NITROGEN FERTILIZER PRICES, IS THE ONLY WAY UP?

This post first appeared online at http://www.thatsfarming.com on the 11th December 2017

A few days ago, I suggested that a tax on nitrogen might be a practical way to address some environmental issues. Of course, this would increase farm production costs in a trading environment where the cost is unlikely to be passed onto the consumer. Hardly satisfactory.

Further, there is also concern about recent rises in nitrogen prices, albeit they are coming off a 2016/17 low that was 20% or so under the 2011/15 average. There also remains concerns among farmers that prices are already higher due to tariffs on imports into the EU and the heavy trading weight of the few manufacturers operating within the market.

To take a broader view, looking forwards, given the reliance of the artificial nitrogen manufacturing process on limited supplies of natural gas, even if fracking is used more extensively, and the unacceptability of extracting further fossil fuels, one should plan for ongoing price increases. It is, therefore, likely that market mechanisms will start to restrict usage, thus making a tax unnecessary.

Beyond a likely increase in cost, there are other reasons to look to reduce artificial nitrogen usage. In terms of nutrients, Ireland now imports between 300,000 and 350,000 tonnes of nitrogen a year. This equates to just over a million tonnes of nitrogen-containing fertilizers. In addition to the financial cost, which should still be returned as enhanced farm output], there are question marks over GHG emissions from manufacturing and spreading nitrogen fertilizers and nitrate leakage into acquirers, rivers, lakes and, ultimately, our drinking water supplies.

Notwithstanding dedicated organic production, one recognizes that tillage cropping is difficult without artificial nitrogen. A move to rotations that include nitrogen-fixing pulses can help reduce total rotational N requirements; albeit the pulses only leave a residual of 40kg/N/ha or so for the succeeding cereal crop.  Using less nitrogen will mean it again becomes all about soil fertility building. Hence, one is beginning to read more about returning rotational leys and grazing livestock to tillage land, but maintaining yields will be difficult. Ultimately, it will come down to obtaining an enhanced value for the produce that relates to the eco-friendliness of the farming system employed [as with certified organic] and which is paid for by the final consumer.

In these days of poor tillage profitability, restricting nitrogen usage without any value-added will make little sense to the farmer. There should, however, be opportunities for Irish tillage farmers to provide the raw materials for livestock farmers who produce higher-value, ‘eco-friendly’ products [not least with respect to growing protein crops] but it depends on the products and routes to markets existing. Both must be developed further in Ireland. As time goes on, it is unlikely that Irish tillage farming will make sense if it produces only generic animal feed that competes head on with imports from large-scale, international producers. Restricted nitrogen usage will only make it worse.

If one is willing to look at the research being done into using clovers and multi-species swards [as per www.smartgrass.ie] there may be greater opportunities to reduce grassland nitrogen usage without compromising production or financial returns. Where there is a focus on utilizing a long-growing season one does, nevertheless, appreciate that more work needs to be done to ensure the length of the grazing season. That said, one wonders if early season grazing may also fall foul of regulations to minimize nitrate seepage from grazing pastures at the very start of Spring. Simply, nitrate pollution, in its various forms, will inevitably impact upon the operation of current farming systems.

Potentially, the nitrates issue may mean that Irish dairy farmers must move away from intensive near-grass-only systems. One already reads that New Zealand is being forced into a rethink. It will not be easy because what nay appear as a simple change has manifold impacts upon the farm business, investment decisions and the returns needed to provide economic viability. As with tillage, a shortfall in Ireland relates to not having supply chains that can reward the farmer for changing to farming systems that provide consumers with multiple benefits that go beyond food provision alone.

Ultimately, reducing nitrogen usage must go together with fully independent, thus publicly-funded, research. The research will be into developing farming systems that use less nitrogen and into those precision farming techniques which improve the efficiency of what nitrogen is applied.

Hence, the proposal is that the farming organisations should establish year-on-year targets to voluntarily reduce artificial nitrogen usage across the industry. By doing so they will:

  • address any trading imbalances that are increasing nitrogen fertilizer prices for Irish farmers
  • focus farmers and researchers on husbandry techniques that are under the farmer’s control
  • replace imported to the farm and country costs with ‘localized’ costs and management skills
  • target the significant GHG emissions sustained when applying and manufacturing artificial N
  • minimize the risks to aquifers, rivers, lakes, seas and drinking waters from nitrogen seepage
  • enhance the chances for flora and fauna through establishing more species-diverse pastures
  • improve the above and below ground tillage farming environments by diversifying cropping
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AFTER GHG EMISSIONS, ARE NITROGEN FERTILIZERS NEXT?

