By Nick Rowswell
ADMIT it, French farmers are heavily-subsidised, winedrinking militants, who enjoy nothing better than a good punch up with the police. They are a drain on EU funds, receiving around ten billion euros a year from Brussels and still they complain - however, they rarely get a chance to explain.
In January reforms to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) were announced, at the same time, French farming minister Michel Barnier, unveiled his new vision for the monde agricole in France. There are sweeping changes in store for the French farmer. Connexion spoke to cattle farmer Thomas Rondier, 38, Chairman of the Cher Young Farmers’ Association, about la vie à la ferme.
If we believe the popular media stereotype French farmers are polluting the land with dangerous pesticides to produce mountains of food that no one eats, the whole lot heavily subsidised by the European Union. Is this image justified?
It is strange that the media only talk about farmers either when there is a big health problem or serious environmental pollution. Mad cow disease or nitrates in the water supply, it is always the fault of farmers. Everything that we produce will be consumed at one moment or another, directly or indirectly by the public and every farmer nowadays is fully aware that he is far more accountable than before.
Over the past few years we have set up stringent quality controls thus establishing a bond of trust between the farmer and the consumer.
Do you think that the public do not trust you?
It is not that they do not trust us, I just think that the public like to be reassured. For most people, traditional links with the countryside were severed generations ago. People used to see their food being produced. That is no longer the case, so the public need proof that they are still getting a quality product. For example, traceability is paramount. For every piece of meat that ends up on the consumer's plate, we know which animal it came from, where it was raised, what it was fed and where it was slaughtered. It is measures such as this that help build a bond of confidence between producer and consumer.
What about the environment? The reform of the CAP will oblige you to spend more of your EU subsidies on rural development and environmental protection.
We make our living from the land. We work in harmony with the natural environment. We try to respect it as much as possible. If we destroy nature, we have no future.
What about subsidies? When it comes to EU money, the French farmer gets the lion's share.
The current trend in Brussels is towards reducing subsidies and scrapping quotas. We cannot do away with subsidies altogether though, we need subsidies to help us, and they are part and parcel of the production system. They ensure the client gets quality products at a reasonable or competitive price. It is perfectly justified for farmers to receive subsidies, so that in the long term we can maintain reasonable prices for the consumer.
Will an end to subsidies mean higher food prices?
The recession is changing consumer patterns, is this having an effect on you?
As farmers we always strive to produce and maintain the highest quality - but quality costs. In most households the family food budget is now way down the list in terms of priorities. The first thing people look at when shopping nowadays, is the price and not the quality.
Consumers are buying cheaper cuts of meat. The traditional Sunday roast has been replaced by a Boeuf Bourgignon that can perhaps be recycled or reheated over several meals. As farmers we have to gear our production to consumer trends. It is a tricky balancing act.
When we see pictures of rioting farmers on the news, you do not appear to be a very adaptable lot.
The farming world has always adapted to change. Environmental norms, health and safety issues, consumer trends, political will, if farmers had not adapted, there would be no farmers left.
Is there a future in farming?
Despite the current problems of profit margins, subsidies and the scrapping of quotas, farming certainly has a future. Whatever happens, people will still need to eat. However, the future of farming depends on what people want to eat. It is clear, in the immediate future; the trend will be a reduction in the funding of farmers. This means many farms are going to go out of business.
However, as I said, people will always need to eat, so the result will be even bigger farms. This is going to cause serious problems in the “transmission” of agriculture. There will be fewer young people wanting to set up. Running a super size farm is a daunting prospect for a young farmer, not simply in terms of the sheer work involved, but also the huge investments required. The responsibilities and the risks are going to put many people off.
I also think scrapping milk production quotas is going to mean hard times ahead for dairy farmers. Currently each dairy farmer is attributed a specific quota, so many thousand litres per year. The future trend will be production on demand. This is going to play havoc with the management of dairy herds and production schedules. It takes two years to raise a cow from birth before she is ready for milk production. At the moment we know roughly a year in advance just how much milk we will need to produce and how many cows we need to produce it, production on demand will be hard to manage.
Will larger farms mean a drop in quality?
Talking purely in health and hygiene terms, the public will always get an excellent product. But as for the taste...
Generally speaking, do you think the French public like their farmers?
I think that in cities there are still those who see us as beret wearing peasants with a few hens and a couple of cows. They do not see farming as a business. On the whole though, our public image has evolved. Modern farmers are like everyone else, we take holidays, and we buy our food at the supermarket. We might be producers, but we are consumers too.