Here on the western coast of France (east of Roscoff), the temperature has climbed to 32 degrees for my holiday week! The days are hot and the evening brings little relief. Further south and east, the temperature has climbed to an unbearable 45 degrees.
We take shelter from mid-morning until mid-afternoon, I for one not being a great lover of the sun or, more particularly, not being a lover of getting sunburned.
The land base around here is quite versatile, with wheat, barley and maize being the predominant crops. Horticulture is present too, with potatoes and artichokes the most easily identifiable as one drives through the countryside.
A trip to the local on-farm shop gives a more comprehensive picture of what’s available — radishes, onions, lettuces, leeks, and baby beetroot. Lots of hay has been saved in the past week or two, with fields attempting to green up again, and bales left on the land for a bit of weathering.
Interestingly, many of the round bales are held together with twine rather than netting, indicating the vintage of the balers doing the work, and the fact that those balers probably haven’t had a silage bale pass through them in their lives.
This is Brittany, with roughly the same land mass as Munster, but a higher population, of about 3.27 million. Rainfall amounts are not that different than Ireland, averaging about 1200mm per year along the coast, compared with 1400mm for the likes of West Cork and Kerry.
There are dairy farms dotted around the landscape, but more intermittent than one would typically find across Munster. Grassland management is a distant second to Ireland, with no lush swards seen in a rotation type system, although cows do seem to have access to grassland around the parlour — but more for a stretch and lie down than for the main purpose of grazing.
According to a 2013 report (interegdairyman.eu), Brittany claims to have 15,600 dairy farmers with an average farm size of 77ha. In 2017, the Brittany region produced an impressive 5.4bn litres of milk, with about 60% of the resulting dairy products consumed in France.
Looking at the shelves of some massive supermarkets such as Super U, Carrefour, and Cora, there are whole aisles each dedicated to cheese, yoghurt, and milk. The choice is vast; yet, I fail to see any Irish products on the shelves.
Contrast this with your typical Irish supermarket which now carries Edam, Camembert, Gouda, and a whole variety of other imported cheeses, mainly from Europe. Thankfully, a few Irish artisan producers manage to squeeze in with their renditions.
Equally, flavoured milk and yoghurt drinks such as Yazoo, produced by Friesland Campina, and Activia Yoghurt and Actimel produced by Danone, are taking market share in Ireland. Yet, our export of yoghurt is minimal.
On the beef side, products are marketed as being of Charolais or Limousin origin, as against our Hereford and Angus schemes, presumably in a marketing effort to appeal as locally produced beef.
There also seems to be a greater focus on “Bio” or organic products in France, and secondly on fruit and vegetables marketed as pesticide-free. From an Irish perspective, it seems as if our processors have much to do at home, in terms of squaring up to imports, and providing a diverse range to cater for consumer demands.
If we can’t compete on home ground, it’s hard to see how we can elevate ourselves above our competition in order to compete abroad. This rings true not alone for the dairy sector but also for horticulture, beef, and every other food sector.
Figures from the Central Statistics Office show that Ireland imported 72,000 tonnes of potatoes in 2017, and 43,000 tonnes of onions. I can understand imports of soft fruit, but this level of imports for potatoes (probably mostly to make chips) and onions points to fundamental problems throughout the supply chain.
We are not producing the type of food consumers want, our supermarkets are not prioritising local produce enough, and our consumers show little loyalty to Irish producers. This past week, Irish farmers were outraged by the profits made by certain companies in the beef processing sector, and rightly so, but the bigger picture is that the price that Irish farmers can achieve will only increase if it is demand-led.
The challenge for farmers is to produce what consumers want, and to create demand amongst consumers both at home and abroad, for what is, after all, premium product.