This post first appeared online at http://www.thatsfarming.com on the 23rd November 2017

After the recent suggestion that there should be a tax levied on GHG emissions from agriculture, will a proposal to tax nitrogen fertilizers be next?

Whilst I have doubts about the workability of the former, a nitrogen tax may not be as fraught with implementation difficulties. Poorly thought out a GHG tax might not even deliver the desired results whereas anyone who has studied agricultural economics will understand what a nitrogen response curve is and appreciate that an increase in the price of nitrogen should reduce its usage. The consequences for farm incomes and food production may, however, not be so easily identified.

Why the concern about nitrogen fertilizers [and nitrogen ‘leakage’ from agriculture per se]? There are health concerns about nitrates in drinking water and ecological concerns about the quality of our rivers and lakes. Only a few days ago the British Geological Survey published a report about the slow seepage of nitrates from soils through the underlying rocks and into aquafers used for drinking water. And then there are nitrous oxide losses into the atmosphere from applying nitrogen fertilizers to add to GHG levels and ozone depletion. And then there is the usage of fossil fuels [natural gas] in the production of the nitrogen fertilizers themselves. The charge sheet is rather long.

In defence of artificial nitrogen, one can say that the Haber-Bosch process has made a major contribution to global food production over the last century. Food prices would not be as cheap today without the ready availability of artificial nitrogen to stimulate plant growth. One also doubts if urbanization would have been able to occur to the same degree without society being freed from the constraints of having to locally recycle nutrients back to the land from whence the urbanites food originated. Artificial nitrogen allowed the revolution in the way humans live.

The Sustainable Food Trust in the UK has just published a report that highlights the externalities [the costs of our food that are not measured by the market price alone] of our current methods of food production. It is far from an exact science but as they acknowledge, “this report attempts to help address the knowledge gap… by bringing together the most up-to-date evidence which quantifies and monetises the diverse negative impacts of the UK food system” (The Hidden Cost of UK Food, The Sustainable Food Trust, November 2017).

The report has specific comments to make about nitrogen fertilizers; “conversion of inert nitrogen in the air we breathe to reactive nitrogen (essentially ammonia, artificial nitrogen fertilisers and oxides of nitrogen) has increased 20-fold over the last century… activities and processes related to agriculture – such as fertiliser manufacture, animal manure storage and application, and soil nitrification, denitrification and degradation – make the farming sector by far the largest source of pollution from reactive nitrogen, responsible for approximately two-thirds of all nitrogen pollution of the atmosphere and aquatic environment, while transport and energy production account for one-third between them”. It goes onto state that, “the negative costs to society of nitrogen fertilisation in the EU27 exceeds its contribution to the gross value added to the primary agricultural sector by its use, by €70 billion per year”.

And one can also add that the availability of artificial fertilizers has allowed the extensive development of monoculture-based farming that is divorced from soil fertility building practices. Monocultures are also being implicated in soil degradation, biodiversity loss and the development of naturally-evolving resistance to our modern food-producing solutions. It is difficult to ignore the probability that the food systems that we have developed over the last 60-70 years have come at a yet to be fully unquantified cost to society. Then again, as with climate change, one can be pretty sure that there will be those who prefer denial to entering a constructive debate about change.

Agree or disagree with such findings, it is quite an opening salvo to make in a debate about the true cost of our food. Interestingly, the report was discussed on the BBC’s Farming Today and a spokesperson for Nestle immediately responded by expressing their willingness to engage in the debate over the environmental and social costs of food. If the wider farming community chooses to ignore the issue, there will be those further along the food supply chain who will not, and they will, as through their demands for the implementation of earlier quality assurance schemes, force the issue. The question for farmers is, do they want to be ahead of the curve or to wait until they must dance to the tune called by others?

