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Latest News / Simon Cook’s Nuffield Thoughts: Part 4

Simon Cook’s Nuffield Thoughts: Part 4

After the heat of India and the Middle East it was refreshing to touch down back in Paris to mid 20 temperatures. I had passed through Paris in March on our way to our conference in the Netherlands and it had been just above zero when I landed so it was nice to see the city in summer this time. We landed late in the evening and headed straight to our accommodation as we were on a train to Bordeaux early the next morning. The trip south to Bordeaux was our first glimpse of the lush green fertile lands of France. The sea of green trees out the window was a welcome change from the deserts of sand we had got used to. Everyone’s spirits seemed to lift as the group of farmers felt more at home in these surroundings.

We met the first of our local hosts Stephanie Chanfreau at Bordeaux. Stephanie is also a Nuffield Scholar who had done her travels the previous year. We made our way to Sauternes where our first appointment was lunch at a small chateau and restaurant. The Sauternes area is famous for its wine in particular, a late harvest variety that with the aid of Botrytis fungal infection produces a strong sweet wine. One of the premier wineries in the area is Chateau Rieussec owned by the Rothschild family. The Sauternes wine produced here is among the best sweet wines produced anywhere, and quality is the driving factor. Twice in the last 30 years the entire years harvest has been dumped with no wine being produced because they were unhappy with the quality. The botrytis infection causes the grapes to desiccate concentrating the flavours and sugars. It is a balancing act getting just the right level of infection and then only picking individual grapes when they are ready. The result is much lower volume of production per hectare and much higher cost due to the intensive select picking at harvest. Labour primarily comes from retired locals who are happy to take their time and pick carefully. In the evening we met up with Yolene Pages who was also a 2017 Nuffield Scholar.

The following morning we got back in our cars and drove for a couple of hours to Toulouse to attend our next meeting which was with Solagro Recycling. Solagro is a small agri technology business that is trying to look at what the future needs of French agriculture are. They have a staff of around 30 engineers who are all focused on different areas from Solar powers to biofuels to research biocontrol’s as a way of reducing pesticide dependence. After they discovered France had no long term plan they commissioned their own report looking at the future of agriculture in France out to 2050 which has now been widely adopted. France tended to only focus on the 5 year planning cycles in the European Union that govern the combined agricultural practices and subsidies throughout Europe. Through the report they quickly realised that existing production levels would not be sufficient to keep up with population growth. The number of farmers in France decreases by around 15000 every year and at the America time to keep up with population growth they will need another 7,000 ha of farmland. Solagro’s aim is to stabilise the number of farmers and increase their productivity.

In the afternoon we visited an agri cropping research facility where they are combining growing grain crops with rows of trees. The trees were black walnuts that are deciduous allowing more light in over winter. Over summer the shade from the trees helped retain moisture so at this stage it looked like there was little or no productivity loss from having the trees growing in the field. The upside was a valuable tree crop harvestable after 30-35 years. There is still some time to go and as the trees get larger the impact on the other crops may increase. It was similar to the system operating in the coffee plantations we saw in India where the coffee likes the shade and protection of a tree canopy. They are now also trialing growing other plants under the trees such as apples.

We then got back in our cars for a 2 hour drive to Rodez where we would be based for a couple of days. Unfortunately we managed to get lost and we arrived late at our next meeting which was a visit to the market Les Halles de l’Aveyron. The supermarket is a co-operative owned by local farmers who supply meat to the co-op. The supermarket also sells fruit, vegetables and bread. They try to sell mostly local produce and aim to always deal directly with the producer to ensure any income goes direct to farmers, not the middlemen. We headed back to the market later that night as it also had a restaurant attached showcasing the quality produce available in the supermarket. The next morning it was Saturday and we had time exploring a local street market in Rodez, it was nice to be able to buy some fresh local produce for breakfast and sit down in the square and take a minute to observe the locals go about their morning. Food is such a passion for the French and attending local farmer markets in the morning and then taking that fresh produce home to prepare the evening meal is a way of life and is such a contrast from the modern preprepared heat and eat meals common in other countries.

