This article is part of our special report Growth and jobs: Where does the CAP stand?.
Since the launch of the new Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in 2015, the EU’s farmers have suffered a string of crises. The CAP’s greening measures have helped farmers maintain their revenue, but the questions of job creation and access to land have proved harder to answer. EurActiv France reports.
Europe’s farmers have suffered one crisis after another. First came the wine sector, then pork, and now dairy and cereal farmers are struggling to make ends meet. Despite emergency measures enacted by the EU, farmers’ revenues have plummeted. According to the Mutualité Agricole, a social security provider, a third of all French farmers will earn just €354 per month in 2016.
And this is not down to a lack of support from the European Union: at around €60 billion per year, the CAP is the biggest item in the EU budget. French farmers received €7.8bn in CAP payments in 2015, as well as €525 million in emergency funds for the sectors in crisis.
A regular target for criticism, the CAP was reformed in 2013 to pay closer attention to environmental concerns and allow EU member states a greater say over how to spend their share of the subsidies.
Greening boosts revenue
After suffering from teething problems, the greening of the CAP has begun to bear fruit. Certain aspects of the policy, like the agri-envronmental contracts, co-financed by the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD), have even helped raise farmers’ incomes.
Under these contracts, farmers can agree to reform their agricultural practices in exchange for a bonus payment per hectare. This involves cutting their use of phytosanitary products to half the average for farms in their region.
“It is mainly the young farmers that try to make changes to their business,” said a representative from the Perche Natural Park in North-West France’s Orne department, which is participating in the greening of the CAP.
Samuel, a 37-year-old farmer with 80 dairy cows in the Orne, confirms this view. With production costs higher than milk prices, he is forced to reduce his expenditure on agricultural inputs and try to make his business sustainable. And the CAP is helping.
“Like most farmers, I was already using smaller and smaller quantities of chemical products. With the agri-environmental contracts, I have reduced this even further and I am changing my practices,” he said.
For example, sowing mustard between two rows of crops reduces the need to buy fertiliser and remove weeds. And encouraging the growth of clover and alfalfa on grazing land means farmers have to spend less on protein-rich maize to feed their livestock.
But for some, the rules of the contracts are too restrictive.
“They don’t ask American farmers to get down on all fours in their fields to check that they have the three types of grass they need to get their subsidies,” Jérémy Decerle, the president of the French Young Farmers’ association, said at a workshop organised by EurActiv in Paris on 18 October.
Access to land and income
Concerned by France’s dwindling farming population, which has halved in just 30 years, the Young Farmers have called for measure to make access to land easier. The most motivated young farmers are often unable to start or expand their businesses, and with just 6% of Europe’s farmers aged under 35, the situation is becoming urgent.
“Some countries have come up with significant tax or inheritance aid packages. This can be a source of inspiration, but it is up to the member states to decide,” said Pierre Bascou, from the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Agriculture and Rural Development (DG AGRI).
But for Claude Cochonneau, the vice-president of the French Chambers of Agriculture, more needs to be done to protect farmers against capital depreciation, which can be a major drain on revenue, particularly when they are starting out. “This question of revenue is the priority. It brings a host of problems,” the farmer said.
Connected farming, an indispensable innovation
The software Isalait allows farmers to index the members of their heard, follow their milk production and more easily identify any possible health problems they may develop and how to treat them. Farmers can also check the details of any animal whilst out in the field.
“With weather forecasts, alerts on the price of calves and cereals, herd and seed management applications, we spend a lot of time connected,” said Samuel, who is never without his iPhone, protected by a thick rubber case.
Most of his land has 3G coverage. The same is not true of most of Europe’s farms, although the issue is at the heart of the Commission’s Digital Single Market strategy.
The debate on the new CAP has just begun, and will address the subject of improved access to digital infrastructure. It will also raise the possibility of using agricultural subsidies as an insurance mechanism, rather than one of systematic payments.
“We also need to respond to the challenge of jobs in agriculture,” said Eric Andrieu, a French Socialist MEP and author of a report on the subject, which will be voted on in the European Parliament on Tuesday (25 October).