Good Food, Good Farming – Let’s march to Brussels!
In Lille we headed to meet members and supporters of Confederation Paysanne at, what had been called, ‘à la Ferme du Sart’ – The Farm of Sart. The son from the giant sports retailing family that owns ‘Decathlon’, which had branches in most high streets across France, had started this new enterprise. The Confederation Paysanne and others questioned the use of a farm/farmers identity by a business which is proving to be primarily a retail operation and is manoeuvring to expand through franchises. A previous protest at another branch saw a sign being pulled down by tractor and hearing about today’s planned visit the owner had decided to bow to pressure, dropping ‘à la Ferme’ from the beginning of the name.
On route we have also seen another way that food retailing can be organised. We stopped in France, and then again in Belgium at farmers co-operative shops.
‘Au Panier Vert’ is a co-operative of 30 producers who decided to work together to directly retail their produce from a small shop they started on one of their farms, close to Lille. 80% of the sale price goes back to the producer the other 20% is kept for the costs of the co-operative. Over the years they have built a shop and food processing facilities and then later expanded it. Now they offer a large range of meat, diary, fruit, vegetables, plants and bakery produce. Their produce sells at a similar price to that of the big supermarkets.
We also stopped at the abattoir of the co-operative ‘Coprosain’ at Ath in Belgium. Coprosain was created following protests against the closure of the local diary. A number of farmers decided to create a new co-operative diary business processing their milk and retailing their other produce from the premises. Customers asked why they could not also purchase meat from the animals that the farmers reared and in response to this demand the co-operative made the necessary investment to open their own abattoir. Eighty percent of the co-operative is owned by the producers. The co-op has been extremely successful, opening two additional shops, also selling at 18 markets. It employs 45 workers. Despite much interest they decided not to expand their operation beyond the 45 producers involved now. They don’t want to create another huge corporation but would rather see numerous local initiatives.
There is a clear contrast between this model, shops selling exclusively locally grown and processed produce with the growers getting a fair price for their work and the more common model where farmers produce for the commodity markets with large buyers and supermarkets occupying hugely powerful positions in the supply chain and making huge profits while growers struggle to make ends meet.
Thurdsay 13th September
The night wild camping among the stunning Calais sand dunes was gorgeous. The horizon stretched out lazily, endlessly, while glancing behind over my shoulder revealed the smooth, flowing arcs of the dunes. The dunes protected our tents from the stiff sea breeze, and in turn they were protected by the roots of sea buckthorn preventing erosion. The sea buckthorn was immediately identifiable by its slim, branching prongs; its hundreds of thorns are swords, arming it to defend its fruit, which hug close to the central stem, safe from humans birds and hungry activists – or so it must have thought. When I was brave enough to trade some scratches for a reach inside to the tempting orange berries, the sweet acid flavour transported me to my childhood, snacking on sugary sour sweets with my schoolfriends. I live away from the coast, so I always look forward to sea buckthorn. Sea buckthorn berries are packed with vitamin C, and hunter gatherers in temperate climates have depended on them to avoid scurvy in the winter months when few other fruits were still available. However, I was delighting in them as a luxury snack along with French bread, artisanal cheese and juicy tomatoes. I could not have had a more relaxing start to the march,
As we met in Calais in the place de l’hotel de ville, we admired beautiful sculptures of EU members’ flags in the shape of sweets. We decided, for the sake of the blog, to pose near the French and EU flags. But I wanted the photo to be more interesting than simply standing and smiling. It was at that fateful moment that I suggested a tug of war between the forces of industrial and peasant agriculture, with the EU sweet in the middle. A promising idea, you may think, but I had forgotten to consider that neither me nor Katie were dressed as a peasant or Cargill director.
With national French media in front of us, I decided to go ahead, miming a tug of war with an exquisite EU statue between us. I can’t change that. The hilariously inadvisable choice had been made.
It was only when I had finished being filmed tugging at a statue of the EU in front of national media that I realised the message could be misinterpreted. Could a viewer be forgiven for possibly contemplating that I was trying to bring down the EU? Flashes of toppling of Saddam Hussein statues in Iraq came before my eyes, along with flashes of Daily Mail columns condemning Charlie Gilmour for a heat-of-the-moment interaction with a historic monument. The headlines crashed around inside my head like timpani drums in 2001: A Space Odyssey: Land Rights Activists Attempt to Topple EU. Paysan Agitators Attempt to Destroy Art. Climate Change Campaigner Attacks Historic EU Monument. Food Growers Seek Destruction of Europe.
It was then that I decided that I might not be a wise choice for the Confederation Paysanne’s media outreach.
Let me hand over the blog to a safer pair of hands.
Friday 14 September
Today I ate like a God, again. The food was loving prepared by local protesters at Heuringhem, resisting a proposal for a factory pig farm to produce 10,000 pigs a year. It is likely to house 359 sows and have a permanent population of 4,000 pigs. At home in the UK, we have a similar proposal in Foston, which has attracted enthusiastic opposition from the Soil Association, CIWF and locals. In the village I visited, Heuringhem, concerns about water pollution, employment for local small-scale farmers and animal welfare were shared at a group meeting. 3000 residents live in the two villages near the proposed factory farm,Heuringhem and Ecques, and the campaign against it has 700 members – almost 25 per cent.
At least 25 per cent of the locals are worried enough by the proposal to fight it, so us Good Food Marchers took courage from the strong local opposition. I thought this could be a battle that the small-scale farmers had a good chance of winning. Possibly small-scale farmers have a bigger challenge in the fight for a PAC paysan, or CAP for small-scale farmers, in which the farmers are up against full-time Brussels lobbyists. Not only do small-scale farmers have fewer representatives, but harvest season is a somewhat challenging moment to leave the farm! As another British cyclist on the tour pointed out, hosting a CAP conference during harvest season means that the only farmers who can attend are those who have either forgotten that they have a farm, or the farmers who have forgotten to plant any crops, or who are content to have a holiday during the only opportunity to harvest their year’s work.
Nevertheless, taking courage from Heuringhem’s resistance to a factory farm, we march in hope of a PAC paysan.
After an eventful start to our voyage in Calais we headed off across the countryside towards Saint Omer.
One of our cycling companions, Martin lives and work the land at a small holding close to our planned route so we detour to visit his wonderful abode.
Flying the flag ‘Paysans enquete de terre!’ (Peasants in search of land!) he explained how he came to live there. The typical French farmstead had been a stop on a ‘cyclotour’ he made with a group of young people who want to get on the land. The challenges they face are high land prices (particularly due to speculation), the lack of availability of small pockets of land in the area, diffficulty getting planning to live on their farms and the need for specific agricultural training (required in France in order to access social services).
Martin now lives there and grows vegetables for his keep, but is still on the hunt for his own pocket of land and is passionate about changing the situation for other young people across Europe!
He is joining us to Brussels to make his message loud and clear! There are thousands of young people and potential new entrants to farming all across Europe. The CAP must support them to make this important step to help create a future of good food and farming!
Having spent the night on a beach North of Calais, the ‘Roast Beef’ caravan arrived to meet our French counterparts outside Calais Town Hall!
After a flurry of media interest, we followed our leaders from the inspirational ‘Confederation Paysanne ‘ through the countryside, with the French TV cameras in hot pursuit!