Massachusetts: The home of America

The last country on our Nuffield GFP was USA. We flew Turkish Airlines to Boston, via Munich, and had to contend with real jet lag again for the first time in four countries. I have begun to measure everything in the number of countries ago as in “Where did we last have lamb for dinner? Oh, that was three countries ago.”

Our hotel was the extremely grand Park Plaza, which is apparently where the President stays when he is in town, because there is no underground carpark. And I have corroborating evidence: there is a picture of Bill Clinton getting his hair cut in the hotel salon where we all went to get spiffied up after five weeks in the world's outermost outposts.

Anyway, Michelle Carroll told me that interesting titbit about the Park Plaza. The fact that I ran into our Deputy Principal in a city of 4.6 million people on the other side of the world is gob-smacking. I happened to be talking to both Wayne and Pip on Viber in the lobby (morally objecting for just one day to paying $12.50 for wifi in our room), when what I thought was a familiar face walked out the door. I said to Pip, “Gee that lady that just walked past looked just like Ms Carroll”. She thought for a minute and said, yes, I think she is somewhere overseas. So that meant it had to be her, of course. I raced out the door, leaving Viber on, so Pip and Wayne actually heard our whole conversation, lucky we didn't give away any state secrets! Michelle came to dinner with the Nuffers that night and a great time was had by all (even though we fade early in the evenings….)

But I am getting ahead of myself. On our first morning in Boston, or Bawston, as we locals say, we met our host, Nathan L'Etoile, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Alex Dowse also accompanied us. Alex had very kindly picked us up from the airport the prior afternoon, and it was a great pity that we just didn't get time to visit his apple orchard, which has been in the family for five generations.

Nathan L'Etiole, 2012 Eisenhower Fellow, Four Star Farms Inc

Island Creek Oysters: A high tide floats all boats.
Our two farm visits this day were almost as diverse as you can get in agriculture: oysters and cranberries. The Island Creek Oysters operation is in the very bay that the Mayflower sailed into in 1620, with 102 English Pilgrims on board. The town of Duxbury was officially founded in 1637, with some of the original Mayflower pilgrims, and today enjoys status as one of the top ten coastal locations to live in the US.

Mmmm I could live in any one of them. How 'bout this one?

Let me tell you, I can see why: it is an absolutely picture-postcard-perfect town of 15,000 people, that was made all the more charming (and clichéd) being the day before Fourth of July: all the stately houses were decked out with red white and blue flags and bunting. I can see why Bostonians call it 'Deluxebury'.
But we were in Deluxebury to visit Island Creek Oysters. They farm, market and distribute, and pride themselves on the integrity of their brand, and their connection to end users. They are aiming for the higher tier of the market, cultivating relationships with chefs. For example, Thomas Keller of the French Laundry in California, one of the top restaurants in the States uses Island Creek Oysters in his signature, 15 course tasting menu (for $350 plus matching wines!).
Their latest endeavour is the hatchery, which they started last year in a converted boat building shed to keep capital costs low and understand the viability of the project. Although they are still buying in 50% of their seed, next season they will begin selecting genetics and cross-breeding for an 'Island Creek' style oyster, with a clean, round shell. Three years ago they lost 85% of their crop over two crop cycles (18month cycle) from a naturally occurring disease called MSX. That highlighted the need to think about breeding for natural varieties and resistance, with the added bonus of a particular look for their oysters.

We had a tour led by Shore Gregory, the president of the company, and also had a chance to spend time with the founder, Skip Bennet. Skip started the business in the late 90's, and although oysters are native to the area, there weren't any in the bay.

When the oysters are milky white they have enough genetic material to spawn, in a natural spawning bath. Conception to setting takes 20 days.

Elise is the hatchery manager. She told us oyster farming is an art not science.

The brood stock are sequential hermaphrodites of the Virginica species. Under the microscope we looked at tiny, tiny oyster spawn.

Elise brings in filtered bay water to produce seven different types of algae with different nutritional values, that require CO2 and light for photosynthesis. The 100 or so brood stock in the hatchery are fed 6 times per day using 18-20 liters of water per day each

Island Creek Oysters produce 1.5 million oysters per year themselves, and bring to market approximately 6-7 million, In these silos with micro mesh screens, an upwelling process keeps the oysters clean and sorted for size, and bridges the gap from 1mm to 50mm

This was an exclusively recreational harbour and even though oyster leases are governed by state guidelines (state water) the town manages the bay and they had to work with the town to get permits. The town council set the maximum lease size at 3 acres even though the state guideline is 10 acres. The industry is a total of 27 acres, in a bay of 300,000 acres.

Morality is 30% to setting, 30% to harvest and another 65% out on the water. They can't be farmed indoors because of the amount of food and water they need - 50gallons of seawater per day

Skip was the first to have a floating nursery, and they are the only farm in Duxbury with one: it is an awesome spot for nutrient levels. This whole area ices over in winter, so all the gear has to come in from here from mid-October. Shuttling the gear out then back in every season is an intense part of their work.

Then in the middle of August, they plant the oysters in the mud. According to oyster farmers, you need a Zen state for planting: you need the wind at its most calm and the water at its most clear, as close to low tide as possible – this water is only 3-4 ft deep, and in a couple of hours from this shot, will all by mud (9 ft tides). To plant, you fill the boat with oyster seed, and broadcast onto the bottom of the bay

You have to use your imagination to see the farm...there are two crops on the bottom at different ages. Duxbury beach is the natural feature that allows the oyster production, and there is an upwelling of cold water coming in twice a day with south-west breezes. In summer, the water temperature is typically 70 degrees F

This grading station is all solar.

Labour is 50% of costs, exclusive of seed costs. Logistics is a huge part of their business: really once the oysters come off the water, they characterise themselves as a logistics company.

They use a tube grader called Bubba - this is mechanical grading not by hand. Shore feels that innovation will come through harvesting and processing not planting. They are able to get quality and consistency: 85c is the typical price inclusive of shipping and at their high-end they get $1.35 (to California).

Oysters are like wine they take on the terroir: the taste is in the level of salinity etc of their environment

Mayflower Cranberries

Mayflower Cranberries, is one of 400 cranberry farms in Massachusetts. Greg has 112 acres in total, with 25 acres of cranberries. He purchased the farm just three years ago, after working for the state Cranberry association.

Some of the original vines planted in 1880 are still here. He is using three of four native varieties, one of which was discovered here in Plympton. They were used by the native Americans for food, dyes and medicines

In 1820 the first commercial farm started in Massachusetts, then production spread. Wisconsin is the biggest production state, Massachusetts is next, then Quebec. Ocean Spray have just purchased land and started growing in Chile which is the first venture outside North America

This is a traditional wooden cranberry scoop, that is now worth $200-$300, but even now there is no commercially avail equipment, just locally made machinery innovations.