We met up later and headed to Aubrac where we visited the Jeune Montagne Co-operative cheese factory which makes a local specialty Aligot cheese. The cheese was originally produced using  milk from the Aubrac cow which was named after the area. Overtime farmers switched to more productive simmental Cows from Switzerland. The switch to simmental just about wiped out numbers of Aubrac cows in Aubrac. Only recently has there be an effort to rebuild Aubrac stocks focusing on raising them for meat production instead of milking.

We got to spend the afternoon with a local farmer who supplies the cheese co-operative. He and his brother run the family farm with one focusing on raising the herd of 70 Aubrac cows and the other milking the 140 simmental to supply the cheese factory. We started by visiting the Aubrac heard high in the hills. The heard live on the hill over summer and then have to move 12km down to barns where the dairy heard are as snow covers the higher ground. The altitude was around 1,000m so similar to the highest point on the desert road back in New Zealand. The paddocks where the Aubrac summer have no mechanical or fertiliser input are just left to natural growth. The result is a pasture that is regarded as one of the most biodiverse in Europe. There were also two small buildings known as Burton’s that were originally used for milking and producing cheese. In keeping with tradition the Aubrac cows also had bells on reinforcing the whole Sound of Music vibe the place has going on. This was only made worse as we passed a nun on our way back down the hill. The nun comes up each year and spends several months living in one of the Burons. Thought I better include a photo in case you didn’t believe me.

After visiting the Aubrac we headed the 12km back to the other farm so we could visit the milking heard. Before visiting the heard we were taken to the barn where the stock are kept over winter and the small milking parlour they use for the 140 cows when they are in the barn. Instead of walking the heard back to the barn twice a day they have a portable milking setup that they can move with the heard. The whole setup only takes around 3 hours to relocate and includes its own generator, water and feed supply trailers. The biggest fallback with the system is not having a pit so you have to get down on your knees to attach the cups. It does have the definite benefit of airflow in the heat of summer.

We left Rodez on Sunday and headed to the village of Arvieu where we visited the digital village project. The company creates websites and cloud based applications primarily for local business. They try to only work with customers with a long term environmentally sustainable outlook. In order to attract good staff to a rural area they have initiated a number of social projects in the area creating infrastructure for the local community. It has taken 20 years to slowly build to where they are now as being outsiders initially they had to build trust and organically grow projects so as not to get offside with locals.

After the visit we were treated to a meal at Restaurant de La Calmette which is owned and run by Yolenes sister. The restaurant has been family owned for generations and was originally started by Yolenes sisters grandmother in law. The restaurant is famous in the area and features a single menu over 7 courses. We headed to the Roquefort cheese caves after lunch only to find the caves were closed be the time we got there. We were still able to sample some cheese and spend some time in the visitor centre. The Roquefort cheese is entirely produced from sheep milk and the local caves form part of the curing process. All milk has to be sourced within the Roquefort area for the cheese to carry the brand. After Roquefort we headed to Montpellier via the Millau bridge. The bridge at its highest point is higher that the Eiffel Tower and is the worlds tallest bridge. It is a magnificent feat of engineering that was thought technically impossible when it was first designed.

After a night in Montpellier we headed out to the coast to visit Mas Ultramarine – an oyster farm. The tradition of farming oysters has a strong Italian heritage with the owners grandparents leaving Naples 60 years ago to start farming oysters in France. Not speaking a word of english the conversation had to be translated by Stephanie. The oysters are farmed in a large but shallow natural lagoon. Water temperatures due to its shallow nature vary from freezing in winter up to 28 deg in summer. The oysters can cope with 28 but if it hits 30 degrees then the oysters will start suffering, once every 10 years or so they suffer losses from overheating. The natural lagoon is surrounded by farmland and the question of pesticide and nutrient runoff got an immediate reaction that didn’t need translation. After a bit of discussion the greatest issue wasn’t agricultural runoff but the outflows from the local towns that see numbers soar in summer months. The biggest issue with local farming was that instead of taking the natural occurring sea grass for fertiliser farmers were now sourcing cheaper artificial fertilisers. The result is the loss in the economic market for sea grass means that when it washes up it is just left to rot on the beach. In future hopefully they will find a use for it again, possibly as a source for biofuel.

