19 October 2001

French partners sign up

Combining efficient farming

with environmental

sensitivity and social

awareness are all part of the

challenge for John Lee, who

took up at Le Mont Hardy

six years ago. Europe editor

Philip Clarke reports from

our new Management Matters

farm in northern France

NORTH-WEST France is renowned for its milk and pig production, which dominate the agricultural landscape.

Travel almost anywhere in the region and it is hard not to notice the numerous dairy herds, mostly featuring the attractive brown-and-white Normandy cattle. And, while they are not always so visible, you do not have to go far before you catch a whiff of Brittany and Normandys resident pig population.

But even though milk and pigs are a traditional combination – in France as in the UK – most of the areas small farms tend to specialise in one or the other.

Not so John Lee, farmers weeklys latest Management Matters recruit, who runs both enterprises with his two French partners, Benoit and Gilles Delaunay, at their Le Mont Hardy farm near Putanges in the heart of Normandy.

Mr Lee first came to France in 1992, after a five-year spell on a city farm in London and one years teaching at a comprehensive school in Bethnal Green. "London just wasnt green enough!" he says.

"Even though Id studied agriculture and forestry at Oxford, and worked at Spitalfields city farm, I had never done a full 12 months on the land," he recalls. "As such, I was keener to go into partnership with someone else rather than looking to take on a farm of my own."

Initially the search for a suitable opportunity was focused around the Cherbourg peninsular, where his parents had a property. But he soon cast his net further, visiting about 20 different holdings across the country over the next two years.

Eventually, he came across a small ad in La France Agricole – the French equivalent of FW – placed by the Delaunays, who were looking for someone to join their partnership, or gaec.

At that stage there were five partners – the two cousins Benoit and Gilles, Benoits mother and Gilless mother and father. They were looking for someone to replace Benoits mother, who was retiring.

After an initial interview, Mr Lee spent a week working on the farm with each of the partners, followed by a six-month trial period, before any contracts were signed.

He also entered the French installation programme for young farmers. This took him from November 1994 to May 1995, after which he was eligible for the whole range of loans and grants the French government offers new entrants.

This included a 400,000 francs (£40,000) low interest rate loan, which enabled him to buy a 22% share in the partnership. He also qualified for a 100,000 francs (£10,000) grant to help finance his first three years at Le Mont Hardy.

The farm extends to an above average 112ha (277 acres) of mostly silty soil, with some areas of sand and clay. About 76ha (188 acres) is down to grass and clover leys, which are usually replaced every five years.

"We used to grow quite a bit of maize for the dairy cows, but have given that up for environmental reasons," says Mr Lee. Large areas of the crop are grown throughout north-west France and there is a major issue with groundwater pollution due to soil wash during winter.

The 72 black-and-white Friesian milkers are rotated around the farm during the nine-month grazing season, with the paddocks lasting for about two to five days at a time, depending on field size and grass growth rates.

Since giving up maize, the farm also produces about 50t dry matter of grass silage and 70t of hay a year.

Another 34ha (84 acres) is used for growing cereals – wheat, triticale and barley – which are milled on site and used for feeding the cattle and pigs.

Heavy rain last winter meant this years harvest saw a substantial drop in yield to just 3.5t/ha (1.42t/acre) for the wheat.

The dairy side of the business is undergoing organic conversion, a two-year process in France. Yields have taken a knock, falling 10% to about 5200 litres a cow, though Mr Lee says this is more to do with taking maize out of the ration.

As in the UK, organic milk earns a useful premium, which should compensate. While the farm is in conversion, it is worth 0.15 francs/ litre (1.5p/litre) above a conventional milk price of 2 francs/litre (20p/litre). Once fully organic, it will fetch 0.5 francs/litre (5p/litre) more.

The milk is sold through a local producer group, GIE Laitier dAthis, much of it going to Italian dairy buyer Parmalat, which operates locally.

"As well as the financial advantage, organic production is very much in tune with our farming philosophy," says Mr Lee, who is an active member of the small farmers union, the Confederation Paysanne.

In time, the pig unit will also become organic. "Under French rules, this will have to be done within five years of the dairy converting. It will require considerable investment, as all our finishing houses will have to be converted to a straw-based bedding system."

The pig herd is made up of 42 sows – home-bred Large White Landrace hybrids – producing about 800 finishers a year. All animals are housed in doors, with the dry sows kept in groups of three or four with access to straw bedding.

Most of the finished pigs are sold to the local co-op Agriculture Mayennaise, though one or two carcasses are returned by the abattoir each week and sold direct to consumers through a neighbours farm shop.

Direct marketing is another part of the partnerships approach In keeping with the Confederation Paysannes thinking, Mr Lee and the Delaunays believe in "localisation" rather than "globalisation".

They are also keen to create employment, believing the CAP has social obligations as well as economic ones. After the recent retirement of Gilless parents from the business, the partners have taken on a fourth potential partner, plus a college leaver, taking the full-time work force to five.

"That may seem totally excessive for a farm of this size, but it is not so unusual around here," says Mr Lee. "There are many differences between farming in France and farming in the UK, both in terms of structures and approach."

Through Management Matters, FW plans to find out more about these differences. &#42

Under French rules, the pig unit at Le Mont Hardy will have to become organic within five years of the dairy converting, but it is going to cost a lot of money, says John Lee.

FARMFACTS

&#8226 Le Mont Hardy, a 112ha (277-acre) dairy and pig unit near Putanges in the heart of Normandy, France.

&#8226 Farmed by John Lee, in partnership with Benoit and Gilles Delaunay.

&#8226 Mixed soil types, growing 76ha (188 acres) of grass and clover, plus 34ha (84 acres) of cereals.

&#8226 Dairy herd made up of 72 Friesians, plus followers.

&#8226 Pig herd made up of 42 Large White Landrace hybrids, with 800 finishers a year.

&#8226 Dairy currently in organic conversion.

&#8226 Pigmeat sold direct to consumers.