Agrifood Brief: A sad tale from the farm

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This week, EURACTIV travelled to the Vendée region of Western France to meet two generations of a farming family who are struggling to make ends meet amid rising costs and a rapidly changing society.

Vendée is a small agricultural and seaside territory in southern Brittany, best known in France for staging an (unsuccessful) revolt against the nascent Republic at the end of the 18th century in the hope of restoring the power of the King.

This civil war, which resulted in several hundred thousand deaths on both sides, has left a strong mark on the area.

It was in this region that EURACTIV went to meet the Chiron family.

These farmers raise Charolais cows, pigs and ‘Vendée sheep’ in the town of Aiguillon-sur-Vie. This local breed with its white fleece and black skin is the pride of the family.

At the last Salon de l’Agriculture, two rams won six first prizes. For 50 years the Chiron family has been “going up” to Paris to showcase their animals, renowned for their adaptability, their abundant meat, and their high milk yield.

On a sunny day in May, EURACTIV was welcomed by Loïc, 58, his brother Alain, 54, and his son Florent, 23 in their office overlooking the marsh where the animals graze.

But the bucolic meeting quickly took a serious turn, because times are hard – and getting harder.

Economic and demographic difficulties, a pace of life that is out of step with the rest of the population: farmers, and in particular breeders, are suffering. And you can feel it when you talk to the Chiron family.

A recurring theme of the conversation: prices. With the rise in the price of raw materials (oil, fertilisers), production costs are increasing, while prices of products are still low. This leaves them in a situation where they are producing more but earning less.

Could the EU’s farming subsidies programme, the Common Agricultural Policy, help?

“It has mainly benefited the service providers and the consumer at the end of the chain,” said Alain. “I would prefer to see remunerative prices, like in all trades,” added his son Florent.

On top of being one of the most dynamic agricultural areas in France, the region boasts the village with the lowest unemployment in France – Les Herbiers, 4%.

Between 2010 and 2020, one in five farms in France disappeared. In the same period, in the Vendée, 16% of farms closed down.

When the subject of the future and the renewal of generations comes up, frustration is palpable. In the Vendée, the average age of farm managers is 48, half of them over 50 and 30% over 55. In France, in ten years’ time, one farmer in two will retire.

“It takes 10 years to make a farmer. That’s a long time! So it’s already too late,” Alain lamented.

In the region, only large agricultural structures have survived. Today, nearly half of the farms in the Vendée are larger than 100 hectares. Alain and Loïc’s farm is over 400 hectares, and the cows get to graze eight to ten months of the year alongside the sheep.

And the farm is doing better than many others. This is due to the diversification of the livestock, and silage crops to feed their animals – especially the pigs – but also thanks to a new tool obtained in 2015: the methanisation unit.

The production of green gas from their organic waste provides an additional income. Florent won’t say how much, but he confesses it brings in three times more than raising cows.

But he isn’t necessarily happy about it.

“It’s not normal. We produce energy, that’s fine, but we don’t feed anyone with it,” he pointed out.

The Chiron farm should survive, especially as Florent, who is more optimistic about the future than his elders, is soon set to take over. According to him, the closure of other farms – three in five years in the commune – will increase demand and drive up prices. At least, that’s what he hopes.

After an emotional conversation, full of anger and sometimes resignation, the uncle, father and son set off again to sow maize, a crop that has been overwhelmed by the current drought. The department is also one of the most affected in France by bird flu.

A few kilometres from the Chiron farm, more than 200 years ago, many peasants rose up against the Republicans, pitchforks in hand, in a last-ditch attempt to rescue the French royalty. But they suffered huge losses for it: according to historians, almost 20% of the population of the Vendée was wiped out between 1793 and 1796.

For the past decade, we have been witnessing a new death of the Vendéen peasants. Slower, less bloody, but just as real.