True, artificial nitrogen has facilitated social and economic development as we know it. Without it, societal change would have been limited by the need to use farming systems that directly secure nitrogen from the atmosphere. Nevertheless, food systems based upon artificial nitrogen have, apparently, generated significant external costs that we are now only just beginning to understand and to quantify. And the more we understand them, the greater will be the pressure placed upon food producers to change to mitigate them. It is why we are heading into a period of unprecedented change for farming and food systems. To carry on as before will not be an option.

The above said, we must ensure that an external cost of change is not farm incomes and the welfare of farmers. To do so we need to adopt a changed mindset; we need to engage, and we need to actively seek out the truly sustainable alternatives that work for the environment and farmers. They are thankfully appearing, albeit often not from within the mainstream of farming or research.

A case in point is Ireland’s own Smartgrass project [similar research is occurring elsewhere] that seeks out “how to produce high quality/high yielding grassland forage in an environmentally sustainable way”. One aspect of their work is the use of multi-species swards to maintain production while using less nitrogen fertilizers. The adoption of precision agricultural techniques that better target nitrogen use is another. Such work should have multiple benefits to all, the farmer included. In theory, the losers will be those who manufacture nitrogen fertilizers but, as with those who build the soon to be defunct combustion engine, one can expect that they will adapt and change to keep the economic wolf from their own door. Nobody really likes change, but sometimes it is inevitable.

DAIRY’S EXPANSIONIST RHETORIC APPEARS TO BE BACK

This post first appeared online at http://www.thatsfarming.com on the 27th November 2017

Reading the press, one notices that we are again being regaled with more about dairy expansion.

Now I have no objections to expansion per se, if it is done in the right way, for the right reasons and fully considers all the factors that will impinge on such an investment decision going forwards.

I do not, however, agree with expansion when expansion is undertaken primarily to compensate for low farm-gate prices. Of course, in certain locations, scale can provide the solution, but Ireland is not one of them. It is a small country with a difficult climate and has major constraints in terms of land accessibility. I am greatly concerned that the upward trend in milk production is not because of the inherent profitability of the sector but due to farmers trying to compensate for poor milk prices by expanding. And since April 2015, there have not been very many months where the milk price has covered the full costs of milk production. In such a farm-gate-price environment, expanding to mitigate market price shortfalls can only go so far before the wheels fall off the cart.

Following a similar line of thinking, switching to dairy from beef or tillage because the latter are unprofitable is not a reason to move into dairying. As with dairy farming itself, a part of these sector’s problem stem from an inherent lack of production scale. Elsewhere, this small scale is compensated for by focusing on high-value markets whereas in Ireland a lack of suitable routes to markets to the right consumers inhibits the implementation of such a compensatory strategy.

Hence with my over 30 years of experience of farm business planning and investment analysis, rather than write a lengthy discourse about the pros and cons of expansion, I thought I would just list a few of the many questions I would ask someone who was considering investing in dairying.

The available route to market options

  • What is the market focus and product mix of the processors who can purchase your milk?
  • Will the processors be able to add value and, if so, are they structured to pass on the benefit?
  • Are the processors able to pay their suppliers an attractive milk price from sales revenues alone?
  • Can you establish a past track record of the milk price, the seasonality and stability that your route to market options have delivered? Can this be predicted for the next few years?
  • Have you established downside price scenarios and evaluated their cashflow implications?
  • Is the structure of the processor and its milk suppliers competitive within the markets it supplies?
  • Will the processor have to change its product mix to meet market changes in the medium-term?
  • Are you willing to accept the rigours of year-around-milking if that becomes necessary to supply milk into a higher-value, more rewarding, consumer-products-focused supply chain?
  • Can you relatively easily change milk processor if it fails to deliver the milk price that you need?
  • If the routes to market available to you fail to deliver for your business, do you have a Plan B?

