The Bre­ton or­ganic dairy co-op model

Irish Examiner - Farming - - COUNTRY LIVING -

Farms have to be vi­able eco­nom­i­cally to sur­vive and in­deed thrive. Nev­er­the­less, as the years pass, it’s worth think­ing about how the farm­ing life is lived. Stress, work­load, debt — how do these im­pact on well­be­ing? In Brit­tany re­cently at a Euro­pean agri-food pol­icy meet­ing with ARC2020 (whom I also work for), our team vis­ited a farm where it seemed life­style and mak­ing a liv­ing were both op­ti­mised. This farm, an at­trac­tive or­ganic dairy farm run by Paul-Gil­das Dréno was quite close to the sea, which pre­sented its own chal­lenge. The grass grow­ing sea­son is a lit­tle shorter, while the dry land also has the added com­pli­ca­tion of higher lev­els of salt due to this prox­im­ity to the sea. This means he adds 10 tonnes of com­post per hectare in au­tumn to help with soil and grass qual­ity.

The co-op he is a mem­ber of — Bi­o­lait — sets its own or­ganic milk price of 45c a litre. There are over 1,000 mem­bers, sup­ply­ing 170m litres of milk. In­ter­est­ingly, when we cov­ered Bi­o­lait in this col­umn last year, there were only 650 mem­bers — but then, growth in or­gan­ics in France — both pro­duc­tion and con­sump­tion is ex­traor­di­nar­ily fast.

While he farms 150 hectares, he only owns 30 of them. I won­dered about the logic of this: his fa­ther started farm­ing or­gan­i­cally here in 1992, and he took over in 1998. This seemed like a long time to be pay­ing the dead money of rent.

It turns out that the rental mar­ket for agri­cul­tural land in France op­er­ates in a com­pletely dif­fer­ent way to Ire­land. The price is set by a third party, based on agreed eval­u­a­tions. So Paul knows year on year what his rent will be — typ­i­cally €100 per hectare. And at 45c a litre, €100 per hectare is very af­ford­able. Milk­ing is twice a day, while col­lec­tion is every third day. Be­cause of both or­ganic cer­ti­fi­ca­tion and the land qual­ity, his stock­ing rate is 0.8 per hectare. He car­ries 65 Saler and Nor­mandy cows, while he also grows 70 hectares of maize.

While he does sell on some an­i­mals for beef young, the price is poor for or­ganic beef com­pared to dairy in France — “they want it white” he tells me, re­fer­ring to the French pref­er­ence for veal. He grows his own feed, em­ploy­ing a three-crop ro­ta­tion of maize, grass and combi crop. “I trust what I grow,” he says, re­fer­ring to some feed con­tam­i­na­tions and con­tro­ver­sies in re­cent years. An­other pe­cu­liar­ity to the French sys­tem is the amount of ma­chin­ery avail­able via a co-op called CUMAs. He avails of this for numer­ous tasks on the farm — far more than would be the case in Ire­land, where farm­ers tend to want to own their own (even if in fact the bank owns it). Each re­gional CUMAs typ­i­cally own dozens of ma­chines.

Lo­cal farm­ers are up­scal­ing with tech­nol­ogy in ways Paul is am­biva­lent about — “I’m not against tech­nol­ogy, but you should not be de­pen­dent on it. Then the com­pany owns you.” Ex­am­ples in­cluded a lo­cal dairy farmer us­ing drones to herd his cows for their daily milk­ing; an­other is robot milk­ing, which or­ganic farm­ers in Ire­land like Pat Mul­roney also em­ploy. “I could go into debt and up­grade the milk­ing to use a robot,” he states in his quite dark milk­ing par­lour, with plenty of cob­webs above. “But, in­stead, I em­ploy some­one. I’d rather give the money to a per­son than a bank,” he says, mat­ter of factly, in that unique shrug of the shoul­ders the way French men can do.

Later that week­end, I bumped into Paul again, by the coast where the white yachts lined up as the river met the sea. He was walk­ing arm-in-arm with his wife, smil­ing.

I sup­pose work-life bal­ance is work­ing out for the milk man from Brit­tany.

Paul-Gil­das Dréno, an or­ganic dairy farmer in Brit­tany, France, and a mem­ber of the Bi­o­lait co-op, which sets its own milk price at 45c/l.

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