After the oyster farm we headed back north to Coulandon where we met Baptiste de Fressanges another French Nuffield scholar. The next morning he took us to meet a friend of his who is farming bison. After obtaining an agricultural engineering degree and working in implement design and sales he progressed to tractor sales for Massey Fergusson. Wanting a better lifestyle away from the city they began searching for a new opportunity. Having had experience dealing with farmers one of the key concerns was finding something that they could go direct to market with so they weren’t dependent on others and were in control of their own destiny. After stumbling on a book about farming Bison in America they finally had seen what they were looking for. After three year of researching bison farming and looking for a suitable property they finally purchased a property. In France bison are classified as wild dangerous and unpredictable animals so in order to be able to bring any in – additional 1.8m high fences and specialist handling equipment had to be bought in. The original plan was to import bison from the US but TB biosecurity measures put in place eliminated any opportunity to import live bison. The only option was to source bison from existing farms in Europe. Unfortunately there are very few farms in Europe meaning a very limited gene pool, they did however manage to source enough from Belgium to get started. There are currently only around 2000 bison in Europe. They are only supplying limited amounts of meat at this point as the priority is still to build up the heard. The meat from bison is very low in fat and has potential to be a good high value niche market. The work involved in preparing the farm and handling the animals is not to be underestimated and even finding an abattoir to work with has been a challenge. It was a good case study in passion , determination and patience overcoming the hurdles they faced at every stage.

We left the bison farm and headed back to Baptiste’s farm that he runs with his brother. They raise Charolaise for beef and have a large area they are cropping. The brothers work in with their neighbours, a tradition carried down from previous generations to share tractors, headers and other machinery. The level of technology was impressive and they had recently built a large grain storage barn that they also leased space in, out to the surrounding farms. We left Baptiste and headed back north into Paris for the night.

The following day we were on a train heading for Brussels. Unfortunately what was meant to be a comfortable 1 hr cruise ended up being anything but. Due to an accident on the tracks our train was cancelled and we were jammed into the aisle of another train with standing room only. Instead of a quick trip on the high speed lines, the train we were on had to detour across low speed tracks meaning we were standing on the train for close to 3 hours.

Our first meeting in Brussels was with Katie Jarvis who is European policy advisor with the UK National Farmers Union NFU. Katie started off by giving an outline of how the EU worked and how organisations like the NFU fit in the process. Katie also talked about COPA-COGECA, the European wide farmers organisation that the NFU is a member of. The economic and climactic diversity encompassed across the EU means getting a consensus is often extremely difficult and will often result in split lobbying where the members will lobby opposing points of view. A significant part of our discussion was around Brexit and the impact it would have on farming in the UK. One example given was the production of Baileys Milk Liqueur where, due to the location, milk during manufacture crosses the border 8 times so a hard exit without free trade agreements will potentially result in the shutdown of production. Another example is the change of immigration and removal of open work visas, currently 90% of vets working in abattoirs in the UK are Spanish.

Our second meeting was with CEJA the European young farmers organisation. CEJA as founded in 1958 and currently has 2 million members from across 21 member states. A survey in 2016 found just under 6% of farmers were under the age of 35 with 60% being 55 or older. CEJA was focused on 3 main issues facing young farmers, access to land, capital and training. They help share information and learnings between their members and also attend EU committee meetings to lobby on behalf of young growers. I was a little disappointed one of their key focuses seemed to be entrenching the reliance on subsidies and ensuring any increase in costs were offset by an increase in subsidies. There didn’t seem to be any desire to be innovative and to try and move away from subsidies and become more self reliant.

