1 August 1998

FRENCH PLAY FOR PREMIUM

BY EUROSTAR, Theodore Brasmes farm in northern France is just an hour away from Kent. His cereal varieties have also travelled the distance – in both directions.

The portfolio of wheats on the 150ha (370 acres) of mineral silt soil at Wicres, near Arras, includes names known to UK growers: British-bred Charger, Beaufort, and Vivant, and French-bred (though by British plant breeder PBI Cambridge) Shango.

He also grows Isengrain – a French, awned breadmaker similar to Soissons, which will be sold in the UK for the first time this autumn, through Elsoms Seeds.

"I like to have a wide range of varieties, to lessen the risks," he explains.

Most wheat grown in France is of milling quality, although higher yielding feed varieties are now attracting increasing interest. The price Mr Brasme receives from his local co-operative would normally reflect some milling potential.

But last year the harvest quality was poor, with variable proteins and low bushel weights. Average prices fell right back – to FF800/t (£83/t) – and there was no differentiation between varieties.

This season, the market signals are even worse. Unusually, harvest prices have yet to be announced by the co-operative, leading to uncertainty and confusion. But local growers are expecting to be offered about FF650/t (£68/t) – a nightmare scenario.

At this level, profitability is "non-existent", says Mr Brasme. "We cant live at these prices. We must hope that the market improves eventually."

He is taking defensive action, by including a top quality milling variety – Shango – in the rotation. Shango is one of the few wheats which has the official approval of the French milling association, and a local merchant/miller is keen to buy.

This opens the door to a premium over the price offered by the co-operative. Mr Brasmes Shango has brought in a premium of FF50/t (£5.20/t) over his other wheats.

Its a familiar marketing story for UK growers – but its a new and developing strategy in France. There, the powerful co-operatives have dominated grain sales for many years. As a result, few growers have their own on-farm grain storage, including Mr Brasme.

Some larger cereal operators are now investing in their own storage to give them a marketing edge. Mr Brasme reckons this is inevitable, given the changing market.

For the moment, Mr Brasme is not going to invest in increasing his on-farm storage capacity. He reckons the Shango premium is a worthwhile alternative. The merchant takes the grain at harvest.

Yield is critical for Mr Brasme. "Weve grown Shango for three years now. Last harvest the Beaufort outyielded it – giving 10t/ha. The Shango did 9t/ha. But the year before, Shango was the highest yielding wheat on the farm."

After yield, straw stiffness is the priority. This year, some of Mr Brasmes fields were completely destroyed by hail storms in June; an insurance claim is under way. Although such extremes are admittedly rare, stormy weather is fairly common and the mineral silt soil is highly fertile. So growth regulators are routine. Shango has the top French rating for straw strength – another argument in favour, reckons Mr Brasme.

With seed potatoes and sugar beet bolstering profits in the rotation, Mr Brasme is fortunate in that the business has the ability to support lacklustre cereal returns for a period. Grain sales only account for 20% of the farms turnover. But hes still worried – particularly at the prospects of lower returns under Agenda 2000 and the increase in set-aside rate to 10%.

Given the pressure on margins, will he be cutting back on inputs? "No. Its not worth the risk. We need to keep the wheats clean during the grain filling period." Variable costs are low by UK standards, adding up to FF1,300-1,400/ha (£135-146/ha). For the Shango, this includes a comprehensive three-spray strobilurin-based fungicide programme, with fertiliser at 184 kgN/ha.

Fusarium in the ear presents the most difficulty, because timing of ear sprays is critical. Adding chlorothalonil to the triazole-based ear mix, and going in early helps.

Mildew can be a weakness for Shango. Cyprodinil (Unix) is the most popular solution in France; this went on in the T1 mix and there was no sign of disease.

Certified seed costs at between FF2,500-2,800/t (£260-291/t) are not begrudged; but seed treatment with tefluthrin (Evict in the UK) and imidacloprid (Gaucho on sugar beet in the UK) against wheat bulb fly and virus respectively doubles the price. Using these seed treatments on farm-saved seed is not an option, because the agrochemical is only supplied through a seed merchant.

Agronomically, the climate in northern France is similar but not identical to southern England. As compared with early maturing Soissons, Shango and Charger are somewhat later. This offers the potential for higher yield thanks to the extended grain filling period in summer – just as long as the wheats are green, upright and healthy, and able to take best advantage of the opportunity. Hence Mr Brasmes reluctance to cut back on inputs.

Shango also needs drilling earlier than might be normal in France; Mr Brasmes crop went in on 10 Oct.

Prospects this harvest are looking fair, he reckons, despite the lack of sun. French weather this summer has been just as wet and miserable as that across the Channel. It will be the later maturing wheats, harvested in mid-August, that do best under these conditions, he predicts.

French growers are adopting UK marketing tactics and chasing variety premiums in an effort to maintain margins. Gilly Johnson finds out how.