The constraints on the farming business

  • Within the context of the land and farming resources available, are you able to create a business of sufficient scale to be competitive within the overall market chosen by your milk processor?
  • Farm land is usually a major constraint. Can it be accessed at realistic and competitive prices?
  • Are you able to operate with a common-sense buffer for grazing and forage and slurry storage?
  • Will labour availability impact upon your chosen business model? Will the business be able to sustain the employment of third parties to enable you to manage your work/lifestyle balance?
  • What is the possibility that constraints will be placed on the business by legislation relating to GHG emissions, nitrate seepage and animal welfare within the next decade?
  • Will you be able to invest to mitigate the consequences of such constraints? If not, will the farm business remain viable in an imposed-change operating format?
  • Have you been able to obtain totally independent, experience and qualified investment advice?
  • Is your family willing to provide the finance to maintain the farm through any bad times ahead?
  • If loan finance is required to fund the investment and the farm, land and, possibly, the house has to be offered as collateral, do you fully appreciate that these will be imperiled by loan default?
  • And the toughest question of all; are you considering dairying because you do not know how else to utilize your land? Should you be considering leaving farming altogether?

 

IS GM-FREE A MARKET TREND OR A CONSUMER FAD?

This post first appeared online at http://www.thatsfarming.com on the 25th October 2017

Twenty years ago, I became involved with soybean production in SE Europe. Romania was then a GM-soybean producer; now it is not. The GM-free debate is old hat. And it was a decade ago that I came across the Danube Soya initiative to establish a certification scheme to produce GM-free, European-grown soybeans from the many countries through which the Danube passes.

Working long-term in the region means that one is focused on markets of central Europe and one soon became aware of the importance of sustainable foods issues in these markets. GM-free was one of them. European-grown GM-free soybean was seen by some as the way forwards as consumer demand for GM-free grew; more so when GM-free fed livestock products were demanded. And it was not going to only be a German-Austrian market issue. In 2016, Waitrose’s dedicated pork supplier, Dalehead Foods took its first consignment of European soybeans as the premium retailer began rolling out its plan to replace its [already] responsibly sourced soya beans from non-deforested land in Brazil. The soybeans are certified GM-free by the Danube Soya Producers Association. It is not just German supermarkets taking GM-free supply-chains seriously.

Hence, it was somewhat surprising to read that the CEO of Bord Bia believes that it is necessary to first establish whether non-GM is a market trend or a consumer fad. If Ireland is a dynamic and innovative foods producer, it is a little late in the day to be asking such a question. Market research and marketing is meant to keep one at the forefront and ahead of the game. It is now possible that Ireland will only move after it realizes that it must have GM-free certified products if it wishes to maintain sales to German supermarkets. And making the change will not be done overnight, it will be difficult but the lack of urgency is palpable.

To a degree one can understand the caution. Irish farming and food does seem to have a predilection for ‘science’ when it comes to food production, and GM is seen by some as a desirable part of modern food production. It is reflected in the approach that it is about educating the consumer rather than following consumer demand. It is a part of a wider supply-driven rather than market-led malaise that pervades the Irish farming industry. With GM-free feed one can also understand that an Irish farming industry wide change over to GM-free will have costs and it will have its difficulties; and farmers rightfully ask if they will be paid a GM-free premium.

And therein lies the second part of the problem; the change-over seems to be seen in the context of it being an industry-wide change. Presumably it is looked upon as an activity that will have to be incorporated into and administered through the near national quality-assurance schemes. One can be sure that there are food producers in Ireland who are already producing GM-free products; albeit often using imported ingredients, so it is not exactly new. And as mentioned, Waitrose in the UK is taking measures to improve its sustainability credentials with respect to GM-free. These are, however, individual initiatives, they are not national ones.

Going GM-free is not about national certification, it is about developing specific supply-chains. It is certainly an idea that the Irish tillage sector would embrace. It does, nonetheless, mean that specific GM-free products must be created and supply-chains and routes to market for them developed. It is, frankly, something Ireland, with its largely centralized processing of livestock products, is not very good at. For example, GM-free [and grass-fed beef] is now nothing new and there are many producers of such around the world, from Russia to Romania to Tasmania to the United States, not to mention internally within the European Union. One doubts if they have developed GM-free certification for a consumer fad. When it comes to GM-free, Ireland is already playing catch-up.

Being behind the curve is somewhere that Irish farming, with its small production scale, cannot be. It must be a premium-products producer. It must be part of dynamic and innovative supply-chains that reach premium-paying consumers. The country’s position on GM-free illustrates that it is being found wanting. Irish farming needs to be reaching the top of the market and to do so it needs routes to market that are flexible rather than centralized and industrialized. GM-free is more than about supplying premium, GM-free products, it is about starting the processing of developing a capacity to supply the 80%-plus market position as opposed to the premiumized-commodity markets.