By Hugo Struna

 

Podcast

Agrifood Podcast: EU-Turkey agri-trade, Crop rotation debate, Deforestation Law

This week, EURACTIV’s agrifood team brings you the latest on the first high-level meeting to strengthen the EU-Turkey agri-trade and we discuss our thoughts about what to expect from these talks. We also talk about the debate in Germany over …

This week, EURACTIV’s agrifood team brings you the latest on the first high-level meeting to strengthen the EU-Turkey agri-trade and we discuss our thoughts about what to expect from these talks. We also talk about the debate in Germany over suspending crop rotation rules and the Commission’s plan to help Ukraine in exporting grain despite Russia’s blockade of the country’s ports. In this week’s focus, we cover the inter-institutional talk around the EU deforestation law.

Agrifood stories of the week

Commission opens ‘solidarity lanes’ to strengthen EU-Ukraine food export
The European Commission has introduced new so-called ‘solidarity lanes’ to improve EU-Ukraine connectivity for grain export, including through railways, amid the blockade of Ukrainian ports due to the Russian invasion. EURACTIV’s newest recruit, Yaroslava Bukhta, has more.

Play nice if you want our agri-trade: EU hangs food security threat over Turkey
Turkey must play by the rules if it hopes to strengthen its agricultural relations with the EU in order to bolster its food security in light of the Ukraine war, member states have stressed ahead of a high-level meeting this week. Natasha Foote has the story.

EU agencies push back glyphosate assessment to mid-2023
Due to an unprecedented flood of stakeholder input, relevant EU agencies announced their risk assessment on glyphosate will only come in mid-2023, even though the herbicide’s current approval will expire by the end of this year. Julia Dahm has more.

Germany lobbies EU to suspend crop rotation rules
German Agriculture Minister Cem Özdemir is lobbying the European Commission to postpone a new regulation on crop rotation so that farmers can grow more wheat in view of the war in Ukraine. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Agri-bites

FAO criticises EU’s reaction to Ukraine war: FAO Chief Economist Maximo Torero told POLITICO Europe that the European Commission’s decision to allow farmers to use fallow lands, set aside for ecological reasons, to boost agricultural production in light of the Ukraine war a “mistake”. NGOs have championed his position, many of whom wrote to the Commission back in March to warn that the crisis in Ukraine is yet another reminder of how essential it is to implement the Green Deal. 

Lawmakers talk animal welfare. During this week’s meeting of the European Parliament’s agriculture committee, a Commission official presented a new study on the indicators used to track animal welfare on a farm level. According to the official, the main issue is that member states tend to measure animal welfare primarily through so-called resource-based indicators, such as the space that each animal has. While so-called animal-based indicators that measure directly how well an animal is doing are a more accurate reflection of welfare, they are difficult and expensive to implement, the official added. Meanwhile, the food security and the war in Ukraine were also on the lawmakers’ menu again, as well as the situation of the pig meat sector.

‘Hunger’ war crimes: In a letter initiated by Green MEP Benoît Biteau, a group of 43 MEPs asked the International Criminal Court (ICC) to shed light on alleged hunger war crimes, as the Russian army is accused of stealing several hundred thousand tonnes in the area they militarily occupy. Read the letter here.

First physical civil dialogue meeting since COVID: This week saw the first physical meeting of DG AGRI’s civil dialogue group since March 2020, which focused on the CAP. EU association of trade in cereals COCERAL said on Twitter it was a “constructive exchange of views” with the Director-General of DG AGRI, Wolfgang Burtscher, on the observation letters sent by the Commission to member states regarding proposed CAP Strategic Plans.

Support for the Alpine regions: The Commission adopted two Interreg programs worth €176 million to make the Alpine Space region more competitive and greener in the period 2021-2027 this week. The Commissioner for Cohesion and Reforms, Elisa Ferreira, said the Alps and the Pre-Alps are a “magnificent but also particularly fragile region”. “The Alpine region has warmed twice as much as the global average since the end of the 19th century. These programs will help the Alpine region to adapt to the effects of climate change and support the green transition. Moreover, they will promote innovation and digitization to make the Alpine region more competitive,” she said. 

New study on animal welfare and antibiotic use: This week, the European Commission published a study examining how the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) 2014-20 contributed to improving animal welfare and reducing antimicrobial use. The study provides a snapshot of the situation regarding animal welfare and use of antimicrobials throughout the EU, as well as recommendations to better assess the future achievements of the CAP 2023-27 in that regard. Read it here. 

