In March, I was fortunate to head to France as part of the National Farmers Federation (NFF) French Farmer Delegation and Engagement Tour.
Visiting key agricultural regions in the north-west of France, the tour was designed to build French-Australian relations and address any European misconceptions regarding the standard, intensity, and quality of Australian agricultural production against the backdrop of negotiations around the EU Free Trade Agreement. With France a key agricultural producer, accounting for 17.2 per cent of EU agricultural output, it was also a reciprocal tour, with a delegation of French farmers visiting Australia in 2019.
Headed by NFF President, Fiona Simson I joined nine farmers – from across Australia and a diverse range of industries – as the wool producer in the group, with our family growing wool in Bungendore in southern New South Wales.
Over the 10-days, we met with French farmers, industry leaders and government officials – visiting over 20 farms and supply chain facilities including dairies, beef operations, piggeries, sugar beet, experimental farms, AI centres, cheese processing plants and biogas facilities. While we didn’t visit any sheep operations – with most of the sheep concentrated in central and southern France – we met with sheep farmers and many of the learnings had application across the wool sector and our agricultural sector, more broadly.
While there were differences in our agricultural production systems, and there was much we could learn from our French counterparts, we were struck by how much we had in common.
Some of the differences included the average size of French farms at around 89 hectares and their subsidy-based system, increasingly linked to their Farm to Fork Strategy focused on transitioning the agriculture sec
tor to be more ‘sustainable’ by EU metrics - reducing pesticide and fertiliser use, greater support for carbon farming and encouraging increased organics production as the EU aims to reduce emissions by 55 per cent below 1990 levels by 2030. With the farms we visited indicating that the recording and collection of on-farm data will increase as proof of environmental credentials becomes more central to their subsidy payment.
Climatic conditions also led to differences in production-based systems, with the dairy and beef operations that we visited housing their herds in barns over the colder months.
Their cooperative model for farm labour and machinery was also of interest, with cooperatives being integral to the French agricultural industry – with 2100 cooperatives across France. Many of the farms we visited were part of their local cooperative not only for collecting/processing their produce and then selling it, but for sharing machinery and labour resources with those in their local area.
The farmers we spoke to highlighted the benefits to their business of freeing up capital by sharing the ownership of machinery across a handful of farms and having flexible access to labour at peak times.
We also saw an increasing emphasis on on-farm circularity, with some of the farms we visited investing in alternative energy sources with biogas plants – with an estimated 1500 plants across France.
Interestingly, farmers were selling their electricity back into the grid rather than consuming it on-farm due to the economics.
But there seemed to be significant opportunities and appetite in this space from farmers and government.
Visiting a biogas unit in the Seine et Marne region fed by local food waste, chaff, and silage
Other key points of interest included their focus on consumers and telling their story, with tourism integral to many of the farms we visited, as an important way of supplementing farm income. This was showcased with a visit to the Salon International de’Agriculture, their annual agricultural show and trade fair, that draws 600,000 people across eight days in Paris. An educational showpiece, with over 1000 exhibitors, and a large focus on AgTech, it demonstrated to us just how engaged the city population are with wanting to know where their produce comes from. With figures showing 71 per cent of French people as having a ‘good’ perception of agriculture and 59 per cent thinking agriculture is managed reasonably – with both metrics lifting in the wake of COVID lockdowns.
The group at the Salon International de l’Agriculture in Paris – one of 600,000 visitors to stream through the gates over the 8-days
Walking away and reflecting on the trip, I felt lucky to have been so welcomed by our French farmer hosts and learn first-hand about their production systems. And to see that we have a shared set of fundamental values around our love of what we do, our love for our animals, our soils and environment which will put us good stead for these negotiations and collaboration going forward.
But I also was pleased to return to our home soil, where here on our farm, sustainability is also at the heart of what we do, but not in a prescriptive or regulatory sense (because it is linked to receiving a subsidy payment), but rather because we fundamentally see ourselves as custodians of the land. And we walked away feeling Australian farmers are globally leading in terms of the data, tech, and science we use to manage our environment and our farms such as measuring carbon levels, the biomass in soils and zero-till cropping.
With this, it emphasised how important the partnerships between farmers, research development corporations and government are to ensure continual investment in research, technology, and data. And to ensure that this science remains fit for purpose and targeted at the needs of farmers. The impact of misalignment in this space was really highlighted when visiting a sugar beet farm on our second day in France. Whereby the government ban on neonicotinoid’s (used to control aphids) before an organic control measure or more resistant genetics had been developed led to a 25 per cent drop in sugar production. Serving as a warning that we must defend our technology and work together with government and R&Ds to ensure sustainability and food security go hand in hand.
From a wool producer perspective, these overarching observations were all of interest, as was the mutual focus on animal welfare, with the Sheep Sustainability Framework forming much of the discussion we had over there in terms of how we benchmark animal welfare in our sector. But there are things we can continue to improve on, in terms of how we talk to consumers about what we do and sharing our story. We have such a good story in the wool industry, and we just need to get better at telling it. The Trust in Australian Wool book is a step in the right direction, and it was not only well received by our French farmer hosts and those in ministry, but also by fellow farmers on the tour that commented on the calibre and content of the material. I also felt like my work had been done when I had everyone on the bus googling best woollen jumpers, active wear, socks etc as I proudly wore my multiple layers of wool to keep warm!
I would like to thank the National Farmers Federation for affording me this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, WoolProducers for all their support in the lead-up to the tour – including the supply of many books and material to take with me. As well as the Australian Government and FNSEA (the French equivalent of the NFF) for making it all possible.
Agriculture is in safe hands with Fiona Simson and her FNSEA president counterpart
Christine Lambert at the helm
Written by Skye Ward