Let me tell you how cranberries are grown: Flooding cranberry beds helps protect them from cold, then in winter, sand is applied over the iced bogs to stimulate the vines when they come out of dormancy in April. But they must be protected from frost, as the bog temperature can be 10 degrees colder than the surrounding fields. So they monitor temperatures, start pumps remotely from smart phones, and run irrigation systems. In the growing season the vines need supplemental water and fertigation. Managing water and determining exact moisture requirements is critical as too much water reduces yields. Insects are captured with pheromone traps to monitor pests for target spraying.

Water harvesting was introduced in the 1960s and it is how 95% of cranberries are harvested. A water reel knocks fruit off the vine, then more water is put into the bog and the berries are floated off. All wet harvest berries are processed for juice, sweet and dried cranberries, concentrate and sauce. Dry picked berries are combed into bins and airlifted by helicopters and sold specifically as premium fresh fruit for the holiday market.

Paul from Ocean Spray Cranberries spoke to us about the way the cooperative works. 60% of cranberries are grown for the Ocean Spray co-operative. The law that started co-operatives was passed in 1922 and Ocean Spray was one of them. They were producing fresh and canned fruit, then in 1963 they began marketing juice when they realised they couldn't rely on four week holiday sales. Since the juice is only 20% juice, profits doubled. Ocean spray provided the price umbrella for many years and Ocean Spray had 85% of market. A technical innovation in the '90s called reverse osmosis (from Australia!) revolutionized getting the juice out, and being left with a nice hard hull. So they came up with introducing sugar, rehydrating the fruit, and invented craisins. The co-operative invented another revenue stream, and it highlights how year after year, growers have invested in the brand, which is a remarkable success story, and a wonderful economic arena for farmers…

Ocean Spray pays on a pool system, with two pools, and bonuses for quality and colour.

The big challenges for the industry now are

  • scale: they are small in the beverage world;
  • the next innovation to make better use of cranberries
  • oversupply issue, which they are trying to solve by taking product to new markets like India.
  • the war on sugar, dried cranberries have added sugar but exception by FDA to be able to be sold in schools because of the health benefits of cranberries

Greg rents 60 hives of bees to pollinate the cranberries which costs $5000/yr. The migratory hives go back to Louisiana for the winter

Last year he started a 'Be the Grower' agritourism venture, and had 85 people harvesting cranberries - this year he has bookings for 150. This is a way to connect consumers to what he does, as Massachusetts is the third most populous state, and everything they do is under a microscope: the neighbours aren't afraid to take a water sample from the outlet flume...

Poison ivy is a real pest around the edges of the bogs, so we were careful to learn what that looks like. It is such a small industry that no-one is investing into pesticides specific for their industry, and there is nothing that will kill the poison ivy that doesn't also kill the cranberries.

The day ended back in Boston with a metro ride to the oyster farm's signature restaurant, named of course, the Island Creek Oyster Bar. This was by far the hippest and coolest place we dined. It made me feel hip and cool, until I started to fall asleep….Damn that jet lag. Nevertheless, we had lovely company with Alex's friend Carol (a quilter), Rich from the Farm Bureau, and his wife Lou-Ann, and the inimitable Nathan and his wife Liz.

Nathan L'Etoile next to Richard Bonanno, President of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation, opposite his wife Lou-Ann, and Liz, Nathan's wife at the end of the table

The Fourth of July dawned hot and sunny and we all headed out for a walk to check out the preparations for the night-time fireworks. Matty and Kara very rarely miss a day of walking, but I very rarely get one in (prioritizing blogging, can you believe, and talking with my lovely husband, easy to believe).

Security was out on the streets very early - no-one was taking any chances

People started lining up with their coolers and blankets at 9am to go down to the riverbank - we went to dinner and just strolled down at 9:15 pm and had an excellent view

The Boston Public Library

 

Then it was off to the Boston Red Sox v San Francisco Padres at Fenway Park.

We all tried Fenway Franks with the Lot

The fireworks really were impressive. I love a good fireworks display, and the Ekka and Kings Beach on New Years' Eve are very good, but there were crackers in Boston that I had never laid eyes on. Hats off to you Boston!

 

Turkey and Gallipoli on Rye

After boarding a plane in Odessa we flew to Turkey for our only country that wouldn't involve any agricultural visits. Turkey was our R&R, but like the rest of our GFP, it was full-on, not restful. Attaturk airport was the worst we had for length of queues. It didn't help that none of us remembered that Chontell had told us we needed to purchase a visa before entry. Of course that was a whole other queue to the one we had been in for 45 minutes…

Our digs in Istanbul were across the Bosphorus from Taksin Square, so we had a group pow-wow in Kakhovka to decide if we were all happy to go to Turkey given the recent unrest in the Square. The unanimous vote was that it would be fine, and it was.

Our first evening was Saturday, and as Jim had done his research at the hotel front desk and found out the Grand Bazaar would not be open Sunday, we hightailed it up the road before it closed for the evening.

The view at the end of our hotel's street was beautiful

The next day we set off to explore other parts of the city, but without a guide I'm sure we missed things, and having forgotten we were back in a muslim country, we didn't all have appropriate clothing for inside the Blue Mosque. Still impressive from the gardens!

Lachie Sears had arrived the night before to join us for the Gallipoli tour, so we enjoyed having a new friendly face to talk to.

Turkish tea is nicer than the coffee, but I can see how the coffee would go well with the super sweet baklava and nougats

Down along the park and waterfront was where everyone was spending their Sunday, and we got in a few miles walking around taking it in

The most popular game on the shorefront apart from swimming and fishing was taking potshots at the balloons for a fee

The Mighty, Mighty Bosphorus (Hunt for Red October anyone?)

Our trip to Gallipoli the next day was well organised and very enjoyable. We saw some beautiful farmland on the three-hour journey down the coast, but I must say, I thought I would be more moved by the site. I think Menin Gate would be more special with the commemoration for the Australian and New Zealand troops. Nevertheless, I learned an enormous amount from our outstanding guide Canon. Jim had brought along his copy of Gallipoli by Lee and Canon is given a special thank you in the preface to the book. He is a Fulbright scholar, a retired English professor who has been conducting tours for 27 years. He has guided everyone from Bob Hawke, John Howard, the last of the Anzacs, and every major commemorative event. Quite an amazing man who has obviously studied the history with an academic mind and made intelligent and insightful conclusions.

