A Greener Blue Cheese

French dairy farmers have turned their attention to farming practices that can sustain not only the future of the emblematic Roquefort cheese, but also the future of their work and their land.
A quick sampling of Papillon's Roquefort

A quick sampling of Papillon's Roquefort cheese.

Photo by Romain Rebuffet.

Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, a town of some 600 people in southwest France, is the source of Roquefort, a blue cheese made from sheep's milk. 

It's not an easy living. For the last ten years, Roquefort producers exporting to the U.S. have been subject to a 100 percent tariff on their cheese; in 2009, producers narrowly dodged an additional 200 percent tax, proposed as a retaliation for Europe's decision not to import hormone-treated beef from the United States.

To hold on to the American market, the Federation of Ewe Raisers' Unions had to accept that milk used in U.S.-bound Roquefort be bought at 42 cents per liter, less than half of what Europe-bound milk fetches. So far, Roquefort producers have paid 13 million euros to continue to sell in the American market.

Robert Glandière, president of the Federation of Ewe Raisers' Unions says, "We're being held hostage in a situation that completely overwhelms us."

Could organic farming point the way?

Although it may not solve all of the farmers' economic worries, some ewe raisers have turned their attention to farming practices that can sustain not only the future of Roquefort, but also the future of their work and their land.

The number of organic ewe raisers remains small, but it is growing. Although an organic product sells for 15 to 20 percent more, farmers still take a risk in converting their farm. The yield is lower and disease prevention must triumph over treatment. But one organic ewe raiser, Raymond Germain reasons that "if you trust your work and you trust nature, there's really no need for chemical products. We don't need pesticides to live."

Jean-Paul Cassan

Jean-Paul Cassan, an organic ewe-farmer in his barn.

Photo by Romain Rebuffet.

At La Martinerie, an organic farm of 800 ewes overlooking Millau, Pierre Cassan leads a small herd into the barn to be milked. The family's border collie leaps about as a warm breeze rolls in from the surrounding Causse mountains. It all seems rather idyllic, rather natural—just the way the family intended their farm to be when they converted to organic methods in 1990.

"We produce better organically and wanted to be more natural. It was a question of respect for the Earth, for the living matter," recounts Pierre's mother Monique. "Before, when we worked conventionally, it was like we were on a drip, with all those chemical products being pumped into the Earth. It wasn't a natural way of working."

In recent years, more and more French farmers have begun to reason like the Cassans. Between 2001 and 2007 the number of organic farms in France increased by about 2.5 percent each year, but 2008-2009 saw organic agriculture take off with a 20 percent increase, thanks to the 2005 decision by the French government to give tax credits to farmers who sought official organic certification (it takes two to three years of conversion before one can become certified organic). Financial incentives may be convincing, but François Ginisty's decision was based on seeing first-hand (literally) what pesticides could do to the body:

"I had a cut on my thumb and one day was pouring pesticide into a bottle. Some got onto the cut, which stayed irritated for an entire month. I said to myself that it would be best to avoid those kinds of things." He began phasing out chemical products in 1987 and was certified organic in 1990, just like the Cassans. His yield is lower, but he believes it is healthier, and that has no quantifiable value.

Room to grow

Farmers like the Cassans won’t have to worry about customers.

Last year nearly half the French population ate organic at least once a month. That number has been consistently increasing over the past three years, ever since the French have been changing the way they look at their pesticide-free food. What was long held as a strange, even "hippie" way of farming has come into its own. Organic, or bio as the French call it, has gained a more professional image. Every major French supermarket now has its own line of organic food and household products. Consumers don't have to look hard to find organic products.

Rusty Sheppard

A rusty old shepherd leads his steel sheep in a Roquefort sur Soulzon traffic circle

Photo by Romain Rebuffet.

However, France has some catching up to do. With only 2.6 percent of farmland certified organic, it is lagging behind neighboring Austria, with 11 percent of farmland certified organic, and Italy, with 8.4 percent, France must currently import half of its organic products to meet demand.

The same is true for Roquefort cheese. Today, only 1.3 percent of all Roquefort cheese can wear the French AB—agriculture biologique—label. And only two of the seven Roquefort brands can offer organic products, simply because the raw material—organic ewe's milk—isn't available.

"If the agricultural sector hadn't been so indifferent towards organic production in the past, if it had been wise enough to encourage more producers to work towards the highest quality products, the Roquefort industry wouldn't lack so much organic milk," explains Léon Maillé, retired ewe raiser and environmental activist. "We have lost an economic bonus because we didn't think ecologically."

But this is changing. Roquefort maker Société states that they plan to support the organic market. Papillon actively seeks to increase its organic production. Raymond Germain has remarked that more and more farmers have become interested in converting to organic methods. More markets mean a more promising future for farmers. If the demand for organic products continues to grow, both in Europe and internationally, we can reasonably hope that the number of organic farms will follow.


Interested?

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