A Gastronomical & Agricultural Experience Collide in France #NuffieldAg

Cheese and more cheese at Rungis Market

French cuisine!

I thought we had tested our senses in India, Qatar and Turkey, but France was a true pleasure in experiencing everything that a European country has to offer. My expectation of visiting a mature agricultural economy was exceeded, not because the French often seem remiss or disconnected about farming practices, but rather tradition and history reeked in almost all aspects of food and farming life which severely contrasted our first four weeks of global travels.

To be honest, the first couple of days after we ‘extracted’ ourselves from Turkey, were a real treat to head south and taste the best of French wine, grapes and spectacular food. It also helped the fact our group known affectionately as ‘Team India’ has forged strong bonds of comradership, friendship and a passion for making the most of our global program. 

Flax harvesting

Flax processing into linen

We just scratched the surface of French agriculture, spending the majority of our formal time in the north of France in the Normandy region. Perhaps the pivotal visit of the week was learning about transforming flax into linen. The agronomical aspects of this 100 day crop, then laid out for another 40 days to allow the retting or breaking down of the cellular stalks before processing was interesting, but a key word resonated from this visit ‘romantic’. Linen production is romantic because of the way it is grown, harvest and processes that involve luck and fortune of the weather and a term used by the French, themselves.

Only in France have I ever heard that word, romantic, used in conjunction with food, fuel and fibre production. The commonality of romanticism in agriculture also relates to the idea that 70% of crops are marketed through age old cooperatives or that a desire to modernize crop production has been burdened by social aspects of farming. We heard more than once that the French have a high regard for food production and farmers, it’s just that people don’t want to see large, modern and progressive farms. It was a running joke that French farmers are not afraid to strike and protest to stand up for their perceived rights. 

Vast acres of wheat in the north if France

Laure , 2016 Nuffield France Scholar

The north, a large arable farming area with significant hectares of wheat, sugar beet, potatoes, corn, barley, canola and flax grown in the fields.  Impressive swaths of land graced the countryside with considerable field sizes and more flat than I was expecting. Unfortunately, French farmers have been plagued with excessive rainfall since early May with nearly daily rainfalls totalling more than an extra 300mm of rain to date. With barley and wheat harvest just beginning, typical yields of nearly 10t/ha are expected to be nearly halved this harvest season, not to mention the four passes of fungicide applied to the crops. 

I was taken aback by the strong cooperative structure whereby farmers may be part of separate cooperatives for cereals, sugar beets, flax, alfalfa and even equipment sharing cooperative schemes. The opportunity in group buying and selling of good theoretically gives market strength however a few farmers we met felt the cooperatives were becoming too focussed on their own viability versus filling all available markets and met the needs of average farmers and not those being more progressive. 

Charolais cattle

Nice line of equipment

Seeing the best and most innovative sectors is interesting, but I value meeting average farmers who embody the everyday life of French farmers. We met with a few farmers who seemed to farm the 200 to 350 ha of crop land, these included Michele and Catherine that also raised Charolais cattle, a breed that makes up about 20% of the French beef herd. Common discussions with them and other farmers will see their subsidy payments of close to 300€ per hectare reduce by about 50% over the next couple of years. In addition, 2016 is a year of transition outside of quota based sugar beet production to that of the open market. Having said that, impressive lines of equipment seemed to be stored away in the storage sheds for their short windows of harvest.

We were granted a full tour of the Massey Ferguson plant in Beauvais, where most large tractors are built for the Euopean market. Any French visit wouldn’t be complete without a four course lunch at Massey where Marketing Manager, Campbell Scott spoke about their commitment to agriculture and in particular youth and educational commitment.  

Rungis Market

We wrapped up our French experience the way we started, with food! A visit to the worlds largest mixed food market that sees over €9Billion of meat, poultry, fish, cheese, fruit, vegetables, flowers and anything else you can eat at Rungis Market. It was an incredible site of food produced locally and internationally that is sold at this wholesale market. 

My blog would not be complete without mentioning the food we actually consumed. Wow is the only word I can use to describe the essence of a food culture as a part of almost every interaction. The fois gras, pate, baguettes, duck, beef, poultry served with wine and almost always ended by cheese is enough to make anyone into a foodie.

Nuffield France did a thoughtful job of hosting our group, including Laure Figeureu and her family that hosted an authentic French BBQ, Philppe Quignon allowing us to dig soil on his farm, Thierry de Fremont, a character in himself who escorted us for the week, Benoit Pesles current chair of Nuffield France and Romain Vacherot who visited Rungis Market with our group. A big thank you to my fellow French Nuffielders who made this leg of Global Focus Program not only memorable, but gave a fascinating perspective to European food production. 

Group shot at alfalfa drying co-op

Monet’s turkey art!

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