I wasn't expecting the landscape to be so beautiful, and so peaceful, despite the tourists

In many ways this just feels touristy. Maybe we shouldn't go?

A sobering but peaceful beach

Lone Pine (not the original now) and the Australian memorial

The Allied trenches. As Canon explained things as each stop on the tour it was easy to imagine how difficult their months here were. The preserved Turkish trenches are within spitting distance across what is now the road, crowded with buses loads of tourists

The GFP group, plus our welcome ring-in Lachie Sears

Our guide Canon

 

The Odessa Files

Some of you may have read the Frederick Forsythe classic, the Odessa Files – it's not actually named after the place but I've been there now and remember loving that book.

Our Ukrainain odessey ended in Odessa, the only place we really saw people enjoying themselves in the fabulous al fresco life in Odessa. Apparently they were all Russian tourists come to the balmy seaside…

But before we reached Odessa we had more miles to cover in our trusty Santa Fes…

First stop was the Strategic Missile Forces Museum south of Uman. This is the only preserved missile sight of the 176 sites that were active in the Ukraine before the end of the Cold War and the 1993 disarmament agreement. Our tour guide was in the Soviet army, and was one of the guys who pushed the button. It was slightly surreal to be taken down into the missile chamber and do that job ourselves. How close we must all have come...

 

There were 176 of these missile silos, and this sight had the most modern missiles.

I liked the old school Russian workplace heath and safety signs.

 

The missile chamber was 11 floors deep. We took an elevator down to the launch room,

 

You can guess what this button is...

 

It was pretty squishy - imagine going down to do a 12 hour shift every day with just two others, to sit at the desk with the button

 

There were 1000 missiles on this site, and each missile could hold 10 nuclear bomb. This is just one of the itsy bitsty ones.

Next stop was the Bunge export grain terminal in Mykolov. It was purchased by the Argentinian company from the state for $140 million. Bunge are one of the big world players in grain shipping. From this port they ship two million tonnes per year.

There are 12 silos that hold 9000 tonne of corn or wheat and 6000 tonne of barley

All the grain comes in by road: the harvest started 10 days ago, so yesterday there were 200 trucks being unloaded and 150 waiting to unload. We talked to one young truck driver who owned his truck, drives 120km to deliver the grain, and had been waiting all day to unload, for which he receives $100. His truck cost $13000, which is as much as I'd want to spend with these roads.

 

Our home away from home in Mykolov the port town was this charming ground floor room

We departed Mykolov using good old ipad maps, which is how Dave finds his way anywhere – from Kiev to Odessa, or from the hotel to whichever restaurant Trip Advisor has recommended. I have been quite amazed whereever we have been in the world how it feel absolutely normal to walk around with an ipad tucked under your arm, or at the very, very least have a phone glued to one palm. Thank you, Mr Jobs. And so it was on to the town of Kakhovka.

This is Marsha (Marsha, Marsha)'s home town, and we made good time, with one little stretch of brand new highway, which was an abolute luxury after the incredibly shocking roads we have been on. You would be crazy to invest money in a decent truck here for haulage, becasue the roads are so bad that it would be cactus before you could say Do svidanya…

When we arrived in Kakhovka, we drove into the Main Street to find some lunch before our meeting with Johan Boden from Chumak. After walking around the block in the blistering hot sun and finding nothing but a dodgy chicken kebab stand, we called Marsha (Marsha, Marsha) who suggested we go to the hotel and eat there. Brilliant – worth her weight in gold, that girl. The Ukranian no-nonsense approach to absolutely everything and complete pragmatism is sometimes, like at three in the morning or when hot, tired, dehydrated and hungry, worth all the warm, fuzzy in the world.

So after a still dodgy lunch at the hotel (they love their soups swimming in oil and their salads the same) we left to rendevous with Jim, Marsha (Marsha, Marsha), and Kara, at Chumak.

Well, Johan was Mr Charisma. He was Dr Khosla from New Delhi in 30 years. Full of fabulous ideas, magnanimity, and one-liners. Fortunately, as he was jumping from meeting to meeting, we had time to read a bio and history of the company before our meeting, and were fascinated by the story. They have a number of companies, in cold storage, vegetable harvest, packing, manufacture of sauces and condiments, and a wind farm…the wind farm came out of a brainstorming session three yeears ago where they were looking to expand into industries where they had some expertise and could add some value. That is also how his current baby was born: The Green Team, which is contract growing and logistical solutions. He has 50,000 tonnes of storage, and 450 hectares of vegetables, 27% owned, some leased, and some contract farmed.

Johan came with his cousin in 1993 searching for opportunities outside the small market of Sweden. He saw a country withh enourmous potential, that was standing still. But they have been trying to make big jumps, rather than wait for the natural evolution that occurrs in other countries, so there have been challenges. For example in the Green Team they had 200 employees and have cut to 83, so its a shaky period for them. But at the wind farm, they are putting up 12 new turbines this year and plan to go from the current 9.6megawatts of production to 350.

Some of the things we learned from Johan were that you need a helicopter view, because you cannot take anything in the value chain for granted; that you have to recognise whether you are in an asset-driven industry or a people-driven one; and that you have to project confidence, and provide quality if you demand quality in return.

He told us that Nuffield is one way of him networking, because now we are all ambassadors for the Ukraine. Even Jim commented that it is quite amazing the access you can get to extraordinary people: his company has an €80mill turnover, he has not one cent of debt, and aims for a 17-18% growth every year. He is the man I would call if I needed to be helicoptered out of Eastern Europe, without a doubt. But we didn't need that…The story he toldd about his daughter's kindergarten was also interesting: he lives near Kakhovka, which has the second highest GDP in the country, but it is not a big city. So he told his wife Larissa to find the best kindy to send their daughtter to (I think he's used to outsourcing), and just started donating money. He said, if I donate, then 'Others with financial resources will feel obliged – I know this'. That way he single-handedly created resources for the school, that is now the best school in Kakhovka.

We had an inspirational visit with an amazing man, so if we can take one-tenth of his drive we will be doing well.

 

Over at Chumak, 65% of the business used to be tomato sauce and paste, now it is just 35%, with the rest in juices and other canned and packages goods. They looked at the whole value chain, and used an understanding of the top ten most consumed meals to understand their future growth strategies, Our tour of the Chumak tomato paste factory was lead by Anne, a typically no-nonsense Ukrainian

35% of Ukranian disposable income is spent on food, compared to 11% in Western Europe, so food and food security (like in India and Qatar, but for diferent reasons) hugely important. Johan believes there are huge opportunites there, but it still needs to be done right, because the open market is very fragmented. But Chumak has powerful brrand recognition and single-handedly created a taste for and demand for tomato sauce.

