay a few cents more for milk, meat or veg and would be happy to if it helped the farmers stay in business and keep the countryside just as it is. Although I suppose as taxpayers we already pay indirectly for the existing subsidies to farmers and others.
    The supermarkets control the price of everything and seem to drive prices down in order to gain customers, and the customers are happy to get their food so cheap. Most of them don't care what happens to farmers, where the food comes from or even what's in it, as long as it's cheap and they have more money left over for the stuff they really want to buy, such as the latest iPhone etc.
    i don't know what the solution is but supermarket buying policies need to change if there's to be any improvement.

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    1. Supermarkets respond to consumer practice and nothing else, so it's up to us to lead with our wallets ie purchase elsewhere (direct if possible). I've always found that I don't pay more when I buy direct. I don't want to turn the supermarkets into too big a bogey man though. The convenience of the supermarket is undeniable for the modern working family. If I pay a bit more at the supermarket I want to be sure it is being passed on to the farmer though, and I find all the intermediaries in the supermarket industrial farming model very disturbing. It makes tracing the food and the finances very difficult.

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  2. Like in the UK, diversification has to be part of the answer. Many of these farmers have a great deal of money in the form of their cattle and machinery so are not as poor as they want to appear. The French subsidies are also some of the best in Europe. I do agree though that the price of milk (in Europe) needs to increase to meet the cost of production and I am certain demand would not drop if the price went up, you only need to look at what people pay for bottled water!!!

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    1. I agree that diversification is important. The difficulty comes because it is part of an old peasant style model of farming and big businesses like the supermarkets have difficulty adapting to it.

      With regard to farmers having sunk assets such as livestock, well, how are they going to make any money without them? Most livestock farmers here are breeders and finishers ie they are completely vertically integrated. The livestock are animals they have bred on the farm. The costs are feed, transport and labour.

      With regard to machinery, it's the arable farmers who keep a million euros worth of gear in the barn, not the livestock farmers. They are the ones receiving the biggest annual subsidies and cash flow is not the problem it can be for livestock farmers. Also, one has no way of judging debt levels just by looking at the gear in the shed. Livestock farmers tend to make one off capital improvements from time to time (new farrowing pens, automated milking parlours etc) which are often associated with substantial grants, but if the price per litre or kilo doesn't cover the direct costs of production they are still screwed.

      Milk is a tricky issue in France. It has a lot less market power because most French people don't consume much milk as milk. You never see milk in the supermarket sold as a loss leader like you do in the UK or Australia. Cheese consumption is slowly decreasing, but still a profitable business. I think yoghurts and dairy based desserts might be the answer in France, where it is still normal to finish a meal with a little something sweet.

      Are French subsidies particularly good? Or are French farmers just better at filling in the forms applying for subsidies? Arable farmers in the UK are raking it in just like their French counterparts, dairy farmers are going out backwards due to competition from imports in both countries.

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  3. I think the lass at La Borde, the Jouberts at Beastly-Castle and others like them....
    people who have seen the "niche" marketing route and sell direct...
    or as the La Borde Dairy, Maurice at Abilly and others have done...
    create those value added products and sell from the farm, a van, a stall or....
    use the local supplier presentations that supermarkets like Intermarché, LeClerc and others have...
    and sensibly keep their operations small.
    Round here, we can get almost everything one needs, from sources within a 30 mile radius...
    one sad thing, however, is that the épi-Center in Le GP has stopped selling the lait cru from La Borde!!

    And I think the French are better with forms... having a dossier for something, with all the necessary forms filled in... correctly... is so much a part of daily life, it doesn't worry them a bit.
    I speak as one who is "form-blind"!
    T

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    1. I think your point about forms might indeed be the key. I hadn't thought about it quite like that, but it does seem to me that French people are more willing to fill forms out than British people.

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  4. Thank you for your thoughtful comments. Farming should not have to be the struggle that it is these days for small farmers, here in the US as well as in France. I don't know why people feel entitled to cheap food.

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    1. People feel entitled to all sorts of things. I remember back in the 80s people with investments felt entitled to the extraordinarily high interest rates they were receiving and based their lifestyle around that level of income. They didn't seem to realise that anyone with a mortgage was struggling. The supermarkets deliver ridiculously cheap food and customers don't understand that the local butcher and grocer can't do the same and that the supermarket is shafting the farmers in order to achieve the price point.

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  5. I suspect that part of the reason farmers can be marginalized, aside from rapacious corporations and so on, is that people are growing up with no connection to the land, not knowing what is involved in producing the food they buy in boxes at the supermarket. In the US, there have been reports of children who think milk originates in cartons, have no idea of what cows are.

    A combination of education about the realities of food production and the finances/economics of growing and raising it would make for a more informed populace. On both sides of the Atlantic.

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    1. It's difficult to know how many children don't know that milk comes from cows these days. Those stories have been circulating for quite a few years now and shocked educators enough that my guess is that most kids get a session on where their food comes from at some stage these days.

      Education about farming life has to be handled fairly delicately. City dwellers can be envious of what they dream of as a life in the country with cuddly animals and beautiful unpolluted surroundings. Farmers need to be careful not to present themselves as entitled to this lifestyle (while we are speaking of entitlements, and I have seen farmers do this).

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  6. I forgot to say that a 3Kg Courgette is actually...
    a small marrow!!

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