French farmers have been living with lower grain prices for a little longer than their UK counterparts. David Millar finds out how arable farmers there are adapting.
A CURIOUS mix of the traditional with rapid adoption of the latest agronomy and added value techniques is found on French farms.
"We know of potato growers who apply their blight fungicides every Monday because that is what they have always done," says Jean-Baptiste Hue, of Cyanamid France. "Crops are being over-treated but we are moving to reasoned treatment," he adds.
At the same time potato and – to a greater extent – cereal growers are re-examining their allegiance to older but cheap products such as mancozeb and maneb for potato blight and adopting cutting edge blight fungicides or new chemistry for controlling cereal disease.
The reasons for this are not hard to find. French growers have not had the luxury of green money revaluations enjoyed by UK counterparts.
They have, therefore, lived longer with falling end prices despite the insulation many receive from pooling their combinable crops into co-operative stores.
In addition, just as in the UK, supermarket buyers are exerting their influence more and more across a number of sectors.
Carrefour, for example, is specifying nitrogen and agrochemical inputs for specific varieties. It supports the use of new anti-blight products such as fluazinam (Shirlan) or dimethomorph and mancozeb (Invader in the UK) which, unlike older products, dont have to be re-applied immediately after irrigation.
Growers are responding to the pressure of the marketplace by switching their acreage into crops they see are in demand, and by treating those crops according to end user requirements.
Alain Decorte, who farms 400ha (1,000 acres) at Villereau, near Chartres, has switched some of his cereal production into 40ha each of potatoes and field vegetables such as onions, carrots, spinach and flageolet beans.
"It is difficult to find diversification that is working," he acknowledges, "because it requires expensive investment and there are difficulties in getting marketing expertise."
However, he had plenty of irrigation equipment and water available – this year only irrigated cereals are yielding well in the area – for the shift into field veg.
About 40 local growers have also banded together to build a packhouse to service supermarket and canning contracts, and a ventilated store to keep field veg through to the following April/May.
"In this region, vegetable production will continue to rise – particularly for quality products; we must follow and adapt to the markets because we see public funds for farm support being reduced in future," says Mr Decorte.
"The consumer wants quality and it is easier to produce that quality on bigger units in completely new vegetable areas like this. We are also able to provide the necessary traceability on produce and stick to a positive list of agrochemical products."
A second veg co-op member, Xavier Mardelet, who farms 196ha (485 acres) nearby, also has a traceability system in place for his durum wheat as well as vegetables.
He believes French cereal growers will respond likewise for other cereals as soon as customers start to call for quality assured crops. A system for sugar beet is being prepared already.
Like Mr Decorte, he is anxious about the future – although it hasnt stopped him enrolling in the French equivalent of the LEAF environmental farming organisation – and is seeking new ways of maximising farm income.
Most French farmers will not want to see the price of their wheat go below FF80 per quintal (about £80/t), he suggests.