 

We loved any opportunity to take a photo of Matty, and there were plenty!

 

This farm owned by Ukranian Vitaly Magilla contracts to Chumak. This Kurzon region is one of the largest irrigated region in the world, with the world's largest pumping station, pumping 500 megalitres per second. We did go to see it with some string-pulling from Johan but security was tighter than the proverbial and I didn't want to be bribing off a Ukranian security guard for taking pictures when we were not allowed to.

This farm is 240 hectares of 42 varieties of drip-tape fed tomatoes, alternated after two years with pivot-irrigated soyabeans. Jim's opinion was that this was a well-managed crop, with the internode length telling him there was not too much vegetative growth. This Newmans42 variety is Anatoly's favourite as the bush collapses will over the fruit to provide protection from sunburn. Last year the harvest was 122 t/hec, so although its too early to tell, they are looking for the same this year

They also have carrots, strawberries, grapes, cabbage, barley (yesterday finished harvest). If supplying industrial for Chumak, it is combine harvesting, but for fresh produce to supply the Green Team, they harvest by hand. Nevertheless, Johan is the winner.

This is a 230m3/hec centre pivot at 80l/sec, supplied by four engines at the pump station that pump 240l/sec. They irrigate the tomatoes every three days for 21 hours (they cannot have access to water from 8am to 11am each day), and do ten circles a season with the pivot, taking seven days to do a circle

The Santa Fes got off the beaten track following Mike Swanson, Manager for David and Dan Sweere: Kiev Atlantic Ukraine around the paddocks and up irrigation channels

Mike Swanson and his irrigation consultant from the States, Tim, and a staff engineer all came to dinner with us that evening which was a good way to learn about their business in a relaxed environment. The entire project here will be 45,000 to 50,000 hectares, all central and lateral pivot irrigated

Matthew just loved getting dirty changing the tyre on the Santa Fe

Our final visit in the Ukraine was Andre Gogolov's 3500 hectares of cherries, peaches, apricots, blackberries and cereal crops. This was a JV with Louie Chirnside, who brought in modern equipment, there is drip irrigation installed, and pivots for the cereal crops. This year they didn't plant any vegies as the prices haven't been good (as Johan also told us). These apricots were a variety called Olymp, and they were hands down the best apricots I have ever tasted.

 

Apricots are a Christmas luxury at home so when the farm manager Valentina loaded us up with hatfuls, it was heaven

All in all, I would say the Ukraine was hard work, but I am prepared to give them the thumbs up. They have an incredible natural resource, as well as a resilient, if dour, population. They are on the foreign investment radar, and with the help of that, they will be leap-frogging into a force to be reckoned with.

 

Ukrainian Road Trip: Planes, Cars and Ambulances

 

the Ukrainian flag is blue at the top and yellow at the bottom, and this is the view that inspired it: The Ukraine has always been a powerhouse for arable agriculture

 

After our week on France we were ready for the next leg of our rock star world tour – the Ukraine. We landed in Kiev and were met by our host Dave Fulwood, a past Nuffield scholar from WA, and by Jim Gletch who would be joining us on this leg of the GFP.

My sandshoes are nearly as bright as the domes on the church behind me - and boy did I hear about it.

Our first afternoon we spent exploring a little of Kiev and a boat cruise on the river that runs through the city.

This statue symbolising the Motherland was built to celebrate Ukrainian independence from USSR,. however it is full of so much valuable titanium that there is constant talk to melting it down to balance the budget

 

During our week there we came to understand how the natural resources the Ukraine possesses are the reason for their outstanding agricultural capacity, but it is their cultural identity that informs, and hinders that. The Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union. Farms were run as collectives, with no individual ownership. When the Union dissolved, all the Russians that had been running the collectives went home, and the Ukrainians were left with not a great deal of knowledge to run their newly allocated farms. foreigners have stepped into that gap, although there is still great potential yet.

The boys going into the bottle shop: the roads are so bad in the Ukraine, I don't know how all the old Soviet cars survive, but they don't travel. Our translator Masha would never have left her home town of Kahovka if she had not started working for the Australian. Now she has been to Kiev twice - a bus ride of nine hours.

As far as that cultural identity goes, the ability to smile and enjoy life seems to have been bred out of them by generations of oppression. What a depressing life it must have been in Soviet Russia. I was struggling to see the appeal of the place: The only beautiful things we saw were the Russian Orthodox churches, they were spectacular. But even in Kiev, you can see the utilitarian Russian nature coming out: ugly buildings, no air conditioning, crappy old cars and beggars on the streets. And nobody smiles. Life is not much fun and it’s summer, imagine what it would be like in winter, when it's minus twenty outside?

For our second day in the Ukraine, we had arranged a one-day tour to Chernobyl. Our guide, Vita accompanied us on the six-hour round-trip bus ride and the seven-hour tour. She was the most talkative woman I have ever met. We would doze off to sleep on the bus, and when we woke she would still be telling us some other interesting fact about Chernobyl, or nuclear physics, or 'my dear friends, let me tell you about the 'morphological deviations of the pine tress'. I kid you not – her vocabulary in English was astounding.

The whole area of 'Chernobyl' was several towns and villages and hundreds of acres of farmland and forest. The main town of Pritpyat had 50000 residents, the youngest and brightest Soviet minds when the accident happened.

On the whole Chernobyl, and Pritpyat were just plain ugly – and this was architecture in the seventies and eighties…not even that long ago. The whole area was a snapshot in time of Sovietness, and I'm glad I wasn't born Ukrainian.

When Vita our guide asked every single one of us on the bus what sight left the most impression for us, she was surprised when I said the hotel - apparently everyone says the Ferris wheel.

This was the sports field - you can see the stands here, and could also make out the running track, completely overgrown with trees.

The whole place is slowly surrendering to time and Mother Nature

The meal that we had at the end of our tour to Chernobyl was in the staff cafeteria. It was, by a large margin, the most unusual and spectacularly horrible meal I have had: another area in which Soviets do not show any flair or taste

Our first farm visit in the Ukraine was to Kees Huizinga, south of Kiev near the town of Uman. We arrived there in our two Hyundai Santa Fe's that were our homes away from home for our week in the Ukraine. We didn't realise how much we missed Australian civilization after three weeks away until we travelled in the car being driven by Dave: he had thousands of songs on his ipad courtesy of Spotify, and we enjoyed our very loud and I think out-of-tune sing-alongs on the road south from Kiev to Odessa.