Our third visit for the day was with Bayer where we met Volker Koch-Achelpoehler, the head of the EU liaison office in Brussels. Volker gave us some background on Bayer explaining it was a 35 billion Euro company employing 100,000 people worldwide and invested 4.5 billion back into R&D each year. Volker also talked about the increase in regulatory cost and difficulty of introducing new chemicals was the background to a number of recent mergers within the chemical industry. Bayer have just recently purchased Monsanto to increase their range of offerings. Volker also talked about the increasing problems of having politics takeover science as the basis for decision making as had been highlighted by the recent glyphosate debate. Volker also talked about Bayer investing in new technology to reduce chemical use in order to minimise environmental impact. He gave the example of a partnership they had with Bosch mounting weed sensors on spray booms to target the spray only to weeds, thereby reducing chemical use by 25-40%.

Our fourth and final meeting for the day was with the European Seed Association where we met Secretary General Garlich von Essen and Plant Breeding Manager Petra Jorasch. Garlich founded the ESA in 2000 bringing together a number of smaller organisation and has now built it up to employ 12 full time staff specialising in a number of areas such as breeding, quality assurance, public affairs etc. The ESA has a large membership base with over 35 national seed associations, over 70 large corporate members, a number of associate members like research institutes and they represent over 1,000 individual seed producers. In terms of scale 6 of the 10 largest seed producers in the world are based in Europe. Garlich also talked about his concern at the widening gap between urban and rural populations and the driving of emotion based outcomes instead of science based outcomes. The example he gave was the recent loss of neonicotinoid seed protections and despite the rhetoric around beehive losses the hive numbers in Europe are actually growing.

The next morning we had a meeting with the European Crop Protection Agency ECPA CEO Jean-Phillip Azoulay. Jean-Phillip talked about the challenges of advocating for pesticide companies and the ongoing battle of trying to argue facts against emotive unscientific opponents. He admitted as an industry they were completely unprepared for the emotive and often highly inaccurate debate around glyphosate use in Europe. The result was they almost lost use of what is in reality a safe effective option for controlling weeds. This was born out by the recent literature review by ACVM in NZ that found there was little valid scientific evidence to back up the claims against glyphosate so its availability here was continued. In response to the problems faced Jean-Phillip has driven his organisations to become completely transparent and all information held by ECPA will be made available on request.

Our final visit in Brussels was a tour of the EU parliament with Kathryn Stack a 2017 Nuffield Scholar working for a British Member of the European Parliament MEP. There are 751 MEP’s made up of MP’s from all the member countries. Kathryn as an ex scholar, gave us a real insight to what it is like to be working within the EU and in particular the changes being bought on by Brexit. Kathryn explained the process any bill took from the committee process through to final voting by the 751 MEP’s. Unfortunately there were no MEP’s in Brussels when we were there as for 1 week every month the entire Parliament including support staff relocates to Strasbourg in France. This was the result of a deal some time ago to appease the French. The result is a huge expense that any attempt to change is vetoed by the French.

For all its faults, and there are many, the EU has achieved the purpose it was originally created for – stability and the prevention of further wars in Europe. The EU setup is only really a halfway house with the full integration and formation of the United States of Europe being the ultimate union. The loss in sovereignty will be too difficult to overcome any time soon and so I don’t see any option but the halfway house they currently have being the best option for now. The challenge to achieve Brexit has been totally understated and common opinion of those we talked to was the British voters were misled badly and that most hope there will eventually be a back down from the cliff they have stepped up to. Recent high profile resignations within the British government are only making the situation worse. It’s easy to make political promises, backing them up with real action is not easy and I see a number of parallels to the difficulties facing the current NZ Government delivering on their election promises such as Kiwibuild.