Going GM-free is about much more than GM-free, it is about being willing to make the serious and often relatively small changes needed to develop the country’s routes to markets. It is about linking its farmers to premium paying consumer and ensuring that its farmers benefit. It is a fair bet that continued centralization of processing and accreditation will destroy Irish farming as we know it.

IS MINISTER GOVE GOING TO BREXIT BY THE GREEN DOOR?

This post first appeared online at http://www.thatsfarming.com on the 20th September 2017

Is a prerequisite for a politician to be able to balance one’s principles with the winning of votes? One wonders if Michael Gove is not showing himself to be particularly adroit on this front and he begins to fashion the UK’s exit from the Common Agricultural Policy?

My expectation is that the Minister will be an advocate of free trade that will facilitate UK access to low-cost foods from the Globe’s cheapest producers. There is, however, a strong political lobby demanding that food and environmental standards are maintained, even enhanced, after Brexit and the Minister appears to agree; he is going to attempt the impossible and to balance the two, apparently, widely differing objectives.

And where does one find those lobbying for British farmers in this Ministerial conundrum? There used to be a day when the Tory Party had a bulwark of MP’s from Shire farming families but, alas, no longer. That, and the political weight of a now small farming population means that farmers will have to accept what Brexit serves up for them; they are going to be policy takers, not policy makers.

UK farmers will need to protect their own market position by the continued adoption of food-safety, food-quality, environmental and animal-welfare standards. Red Tractor is well established but maybe it will have to go to Red Tractor Plus. There are other schemes relating to geographic origin and animal welfare but, that said, the UK lags Italy and France when it comes to quality-focused designated-origin schemes. That will change as UK farmers realize the full necessity of ratcheting up their standards and communicating the associated message to the consumer.

Trade agreements will allow easier access to UK markets but they will not mean a diminution of what is demanded by food processors and retailers to ensure that their due diligence is visibly in place. It is due diligence requirements, not legislation and regulation that will limit UK market access. Ireland with its QA and sustainability schemes meets the required due diligence standards, but so will the likes of NZ and Australia. They are not a barrier to entry to rely on into the long term.

Increasingly one’s expectation is that the lion’s share of farm support will shift from production-related support to rewarding farmers for delivering upon environmental and quality objectives. It will include transitory mechanisms that will encourage and facilitate change. Post-EU, British food and farming policy will emerge with a thoroughly green hue.

Just how will a Green-door Brexit impact upon Ireland’s farmers? They and their supply-chain partners will have a choice; either they compete in the UK market place on cost with global, also quality-assured suppliers or by raising their standards, be they environmental or quality, to focus on the upper echelons of the market. Will they join UK farmers in a race to the top?

That Irish farming can compete on cost is a grass-based myth. Certainly, a well-consolidated and well-invested agri-food processing sector may be able to compete with the global players, but can it truly do so in a long-term, sustainable way if the structure of the Irish family-farms that underpins it is unsuitable for the task of producing its low-cost raw materials? The danger for Irish farmers is that the processing sector will look elsewhere for its supplies, it is already doesn’t.

For Irish farmers, supplying the UK must be about matching, if not bettering, the food safety, food quality, environmental and animal welfare standards implemented within the UK post-Brexit.

Yes, the QA schemes have met supermarket demands and other schemes have met the demands of, for instance, the burger chains. Ireland now, nonetheless, needs to develop schemes that meet premium-paying consumer demand with the right consumer-facing products. They need to reach the market via supply-chains that ensure that the farm-gate price received by farmers is boosted as a reward for delivering what the market wants, be they in the UK or elsewhere. Irish farming policy must focus upon quality-enhancement. It is long overdue but with Brexit it must now happen.

The UK has an advantage in that Brexit will allow it to develop its own farming and food policy and to tailor it to meet its own Green-door objectives. As the UK is and will remain such an important market for the Irish farming industry, Ireland must follow. It will, however, be a challenge to determine how to offer support to facilitate the necessary changes and to create a level support playing field with the UK as it may not be a priority for a post-2020 CAP. Post-Brexit UK farming and food policy may be a revolution whereas, to be honest, one cannot expect more than a CAP evolution.

With Brexit, there remains so very much to think about.