Kees describes himself as a diversified arable farmer, planting corn, wheat, barley, sugar beets, soya beans, canola and alfalfa (did I miss anything?). He has 377 staff, 29 in arable farming, and 60 who are just security guards. He was able to give us a unique view of the Ukraine, and echoed my thoughts that they have a negativity in their culture and their history. He said, you need simple, uncomplicated machinery in the Ukraine, so, for example he won't go to a robotic dairy, but his philosophy is just because labour is cheap that doesn't mean that you don't do a good job. Interest rates have been 20%, but since inflation has been 30%, it still works. He cannot buy land very easily as a foreigner, so his business model is leasing: his leases cost anything from nothing to $US10,000 to start, then annual payments to each village landholder of $100-$250. Most of the parcels are about 3 hectares, that is, he had thousands of individual lease agreements, some of whom still want payment in grain at harvest, not just cash. That stems back to the ingrained worry of not having enough food to eat of the winter, because they are not many generations from Holodomor, the great famine of 1932-33. That was an officially denied travesty when Mother Russia simply came and took all the Ukrainian harvest and it's estimated that 5.5 to 6.5million people starved to death. Understandable that it affects the country's psyche still.

Kees has two silent partners that farm in Germany and visit six times a year, but they allow Kees to make all the decisions with his team, and that, Kees thinks is because they understand farming. When asked about his management structure, he said there are studies that show the most productive farms have the least amount of people in the office, and if he had a board of directors 'wearing suits making money' it wouldn't work. When asked about plans for the future, he said for sure he will start the next project as soon as the dairy project is finished, but he thinks the limit will be 30,000 hectares. We found him extremely candid with his answers. It was particularly interesting to hear him talk about his management: very collaborative, not very structured, but it works.

Kees has been in the Ukraine for 10 years, and his original aspiration was to have 5000 hectares in that time: he has 14000, all on leases of 10-20 years, with another 3000 almost negotatied..It is mostly corm and soya bean country. He can get yields of nine to ten tonne/acre, and six tonne/acre of wheat

Kees got into the dairy six or seven years ago, and is part-way through a $US23million project to increase his capacity from 3500litres to 10000litres per year. it will be four sheds, of one thousand cows in each shed, with a milking parlour at one end.

 

Having Jim along on this leg was an enormous pleasure and privilege. He added so much to our experience, and is inquisitive and engaged any time of day or night.

Jim in the thick of things again. When Kees took over the dairy, the yield was four litres per cow per day. Now he has one group getting 31 l/day, with his new Danish dairy manager. Most milk in the Ukraine is still from backyard farms, so the company he is supplying, Danone, will take all the production Kees can produce. His cost of production is €0.25 and he is receiving €0.35 to €0.40/litre

 

This is our translator, Masha posing with the combine that the company she works for. That company is managed by an Australian, Louie Chirnside,so Masha's understanding of our humour, especially sarcasm and irony was as essential as it was unexpected

There is 60km between Kees' field clusters north to south, and between two of our visits to different parts of his farm he led us into a forested area where there is a decommissioned Soviet missile tower. It was astounding to look down into the silo, and explore the underground bunkers and tunnels where the army manned the hardware that could blow up any number of Western targets.

 

After our little diversion it was back looking at big machines: This is a dedicated sugar beet harvester that cost Kees €500,000, that is only used for two months of the year

These eight harvesters (€4mill worth) are kept at Kees' home farm where he lives with his Dutch wife and two young children. These buildings are old cohorst buildings when each village was run as a communal farm of for example, 3000 hectares shared amongst 1000 villagers, with the dairy on one side, and the pigs on the other

 

Kees has now put in 60 hectares of drip-irrigated vegetables, mainly to provide work for some of the villagers. He should make €12,000/hectare

 

The Ukraine has one-third of the world's black soils that are absolutely first class for agricultural production

Checking out the black soil guys?

This is the calf shed - from here they go to the calf shed with 20 per pen, then they go off=farm

 

This shot was taken from the end of the calf shed of the villagers' houses. The neighbours are close, and according to Kees they do complain, so his strategy to employ as many as he can is his way of contributing to the community. Kees' farming lands are clustered around seven different villages.

Kees' piggery manager is a Dutchman who also runs a biological farm in France, so we were able to have an interesting discussion with Art about the merits of organic vs non, and use of antibiotics. He thinks there is room for both industrial and biological systems, but you have to watch the cost-benefit analysis carefully, and in any system, good welfare standards help production. He started here three years ago with six sows, has built to 560, and will have 750 by August, which will be current capacity. The piggery also provides an opportunity to employ 25 locals, and Art's workplace rules are simple: No stealing and no vodka. Their goal has been to keep costs low, which means higher labour needs, and a lower feed conversion than he would like at 2.92, but they are working with Russian-era sheds with only €20.000 capital investment, and it is cash-flow positive. Art said, they started small with what they had, he learned, and the staff learned with him. He said, if you try and do things 100% European way, you will go broke. But he is now at 21 pigs/sow/year, which compares well with 25-30 pigs/sow/year which he would expect with a new investment.

 
 

We finished the day at what looked like a resort - it had a tropical cowboy feel I decided, and it was beautiful to watch the sun set over the water from our little bure

 

 

Post Le Mans: Poulet Day

Our last two days in France were hosted by Frederic Degroote, and we had the pleasure of the company of Frederic's wife, Benny, short for Benedicte, for a dinner and a lunch, and the Nuffield France Secretary, Benoit for some of our visits.

I have titled this blog Poulet Day, and am taking artistic licence to combine three poultry-related visits that spanned two days into one day…so shoot me….

To my mind, the most interesting visit was our last, to Christian Poisot's chicken and Simmental farm, with a feed mill. I'll concentrate on the chickens, but the cows were beautiful, so was the outlook of the farm.

Christian called himself 'a little producer for the restaurant trade'. He researched chicken meat and chose a type of chicken (a French breed GA657) that is very slow growing (130 days) but that he feels is equal to the famous Bresse blue-legged chicken. 20% of his production is marketed under his own brand, chicken prepared for cooking, averaging $€8-12/kg. He has a rrefrigerated truck that delivers to Paris three-star restaurants. He works in with his brother who also grows, and his brother's wife is in marketing, so they recently staged a lunch in Paris for 15 journalists to promote awareness of his brand.

Two chicken farmers talking feathers. Moutiers au perche Culoiseau: the farm name means 'chicken arse' in French apparently.

This is Celine the farm manager: every other member of the group asked me if Australian chicken farm managers all look like this...

