Post-industrial agriculture: France′s field-to-table approach to food | Environment| All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 14.10.2016
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sustainable food

Post-industrial agriculture: France's field-to-table approach to food

Finding the perfect harvest item from a local grower is one of the joys of strolling through a French market. But life isn't always easy for French farmers in the face of climate change and competition from agribusiness.

Tucked under a railway track, the Estacade Market in Grenoble buzzes. Armed with caddies and wicker baskets, customers jostle past on a quest for the plumpest tomatoes, ripest eggplants and freshest lettuce.

As shoppers searched for their prize, farmer Agathe Basset arranges her display of produce, showcasing yesterday's ripest harvest.

"Going to the market is a pillar of French culture," she says, bagging celery for a customer.

Around France, such markets form part of the culinary culture. Considered the global standard of haute cuisine, French gastronomic meals have been named by UNESCO as part of the world's intangible heritage, an honor shared only with Mexico.

But while the French enjoy their food, what is life like for those producing the ingredients their cuisine is based on?

Agathe Basset farmer (A. le Coärer)

Basset enjoys the social side of selling at the market

A day at the market

For Basset, one vegetable in particular symbolizes French tastes: the potato. From boiled potatoes to the regional specialty "gratin dauphinois" (scalloped potatoes), the humble tuber is one of the foundations of French cuisine.

"The potato remains the quintessential staple," she said.

From April to November, Basset sells her produce at the market three times per week. She enjoys chatting and exchanging recipes with regulars.

"I talk about how I grow my crops directly with the customer," she explained. "I also get feedback, and it's gratifying that people appreciate our hard work."

Farmers like Basset have noticed shoppers are demanding more local and organic options, which she credits to media coverage of agribusiness.

"People are looking for authenticity and to meet the farmers," she said.

Customer Laurent Thomas makes it a priority to buy products from local farmers. Going to the market twice per week, the 30-year-old aims to support the local economy and the environment.

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"Buying at the market lets me have local fruits and veggies that are in season and grown in a sustainable way," he explained. "I prefer to buy apples grown 50 kilometers (around 30 miles) from my house than an organic kiwi from New Zealand."

Industry experts have also taken notice of the trend toward sustainability.

"Consumers are changing. People are well-informed and demanding new options, but they are also contradictory. They want quality products without spending money," said Marie-Laure Hustache of saf agr'iDées, France's oldest agricultural think tank.

Life on the farm

On the outskirts of Grenoble, Basset's 21-hectare (51 acre) farm lies in the foothills of the Alps. Moving past heads of cabbage, lettuce and cauliflower, she stopped at a row of long, dark green leeks.

"If you count the hours, farming doesn't even earn minimum wage. But there are other advantages, like making my own schedule, being outside, and a lower cost of living," she told DW, uprooting the leeks for the next day's market.

A fourth-generation farmer, the 27-year-old never planned on joining the family business. But after working as an accountant for a year, she changed her mind.

"I told myself I would never do this job, but it suits me well," she said, laughing.

Basset grows vegetables, fruits and soy on 5 hectares of her plot. To rejuvenate the soil, she lets 3 hectares (7.4 acres) lie fallow each year. Most of her produce is organic, but she continues to use chemicals as a last resort.

Frankreich Grenoble - Bauer Agathe Basset im Lauchfeld (A. le Coärer)

Leeks are among several vegetables grown on Basset's farm

"I use it when there's no choice to save the crops," she explained. "In a few years, I want the farm to be 100 percent organic."

Since 2010, Basset has rented horse corrals on her property. The two-dozen horses bring in a second income, diversifying the company's revenue sources.

As a male-dominated profession, some neighbors haven't welcomed the presence of a young, female boss. After feeling belittled because of her gender and age at local farmers meetings, she stopped attending.

"The men didn't treat me as an equal," she said. "Farming is a macho world."

Facing climate change and competition

Rising temperatures and decreased rainfall are affecting farmers in southeastern France. According to saf agr'iDées, it has been one of the driest years on record.

"It's been a year of extreme crisis in France. We've never seen weather like this," explained Hustache. "But I am worried this will happen again next year."

While Basset welcomes the longer growing season, unpredictable weather conditions have also damaged her greenhouses.

"In this area, the wind is a lot stronger than it used to be," she said. "Degrading climate conditions are impacting our work."

French farms are also facing economic pressure from supermarkets. Under the current model, grocery stores dictate prices at which they purchase produce, often paying pennies for items resold for 10 times the amount the farmer receives.

Competing with cheaper fruits and vegetables imported from neighboring Italy and Spain is another concern for Basset, as growing food in France is more expensive.

"Many French people are telling the government to stop importing fruits and vegetables. Instead, make French farmers work," she said.

Grenoble France Pferde auf der Koppel (DW/K.Bolongaro)

Basset rents out space to horses for extra income

A farmer-led return to sustainability

As agriculture in Europe moves beyond the industrialized model, farmers are trying to determine their place in a changing - more sustainable - industry.

"Farmers have an important role to play in post-industrial agriculture - especially at the local level," said Gilles Allaire, an expert on agriculture in France.

Basset believes demand for organic products is growing, as customers look for an alternative to supermarkets.

"Many young people are going back to their roots by becoming farmers, which will create more small farms," she explained.

Hustache emphasized that "farmers need to be active participants in the food industry," with small and large businesses complimenting each other in the market.

From an environmental perspective, Allaire said, "growers are also central to sustaining plant biodiversity."

For Basset, seeing France secure its food independence is important for her as a farmer and a lover of her country's cuisine.

"It would be nice if there were more small producers - because at the moment, France can't feed itself."

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