While producers from the south of France are concerned about the drought, some vegetable crops in the north of the country are threatened because of the excess rainfall, combined with a lack of sunshine and temperatures that are still too cold for the season. "I have been growing asparagus for 18 years, and this year is really atypical. Back then, the first asparagus used to be harvested at the beginning of May. This will not be an ideal period for consumption since the French tends to turn away from asparagus in June in favor of more summery fruit and vegetables. Thanks to certain production techniques, such as cultivation under small and large tunnels, we have succeeded over the years in bringing the harvest forward to mid-March in order to harvest earlier and begin the season around the same time as the southern basins. The last few seasons were warmer because of climate change, so we even increased our yields. But this year, it never stopped raining, the sun never came out much, and this morning, the ground was still frozen, so the asparagus have not grown. We just started harvesting the first ones this week, and we hope that consumption levels will be good in the next 2 weeks. For the moment, we have almost no yields," explains Olivier Thomas, who manages the Ferme du Pont d'Achelles, near Lille, with his sister Françoise.
A wide range of vegetables
Fortunately, the asparagus represent only a part of the farm's production, which covers 70 hectares. "We have been a family farm for 8 generations. Today, I work with my sister Françoise, my wife, and my daughter, and we offer a very complete range of vegetables. We have 15 hectares of vegetable crops and a small flower department. We operate about 1 hectare of heated greenhouses and 3 hectares of tunnels. But in spite of these technologies, this year's production of spring vegetables was still impacted by the lack of sunshine. The excessive rainfall also continues to penalize our work since the fields are impassable, which prevents us from planting."
A sales model based on direct sales
But the great specificity of the family farm is that 90% of its production is sold directly from the producer to the consumer. This historical choice was made at the time of Olivier and Françoise's parents. "We sell most of our production directly at the farm. My wife also does 5 markets a week and offers an online sales service. We were among the first to have a vending machine at the farm." Besides fresh produce, La Ferme du Pont d'Achelles also offers canned food. "Here again, it is a historical activity since my grandparents were the ones who started producing vegetables for the canning industry in the 1950s. For 20 years now, we have invested in a workshop to process our vegetables directly on-site. But this is a secondary activity since our core business remains vegetable production."
Vegetable grower: a disappearing profession?
The absence of intermediaries is, at first glance, an advantage for farmers who want to value their products, but Olivier and Françoise face the same problems as other producers. "Consumption has been decreasing in this context of economic crisis. At the same time, our production costs (inputs, energy, labor) are constantly increasing, but we cannot easily pass those increases onto our consumer prices. We simply cannot produce cheaply, and consumers like to shop in the stores. This is the best way for us to operate, but it is not always easy. Regarding labor, our production is so diverse that it is complicated to find workers with all the necessary skills. Today, I am very worried because I feel that our beautiful profession has become more and more complicated and seems to be on the way out."