He and his brother have different ages in the flock, and take the birds to the abattoir themselves. Christian is charged €1.5/chicken to kill and pluck, and €2/chicken for the higher quality ready to cook. He does 500/month under his own brand, and 1200/week in total. Another 40% of his production goes to just two customers: a halal processor and an agent who wholesales onto butchers and small outlets in Normandy in a town where customer have plenty of money (a consideration that Christian mentioned a couple of times, so it's important). From those two clients he receives €1.70/kilo liveweight.

Not a bad looking farm house

There are four one-year-old sheds, just 324m2 in size,holding 3600 birds per shed

We did not go in the sheds of course, for biosecurity reasons

The chicks cost €0.40 per bird. The birds are placed at 20birds/m2, and thinned to 10 birds/m2 at four weeks, when another producer takes them to continue grow out

The straw bedding is all cleaned out by hand

He grows out to 4 months to 3.7-3.8kg for males and 2.7kg for females, 2.3- 2.5kg dressed and males dress out at 3.2kg. He uses restricted lighting from five weeks to stop fighting

Christian's feed costs are €217/tonne. He has three different mixes: 1day-old to 5weeks is 32% wheat, 29.3% soya, 34.7% corn, 1% canola oil, 0.5% calcium carbonate, 2.5% mineral mix. The protein content is 20%. At 5-10weeks the mix is 18% protein, and 10 weeks to kill is 17% protein. The birds eat 3.2kg/bird/batch. He makes a total of 1400tonne/yr and sells feed to half a dozen customers (with the money to pay him, he said)

The picture-postcard view from Christian's breakfast room was the bore-fed ornamental lake. These French farmers are loving life!

The next farm had the classic crops of the region: flax, (working with a co-op), sugar beet, wheat, rape and 18 hectares of apples for cider. But we were there to see his abbatoir. He had 15 multi-age chook sheds, each 300m2, and is growing day-olds out to 110 days. So he is managing the whole process except hatching (and there is only one breeder left in the region), milling and feeding with grain from the farm. He does 3000/week kill, for a total of 150 000 last year, with an average liveweight of 2.8kg. The breed he is using is GR600, another French breed. He told us he prefers an extended growing period for the quality of meat.

Frederic translating at the chicken abbatoir

His other interesting comment was that people don't buy what they say they want – around the world farming encounters exactly the same problems…He buys in 400 birds/week to make up numbers, and also processes Guinea fowl and 500 rabbits/week. The strategy of the business is to arrive at the customer with a full range of products so he also buys in turkey fillets etc mainly from Brittany, and concentrates on quality.He sells into city centre markets and for rotisserie sales. He gets €4.50/kilo, but says it is difficult to extract profit from the market because he is in competition with some very big players: like in other countries we visited, the chicken industry is dominated by big boys, and we got the same message next in the Ukraine. Feed costs are also up this year: last year feed was €3.40, this year the soya bean price has exploded and feed costs are €4.20. He uses a 75% wheat diet using 10kg of feed/bird.

This was the first farm we encountered very strict biosecurity measures in place, and we did not see their shed with chickens in it.

 

Our next visit, to an egg farm, uncovered another potential French Nuffield scholar. Frederic had never met Sandrine and her husband, but he orgainised the visit for us, and Sandrine, who had done some training in Scotland, had excellent English. Both her and her husband seemed to understand their business, the challenges they face, and we could have spent all day discussing agriculture with them.

This shed houses 82 000 hens (standard shed these days), and they built it last year for €25/hen, or about €2mill. Their first batch went in in March 2012, so this is first clean out. It is 100m long, with four levels, 80 birds/cage

Last year the government said hens need more space so a lot of production was taken out, and the price per egg was pretty good at €8-€9. But now, 100 eggs goes for €5.50, but it costs €4.20 to feed them, and €1.20 for the hen, and almost €2 for everything else, so more than one year like this and the farmer won't be able to produce eggs, was their assessment. They also complained that they have to conform to stricter and stricter regulations, but eggs are imported from Ukraine and Portugal who don't conform but have been given more time to comply.

Sandrine's view is that customers say they want more and more free range, but if they didn't stamp the production system on the egg you wouldn't know, because the growing system makes no difference, the only thing that affects the egg is feed.

They both grew up on egg farms, and purchased this farm 13 years ago. There are only three producers in Normandy, one of whom is her dad who closed one shed last year: they told us people put in cereals to make money, and most eggs come from Brittany. They direct sell to Paris and the more local area, and are trying to sell more themselves, not through supermarkets.They are trying to sell more at pallet level because they don't have the volume to supply every store in the local area, which supermarkets demand (we had an interesting discussion about supermarket demands…familiar territory). The other familiar comment was that even though consumers say they support local farmers and local produce, they don't.

Two people clean the shed one day a week, and then there is this end of batch maintenance.

There are perches, scratchers, and privacy areas for laying. There is metal flooring in the cage, and plastic in the laying area.

 

At peak production they have 120000 hens and produce 100 000 eggs per day. They get on average 360 eggs/chicken/year, and are getting stronger shells.

The manure sells as fertilizer for €40/tonne @ 3% phosphorous

 

Le Mans

In order to accord this event the respect it deserves, I am posting a whole separate blog: Matty's GFP timeline is measured pre Le Mans and post Le Mans…so to say he enjoyed it would be an understatement.

They say that Nuffield can open doors, well opening the door at Le Man was pretty special and now I understand how awesome it would be to see an iconic sporting event live…I can definitely see why Wayne's bucket list includes seeing particular sporting events around the world – and I think Le Mans should be one of them. We saw the trials on the Thursday evening before the big race, but even so, the crowds, the excitement, the atmosphere! It was fantastic! (Matty was impressed that even we girls enjoyed it).

This is the last time I have photographic evidence that I wore this shirt - must have left it that night in the hotel. Damn I hate losing things!

Anyway, back to the car race...VIncent our host knew a guy who knew a guy...so we were in for free!

 

We all kept our souvenir beer cups

 

I'm sure this guy must have been a driver? Anyone help me out here?

 

The crowd watching was excellent - there were all types...

