Are French farmers Co-operative?
By Martin Williams
As part of the AHDB Monitor Farm programme a group of 15 farmers from the west of the country took a short plane ride to France to learn about the co-op systems and the problems being faced by cereal growers in the northern wheat belt.
We were taken to Rouen by our guide/interpreter and were introduced to the MD of Cap Seine, a Normandy Co-op which has been in existence for 100 years.
The company trades in grain through the city, as Rouen lies on the Seine and affords an outlet to the world taking grain from the region and its 12 tonne/ha land. The company also serves as Ag chem supplier to its member and others and is starting to develop ‘innovations’ in its portfolio to enhance profits and diversity after several disastrous harvests in the region.
After a short coach trip we visited Amiens in the Picardie region and another co-op, Noriap.
Noriap are a similar group to Cap Seine though larger. They market grain both locally and into the neighbouring Benelux countries predominantly for milling.
Interestingly, the group has a provision for new entrant farmers with cash injection and extended credit terms for fledgling businesses as well as links to the local tractor factory in Beauvais where they are forming a link to data transfer in their new ‘PF’ software.
The group were shown the beginnings of precision farming software by both companies which is already fairly commonplace in the UK. Yield maps, variable rate fertiliser and soil scanning were all relatively new to the country
After the poor harvests of recent years the farming community seemed to be looking for answers and quickly.
Glyphosate, such a hot topic here is also under debate and French farmers are already unable to use it pre-harvest. Many are also dreading a total ban on its use.
Black-grass is a huge problem there as here and there is a lot of debate about tackling it especially as the French Government have set out rules that chemical use in ag must be reduced by 50 per cent within the next five years: a tall ask.
As UK farmers we were interested to find out how the co-operative systems work and if there is benefit to the producers from it.
The results of our experience were less than conclusive. The co-ops were working to achieve profits and although returned dividend to the members it felt as if there was not quite the ‘entente cordiale’ between parties we were expecting.
The co-ops seem to be looking to add value in house through chemical supply and upgrading of grain and it felt as if there is some recent transition from the ideals of how it all started into commercial gain.
We met with several growers who welcomed us onto their farms and shared the issues facing them.
If you feel the issues are easier or the profits greater on the other side of the channel then think again. Apart from language the conversations held could have been in any farming group in Britain.
The costs of production on a 10t/ha wheat crop are identical, the cost of chemicals too are near identical which was surprising when we are told the pound/euro situation is the cause of our prices.
We also met a group of independent agronomists who have set up their own trials work based on farmers requests.
As they are independent and farmer funded they are not afraid to tell the chem companies if they find a product is rubbish or good. The group were enthusiastic about their project and as we toured it became apparent that the French government have asked that all agronomy be separated from supply as part of new laws influenced by the strong green lobby in the country.
Overall it seems that French cereal production is undergoing huge change. Reduction in chemical, more greening and environmental work coupled with recent low yields and low quality harvests have sharpened the focus of the growers as to their fragility.
If you are sitting at home bemoaning your lot thinking our French neighbours are having it so much better, then please think again. After our trip the feeling is that we are so close as people. We met truly friendly, honest welcoming farmers, we have huge amounts in common as farmers and we are living the same life.
Trust me, the crows are just as black on the continent.
This was a fascinating cultural exchange of knowledge. A superb visit.