MARKETING CHAROLAIS CATTLE IN THEIR HOME MARKET

This post first appeared online at http://www.thatsfarming.com on the 15th October 2017

How the French go about labelling Charolais Beef

As one should expect with beef produced in France from Charolais cattle, there is no such thing as ‘French Beef’ or even ‘Charolais Beef’, it is rather more ‘complicated’ than that!

The BŒUF DE CHAROLLES appellation d’origine contrôlée

The AOC Bœuf de Charolles is the ‘summit’ of Charolais beef production in France as it is Charolais beef from the Charolles itself. Although it is from the historical home of the breed the AOC only dates from 2010 and the EU PDO designated origin registration from 2014. This itself illustrates that French food-product labelling is still evolving.

Farming Charolais cattle in the region within the AOC scheme is about enhancing the value of the product at the farm-gate to maintain the viability of local cattle farming and it is about the preservation of farming traditions and the local hedgerow-lined pastures and their biodiversity.

To qualify for the AOC, farmers must meet strict standards. The cattle must be born, reared, fattened and slaughtered in the designated geographical area. The calves must be 100% Charolais and suckler reared. The cattle must be grazed for a minimum of 200 days per year at stocking rates not exceeding 2.0 livestock units per hectare. Fattening must occur on specified ‘fattening pastures’. These pastures are permanent and must not receive any artificial fertilizers. It is said that the pastures enhance the flavour of the meat. In winter only locally-produced hay is fed and silage is not allowed. The use of complementary feeds is limited to an annual average of 2kg per day during rearing and 1kg/day/100kg LW during the finishing period. Concentrates feeds must be based mainly on linseed and GMO feeds are forbidden.

Heifers must be at least 28 months of age at slaughter with minimum carcass weight of 320kg. The bullocks must be at least 360 kg and have a minimum age of 30 months. Cows that are used for Bœuf de Charolles beef must be no more than 8 years old [96 months]. The traditional slow finishing is required to produce beef with the characteristics required of Bœuf de Charolles, a finely marbled beef that must be matured for at least 14 days. Slaughter must be local to minimise stress.

The BŒUF CHAROLAIS DU BOURBONNAIS EU PGI

The Bœuf Charolais du Bourbonnais is also a Charolais-breed-specific EU registration; albeit as a Protected Geographic Indication [registered in 1996]. As the name suggests, the cattle must be reared in the Bourbonnais region. The beef also qualifies as Label Rouge.

The required production systems are not dissimilar to the earlier AOC although not as restrictive in terms of pasture management. Ages at slaughter are the same although the carcass weight minimums are 20 kg lighter. The minimum maturation period for carcasses is 10 days.

As with many designated-origin systems in France, the production volume is limited as there are only about 120 farmers supplying Bœuf Charolais du Bourbonnais beef. The sales are mainly through traditional butchers.

The CHAROLAIS DE BOURGOGNE EU PGI

The third and most recent [2017] EU PGI designation for pure-bred Charolais beef, the Charolais de Bourgogne beef differs from Bœuf de Charolles and Bœuf Charolais du Bourbonnais in that it is not so focused on traditional, slow production. Males must be slaughtered at between 14 and 24 months of age. For heifers the minimum age is 24 months and they must be grazed for two seasons. The slaughter weights required are lighter again at 320 kg and 280 kg for males and females respectively. Cows must not be greater than 10 years of age. A minimum maturation time of seven days is required and the beef may be sold fresh or frozen.

Feed must be based on grass and forage exclusively from the PGI geographical area. This means that the cattle must be raised on the regions natural, biodiversity and flora-rich grasslands. Hay is the required winter forage. Again, as with the Bœuf de Charolles, there is the link to the preservation of the local bocage country and its traditional hedgerows and meadows.

During rearing, concentrate usages if limited to an average of 2 kg per day. A more intensive finishing is allowed; a reflection that the PGI is about using Charolais cattle within a specific region but with more ‘modern’ farming methods than the PDO/AOC Bœuf de Charolles allows.

LE CHAROLAIS TERROIR and TENDRE CHAROLAIS Label Rouge

Beef which qualifies as produce of the Bœuf Charolais du Bourbonnais PGI region can also carry the Label Rouge superior-quality label. In addition, there are also other Label Rouge Charolais labels including Le Charolais Terroir and Tendre Charolais.