 

We watched the Ferrari class from the grandstands

Then as the sun went down we walked to different corners around the tracks and watched the cars race. We even got to see a spin out on a corner, and stayed from 5pm to midnight

 

Pre Le Mans: Agriculture in the Perche

Vincent Chouanard, our next Nuffiield France host, titled our two days with him: Agriculture in the Perche: between Traditions and Evolutions. I think that would sum it up, as Vincent, and also the farms we went to visit, did explain some of the difficulties of French agriculture. So it's not all beer and baguettes…

Some of the difficulties stem from French agriculture being very traditional: Vincent studied no till on his Nuffield scholarship just a two years ago, and has found it difficult to adapt to his wet conditions. He told us that last year, when he reduced the tillage, the fields looked beautiful, but the end of the season brought rain and cold so his yield was down. The neighbours hadn't been impressed with his methods, and his techniques were blamed for the poor yield. Of course, this year he went back to the old techniques and the yield is still down, but the conditions are the wettest in 50 years. At that point, Vincent shrugged his shoulders…

Vincent's grandfather made his money from Percheron horses, and increased his 50 hectares to 250 (people called him American because the farm was so big…). Vincent's father and uncle haven't invested a lot into the farm (which is now 410 hectares), and Vincent's uncle wants to sell, because his son is not interested in the farm. So Vincent didn't need to spell out all the issues he is having.

You can see why from May to December they have started doing wedding receptions - it's a lot of investment yet but this is a 16th century house, and just a stunning setting

We began the day with coffee on the terrace overlooking the fields - not too shabby!

Vincent has set up a small partridge-rearing barn in the old stable, to be able to offer shooting on the property

VIncent presented Xavier with his grandfathers' home-made Calvados (apple brandy) to grease the Nuffield wheels

The next two farmers we met were potential Nuffield France candidates: we were trying to drum up business because they have trouble getting people interested in doing a scholarship for various reasons. Both farmers would be excellent Nuffers with good English and progressive thinking, so I hope they follow through!

He grazes on 80 hectares of rye grass, and we had a fantastic time traipsing over paddocks of thick, lush grass looking at his cows


Xavier Lequeffrinec milking 65 cows in Eperrais, and producing cheese.

Xavier's father Francois is still involved in the farm but is wanting to retire in 2 or 3 years (he is 60). Xavier's wife Catherine is coming into the family farm now and when that happens he will be able to get more quota, and will go to just north of average, producing between 300000 and 400000litres/year. Catherine has been working on a 120-cow dairy, on salary, and Xavier told us that without the cheese business he has begun, the farm couldn't support the two families. He told us that it's a problem when the parents leave the farm because often the milk stops too. What he means is, it's difficult to get workers: good workers leave agriculture or want top dollar. With all the extras on top of salaries, he is paying €15/hour minimum for staff. In this area he said that more and more people prefer cropping, and one hour of work with cropping is easier than an hour of milking, and pays better. Xavier's grandfather milked just eight cows, so, like all the French farms we saw, it has been passed down through generations, changing as it goes. In the farms we saw, the changes have been for the better, but I'm sure that is not always the case…and as I said, after our fairytale French farming experiences, today was the day we actually discussed some of the challenges.

Even with all their challenges, it is still a beautiful view to work with

Xavier supplies Lactalis, the biggest dairy company in Europe. He has a 5+1 contract, with a 1 year exit clause for either party. They get €0.32/litre for milk: he laughed and said 'We ask for €0.50, but we don't get it” – how familiar is that story? So he doesn't want to grow (now that he will be increasing with his wife coming on) but prefers to concentrate on producing the best quality milk, increase the price for it, and transform the milk into cheese. He tried milking three times a day but the increase in milk production was not enough more since he is the only milker. So his philosophy is to do less quantity but get better quality protein and he can only supply his quota anyway. He told us, he could buy a little extra quota at €0.5 per liter, but the EU quota system stops in two years, so what will be the value then?

He gets 6500l/ yr /cow on grass only, depending on the weather, and barns them over the winter. The grain fed is predominantly soybean, he prefers rape. He explained that on soybean he gets 48% protein, and 35% on rape but it's a less expensive feed and the profile of the protein is better

Xavier has 40 hectares of maize and wheat for sillage and just built a new bunker, but not a tower as it was too expensive

He uses sexed semen with 80-90% accuracy on two year old heifers, one calving a year, and although he uses smart phone technology, he still prefers, with such a small number of cows to get a good visual

The Normande cows Xavier has are in high demand for cheese making, and specifically cheeses like Camembert.

 

Xavier built his small cheese factory at the back of the milking parlour four years ago. He said it took him two years to get good at it, and now makes 2 tonne/year


It is a mountain cheese like they make in the French Alps (hmm no idea what that is, but I know it tasted pretty good!)

 
A quick run-down of the process: the milk is taken to 32°, salt is added and it sits for 24 hours. Then it matures for 2-3 months before sale, at €15/kg, and he sells to small markets in a 40 km radius. He used to do his own market stall on a Saturday and Sunday, but that's too much work. As he said, he has two young children, so he can't work any harder, and even though he could sell everything he makes, with the cheese, it is possible for the two families to make a living, whereas the dairy alone cannot do that. Numerous times Xavier mentioned his return on investment, so I found his attitude pragmatic, realistic, and above all savvy: he understands the work-life balance with two young children at home, he understands the difficulties of transitioning between generations and succession planning, and he understands that all farming decisions and innovations have to be balanced with their cost-benefit analysis.
 

La Maison Ferre, Gregoire Ferre, traditional farm of the area producing pear and apple cider, apple juice, Pommeau, Calvados, vinegars and jellies

Greg's house, with his wife and young children is in the 17th century farm building, with the cellar door at one end, and the barrel storage in the old dairy

There is 60 hectares in total with 10 in grass for cattle, and a few crops mainly canola. He has taken the 20 hec orchard with 100 trees/hec to 24 hectares with 700 trees/hec and developed the business to what it is today, producing 25000 litres of cider

 
 

Greg presses from October 20 to December 15, on this 1954 mobile press powered by tractor: it used to go farm to farm because everyone made their own cider. There are 10 lager of nylon sheets, and a wood grill to drain the smashed apple

This was a mobile still from the 1920s. It's not making money yet but there is such a lot of story around such a machine that it's worth having. I love that!

Greg had absolutely fantastic English and some wonderful turns of phrase, like referring to his dad as “the old boy”. 'The old boy' started cider in the 1990s as diversification, and Greg took over the dairy and apple sides of the business in early 2000.

A bit of background: This area is the end if Normandy and the beginning of the 'Centre' so there is still some cider culture. People have been raised with cider that they made themselves until the 80s and it was the cheap during-the-week drink. But to put that in perspective: the French drink 40 litres of beer and 40 litres of wine per person per year, but only two litres of cider. There is an AOP (European Appellation) on calvados and Pommeau, so they have been working for more than 10 years to try to get one for cider. So cider production is tradition and area specified – there is a special way of doing it that he feels they have to look after. It is a far cry from off-the-shelf Rekorderlig at Dan Murphy's.

