Lives and Livelihoods in the Languedoc- Roussillon

11th October 2007, Comments 0 comments

Basil Howitt continues his series with the Préfet who didn’t mince his words in condemning supermarkets for the economic exploitation of local fruit farmers. Howitt also wonders whether the much-vaunted further development of tourism is a viable solu

Another “Agricultural Calamity”

It is not only the wine-producing sector of the Languedoc-Roussillon that is in crisis. The latest bombshell came through our letter boxes on 30th August when we read in L’Indépendant about the now ludicrously uneconomic margins of the peach and nectarine growers in the Languedoc-Roussillon. (The region is France’s main producer of these fruits.) In the words of one elderly peach grower in St Feliu (10 miles west of Perpignan), “in my 52 years of peach farming, this is the first year that I have not been able to balance my books.”

At least Monsieur Hugues Bousiges, our local Préfet and head of the Préfecture in Perpignan, is on their side. (A Préfet is responsible to the Ministry of the Interior and is the State’s appointed regional or departmental representative. As will soon be apparent, his remit is far wider and more welfare-driven than that of, say, a Chief Constable in the UK.)

M. Bousiges has rolled up his sleeves and been out to see the farmers’ problems at first hand. Not only has he been conspicuously photographed working his way through a succulent peach during his visit to a fruit packing warehouse in Ille-sur-Tête; he has also boldly and bluntly declared that “It is unacceptable that the distribution sector is making its profit margins on the backs of those who are doing the work.” Good for him! This same Préfet has promised the sector his full support in their representations to both the Conseil General and the Government to have the sector declared officially to be in a state of “agricultural calamity”.

As ever, jobs are at stake. In the peach, nectarine and apricot sectors combined, 8,000 workers are employed plus another 2,500 in packing and distribution. Many of them will not be working for much longer if current trends continue. This year the cost of producing a kilo of peaches or nectarines was 0.73 euros, whereas the most producers could get back was 0.62 euros.

No wonder the elderly man in St Feliu can no longer balance his books. Over the past 5 years producers’ margins have averaged a derisory 1.3% on outlay. This year it will be minus 1.5%.

Palliatives rather than fundamental remedies are being and will be offered – though the long term trend doesn’t look rosy. In some cases, peach growers are diversifying their production, with the help of public funding, to include apples. The group of producers affiliated to the Cooperative “La Paysanne” near Prades in the valley of the Conflent have, with 25% funding from the Conseil Général and 25% from the Conseil Régional, planted apples of the Chantecler variety and have been able to take on a full time worker to look after them. The aim is to produce 1,500 tonnes a year, and good luck to them! Inevitably, there is already talk of laying on an Apple Festival in Prades when everyone will sit down to that magnificent Catalan dish L’Ollada – a satisfying stew of pigs’ rumps, trotters, ears and tails, rancid back pork fat (“sagi”), dried haricot beans, cabbage, and several other vegetables.

However tough times get, there is always the consolation of convivial eating in large gatherings during most of the year. But coming back down to earth, we can only hope that not too many fruit orchards will be grubbed up just like the vines – and that we shall not soon be buying all our peaches from Spain and North Africa, our apples from North America or China – and our tomatoes from Spain, Morocco and, unbelievably, from greenhouses in Belgium and the Netherlands.

In the case of tomatoes, the situation this August and early September has defied credibility. In this land of sunshine and abundant local tomatoes, the Leader Price and Shopi chains have been promoting and selling Belgian tomatoes grown well over 1,000 kilometres away in Belgium and transpo

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