Tendre Charolais again stipulates that the cattle must be 100% Charolais and born, raised and slaughtered in France. The use of suckler rearing, minimum grazing periods and forage use within the diet are specified. The scheme also imposes housing and animal welfare standards and rules are laid down with respect to slaughtering and the aging of the beef.

Tendre Charolais is a marque of the L’Association Charolais Label Rouge; a supply-chain association whose role is to ensure the quality of ‘tender beef’ from the Charolais breed. It includes 4,500 farmers, 27 co-operatives and nearly 250 other entities including butchers and retailers.

Tendre Charolais also aims to ensure that there is equitable remuneration for each actor within the supply chain including the farmers. It seeks to ensure that there is a future for extensive livestock farming and the regional landscapes and that local, rural employment exists.

Charolais Terroir is another label that encompasses a complete supply-chain approach. As with all the other labels mentioned, it specifies that all cattle must be pure-bred Charolais. The emphasis is then upon the selection of the right live animal to deliver specific carcass characteristics, how the animal is transported, handled, slaughtered and processed, and the quality of the final carcass. The carcass can then be sold with both the Charolais Terroir and Label Rouge labels attached.

Overview of some of the French labeling schemes

The French have a long history of designating their food products. The first cheese was designated under France’s appellation d’origine contrôlée [AOC} system in 1925 and the first meat in 1957.

Many AOC products now also have one of the following EU designations:

Protected Designation of Origin [PDO]: covers agricultural products and foodstuffs which are produced, processed and prepared within a given geographical area using recognised know-how.

Protected Geographical Indication [PGI]: covers agricultural products and foodstuffs closely linked to the geographical area. At least one of the stages of production, processing or preparation takes place in the area.

Traditional Speciality Guaranteed [TSG]: highlights the traditional character of the product, either in the products composition or means of production

France has eight EU PGI’s for beef and veal and this reflects their emphasis upon locality of origin. A further three more production and location specific PDO’s exist.

Another premium but lower strata label developed in France is Label Rouge. There are 36 beef and veal Label Rouge products, mainly differentiated by locality of origin and a specific breed.

In addition to these official labels, the producers also use their own labels.

Label Rouge is a quality assurance marque controlled by the French Ministry of Agriculture. It attests that food or non-food and unprocessed agricultural products have specific characteristics that establish a superior level of quality [especially resulting from their specific production conditions or workmanship] to similar products. The Label Rouge marque is to be found on bread, honey, herbs, dairy products, eggs and poultry, beef and lamb and charcuterie.

Label Rouge products may also be distinguished by a producer-group label, AOC status, an EU designated-origin marque and be organic. It is possible for a product to display all of the labels.

 

THE REWARDS MUST GO TO THE RIGHT PEOPLE

Storm Ophelia recently reminded people of how fragile our modern way of life is. Take away our electricity and gone is our entertainment; as batteries run dry our communications crumble; and even hot water for tea becomes scarce. Of course, many have faced real difficulties but too few will appreciate just how fraught it is to be faced with having to water, feed and milk farm animals.

Farming is a tough profession to follow, one that falls to those with a calling and a love of the land. But still one wonders, just why do farmers do it when the rewards nowadays offer meagre recompense for the farmer’s efforts?

My memories of farming go back to when I was three. I spent my summer days in the farm lorry carting grain or in the Landrover checking our International TD crawler drivers contract ploughing around the neighbourhood. They are remembered as halcyon days? As I now look back I appreciate that farmers were better rewarded then; it was an era when people knew who fed them during the Second War and then, post-war, ensured that they again became well-fed. How times have changed.

Later, the 80’s were about joining the 10-tonne club. It was a time when it was all about yields per hectare and per head. It was an era when farmers adopted technology with alacrity. It was about and adding yet more input so long as the extra yield outweighed the unit cost.

I noticed early in my farming career, courtesy of those same crawler drivers, that we had started to isolate our decision-making from the soils. They were becoming no more than a ‘growing medium’ as plant growth became all about chemistry and the feeding of crops with ‘artificials’. It was also about the time when the soil scientist became extinct. As with our domestic cookery, everything be it plant or animas was being fed out of a bag, can or bottle.