French aid scheme: The European Commission has approved a French aid scheme worth €400 million to support farms and fish farms in the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Learn more here.

Agrifood news from the CAPitals 

SLOVAKIA

Slovakia has tabled a proposal that would restrict agricultural commodities exports in light of the war in Ukraine, a move the European Commission has condemned, warning any bans of this nature could destabilise markets and lead to price increases. Read more. (Marián Koreň | EURACTIV.sk / Natasha Foote | EURACTIV.com)

AUSTRIA

Chief farm lobbyist becomes new agri minister. After Austria’s agriculture minister Elisabeth Köstinger announced her resignation on Monday, her successor has now been chosen: Norbert Totschnig has so far been the director of the Austrian Farmers’ Union and is now moving from there directly to the ministry. However, Toschnig will not take over Köstinger’s portfolio one-to-one: While agriculture and regional policy will continue to fall within his remit, resources, network development and tourism will be moved to other ministries from now on. (Julia Dahm I EURACTIV.de)

GERMANY

Citizens initiative calls for pesticide reduction. In an open letter to the Berlin government, the German representatives of the European citizens’ initiative Save Bees and Farmers call to stick to its pesticide reduction efforts even in the face of the Ukraine war and the strain it puts on the agricultural sector. The letter comes after the European Commission pushed back its proposal for a revised pesticides regulation by several months due to the war. Among other things, it calls on the German agriculture and environment ministers to “stand against any potential watering down or delays” linked to the revision of the regulation. (Julia Dahm I EURACTIV.de)

FRANCE

New left-wing union would disobey EU law to push organic canteens. The new electoral alliance formed by a range of French left-wing and far-left parties ahead of the upcoming parliamentary elections has set itself the goal of boosting organic and local food in communal catering. To work towards this priority, the parties would even be willing to do away with EU rules. Hugo Struna has more.

SWEDEN

Swedish opposition parties ‘cry wolf’. A majority of lawmakers in the Riksdag want to reduce the number of wolves in Sweden by nearly half, even if this means they defy EU legislation. Get the full story here.

SPAIN

Spain committed to supporting rice production. Spanish agriculture minister Luis Planas has highlighted the government’s commitment to ensure the viability of rice cultivation, adding the government was working to help the sector save water and tackle the problem of salinity. EURACTIV’s partner EFE Agro has more.

CZECHIA

Agribusinesses rear up against organic farming plans. Large Czech agribusinesses oppose the EU Commission’s goal to extend organic farming to 25% of agricultural land, warning against potential food price hikes amid an already challenging situation due to the war in Ukraine. Read more.

GREECE

The young farmer entrepreneur as a social model. During a conference held last weekend (6-8 May), Greece’s deputy minister of rural development and food, Simos Kedikoglou, referred, among other things, to the objective of promoting the young farmer entrepreneur as a social model. He said that the government would offer training on agricultural entrepreneurship to young farmers, including familiarisation with the most modern production methods, sufficient financial education to meet the business challenges and demands of major markets, and training on domestic and global innovation. “We are creating the conditions and incentives so that Greeks who will consciously choose to engage in primary production will have all the necessary tools,” Kedikoglou said. (Georgia Evangelia Karagianni| EURACTIV.gr)

ALBANIA

Albanian agriculture sector hit by inflation. Prices have continued to rise in Albania, not only hitting citizens’ wallets hard but also putting small agricultural businesses in a perilous position as food and transport register the highest increases. Get all the information here.

Events

16 May | ENVI Committee meeting, including a debate on persistent organic pollutants

17 May | Access to finance for smaller farms in the EU

17 May | Network to innovate: Farm data and IT solutions

17 May | Achieving reduced antimicrobial use in livestock production in the EU

17 May | ENVI committee meeting, including a vote on climate neutrality in the land use, forestry and agriculture sector (LULUCF)

17 May | AGRI Committee meeting

18 May | Forum for the future of agriculture – regional event Czech Republic

20 – 22 May | Malta AgriFair

[Edited by Natasha Foote / Zoran Radosavljevic]

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