In the 90s as a farm business economist, I began to clearly see how more per hectare or head was causing a decline in the real price of agricultural commodities. It was about two percent per annum and it mirrored a similar increase in ‘productivity’; farmers were producing more and being paid less. They were being a little too successful at feeding a population, growing as it was.

As output prices fell, farmers produced yet more. They adopted more technology to do so. Farm incomes were in decline but it was the start of the happy times for those who supplied farm inputs.

At the other end of the supply chain, we were witnessing the rise of the supermarkets. Faced with abundance, the power was with their buyers. As early as 25 years ago we were warning farmers that they needed to become more market focused but, alas, they chose to grow yet more. It was easier to focus within one’s own farm gate and to leave the adding of value and the retailing to others. A few farmer-owned entities around Europe managed to hold their own but the 1990s and the Noughties saw farmers lose their power within the supply chains. The lucky farmers were those who had visionary representation and leadership but it was unfortunately all too rare.

As farming lost its influence within the food supply chain, it became noticeable that few outside of farming were interested in farming as an investment. Those in the finance world knew a long-term price decline when they saw it. Farming was the sunset industry as the dot-coms emerged. Property also offered far simpler, faster and greater returns.

It took the combination of a rare upturn in food prices combined with the global property price collapse in the late Noughties to change the City’s perception of agriculture. The finance world first, unfortunately, chose to dabble big time in sovereign bonds but they eventually cottoned on that food was the new gold, nobody was making any more land and the global population was going to grow ever greater.

Did these new investors in food production even understand ‘farming’ as they brought an over-simplified approach to the business. It was about acquiring land for its inevitable capital gain, using simple, near-to-mono-culture farming systems and parachuting in the knowledge required. The human resources needed were abundant, albeit that they might have to migrate, and, frankly, nobody needed much training; after all peasants are farmers so there cannot be much to it.

Hence, we are now at a point where little trading power lies with the family farm. It is about corporate profits before and after the farm gate and from ‘industrial agriculture’. The ‘family farmer’ has been reduced to be a minion to serve others; squeezed at either end and out-competed by the scale of ‘industrial agriculture’. It is becoming evident that the latter rarely pays the full cost of the resources it uses or for the externalities that it creates, but that is a story for another day.

Farmers have chased their tails for decades to provide an abundance and, consequentially, seen themselves become of little concern to an increasingly corpulent food consumer. And the consumers who do care where their food comes from have moved on to issues like food production’s environmental footprint. And one could even suggest that animal welfare is now of greater importance than the welfare of those who labour to produce our food.

Far from being appreciated for working through the toughest of conditions to feed an increasingly urban population, farmers are viewed as those who are destroying our environment. For years they have strove to produce more; albeit few of us ever appreciated the full extent of the externalities that would come with doing so. Mitigating them is now our greatest farming challenge. Just how many among our C21st population realize that without the farmers’ successes, they would still be spending a large proportion of their income on food? It was this that allowed the consumption boom, the growth in property markets and the rise in living standards. In contrast, the farmer who started off driving the band wagon, was relegated to the back seat and then thrown in the boot as others realized that there was money to be made from food; it was just not to reward the farmer.

For how much longer will we find volunteers to provide the farming cog for our food systems? Nowadays, others derive the rewards from what the farmer produces; albeit they still expect the farmer to provide so much of the supply-chain’s capital. The pressures on farming are such that the industry’s demographics are increasingly fragile. Can family farming, a model that has served us well for centuries, be fully replaced by a corporate-owned industrial agriculture that places profits first?

Will industrial agriculture ever even produce the required profits in marginal regions and where property ownership rebuffs its scaling up? Will businesses monitored by accountants, managed by executives and staffed by the less willing to deliver a resilient food system through thick and thin? Will it ever be dynamic and innovative enough to address the challenges ahead of us, not least when the industrialization of agriculture is at the core of many of the problems we face? I think not.

To lose family farming is to break the vital link between food production and the farmers love of the land, their animals and their way of life? Ultimately, the foundation of a resilient food system are resilient people who are willing to face up to whatever challenges are thrown at them; and there will be many, be they climatic or otherwise. Although we may be told that it is the agri-food industry that feeds the world, it does not, feeding the world will remain the bailiwick of the farming family which is connected to its own land. To think otherwise is folly.