Greg is now involved in a cooperative contract that means he can get fast payment on apples for juice to keep the cashflow steady, and his cider, calvados and pommeau he sells 100% through the cellar door. He makes 500 bottles of calvados, 1200 of Pommeau, and 7000 litres of juice (custom pasturised at a nearby factory, which he says, like Champagne is slightly different every time).

Now let me just spend a little bit of time discussing Pommeau. I knew what Calvados was before I got here – I even had a glass our first night in Paris as – I thought – a fitting French night cap. Terrible stuff. Apple brandy that is distilled to 70% alcohol and barrel aged. Pommeau, on the other hand, I had never heard of. It is an aperitif that is a mixture of fresh apple juice and 17% calvados that matures for a minimum of 14 months. Greg does his for three years, and it is absolutely delicious! I'll be requesting it at the local Dan's that for sure.

Greg said they have been working hard on quality, like you have to do with wine, but he doesn't think he is quite there yet? He described it as a talent and a skill, that not everybody has. I'm sure that is true.


Greg's operation was very interesting: we could tell by some of his comments that he understands what he does, and is constantly thinking about how he might improve…for example he doesn't allow grazing under his trees anymore, he doesn't like wire to keep the trees up, he doesn't use herbicide…and to bring 'a dynamic to the fruit season', he is planting nuts to give a more local food flavour. Like the other farms today we could see how traditional French agriculture is, and how difficult it can be to change that.

 

 

In search of how the French perfect baguettes

Why is it that French bread tastes the best bread of any in the world? Ok, Italian pane is up there too. Over our few days in France we saw the most beautiful fields of cereal crops, and my knowledge of cropping has increased exponentially! So my first theory is the crops themselves: beautiful crop = beautiful baguette (not very scientific, I know). So, let me apply some of my new-found Nuffield cropping knowledge:

At the SCAEL grain co-operative we learned that the price for this coming harvest is €186/t for wheat and barley, €420 for Canola at 4t/hec and €150 for Maize. They said that this part of France is the best area for a big variety of crops because it is dry in august (autumn). Farmers plant 15 varieties of wheat, swapping year to year and planting a number of varieties. For example, there is a variety from 1974 with a high level of protein that is being planted. Is this the answer? We learned about soft wheats and hard wheats, and Matthew tells me we plant all hard wheats in Australia because it suits our climate…Is this the answer?

Matthew examining wheat at the testing station

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ok, I know this is not wheat or barley, it's canola, and you don't make bread out of it. The yield is more than 4 t/hec

 

Matthew on the job again inspecting the crop

In the test bakery at SCAEL they were baking loaves checking elasticity, moisture etc

After seeing crops in the fields, grain in the silos, test loaves in the kitchen, I am no closer to the answer. But I know, like French farming in general, they have got it right. Viva Le France!

We also saw the cows making the milk to make the perfect French butter, but that is a story for the next blog

And of course, a French baguette with the butter, needs some cherry jam, and local Cider...

 
 

 

Easing into the French Farming Life

Kara, Sophie and I started our first day 'up country' on Tuesday 18th June with an early morning stroll around Chartres, otherwise we would have been in and out of this pretty town without seeing a thing. It was a good plan, but we went out without a map and managed to get pretty well lost…after ten minutes wandering around looking up in the sky searching for the spires of the cathedral to orient ourselves, we realized we'd walked right past our hotel on the opposite side of the square: ha ha hilarious. But I did say from the outset, I thought we'd be complete girls at navigating our way around….and early on (well in the van yesterday trying to navigate out of Paris) Kara told us that she knows she is bad at directions and declared for the side of Incompetence in Navigation.

First stop of the day, following Marc in his Volvo, was a SCAEL grain storage facility and lab. It stands for Soceite Cooperative Agricole, so it is owned by farmers. They take grain, mainly wheat and barley from 2000 farmers into ten silos with a capacity of 72000t, and export 60%. It goes out by rail to the port at Rouen or to industry.

We continued on our merry way to the first of Marc's farms. We hopped out of the car on the side of the road and shlepped around in the mud to look at wheat and potatoes. They have had an exceptionally wet summer in this part of France, and the hail storm yesterday (which destroyed $150k potato crop in one of Marc's fields) was just one more exceptionally unusual weather pattern they have been dealing with.

Marc also plants other cereal crops and begins the harvest in mid August, but he explained that if there is even 15ml of rain, the machinery has to stop two days for the soil to dry out enough to get on them, so it is good quality soil because of the clay, but that is an issue they deal with. We saw first hand how muddy the fields get. He takes his grain to the facility we saw before lunch, which is just 15km away.

Marc explained the Napoleonic code to us, which was to divide farms equally amongst children. This meant impossibly small holdings, so after WWII the regrouping of farms was voted on and passed by a 2/3 majority, and the surveyors did the best they could to reportion land. Marc's grandmother and her sibling flipped a coin for two 120 acre parcels. His grandmother got this farm which was rented out until the 70s, then Marc's mother ran it. There was a second regrouping of land in the 90s that was voted on and paid for by farmers.

Marc told us that farmers' boys in the city have started to come back to the land because the last four years have been very profitable, but they have forgotten the bad times when farmers wives had to work (the 90s – how terrible for them). He explained that there are never farms for sale and for the few that change hands, the notary price will not represent the price paid. He said to us: 'look at the fields – there aren't many weeds, so farmers here are in general doing a good job. There are two reasons, one they don't like change, and two, French farmers like what they do'…I like what they do too! The soil is beautiful, the landscape is beautiful, the yields and pricing are good, they have plenty of rain plus the aquifer fed from the Loire Valley 70 km away – what's not to like about French farming?

We stopped at the tractor dealership/co-op and had a coffee machine from their machine: clever Marc: we could have coffee and the boys could look at the machines

After lunch we visited a potato buying co-operative, owned by 80 farmer-shareholders. They only do storage, and sell to washers, who sell to supermarkets. They sell 10000t during the season, but all over Europe there is a shortage of potatoes this year so the price is up (Euro$500/t, last year was Euro$80). They have around 20 customers, the biggest of which is Spanish, and more than 50% of business is with 4 customers. Their first priority is skin clarity.

13 degrees is optimal to store potatoes - if it is too cold it modifies the sugars

They make all their own 2t crates

 

Their new building cost $1.5 $1m of which was for the solar panels, for which they received 100% bank finance. They received 60c/kwhr for power going back into the grid, but now the market is 17c. The Chinese panels are 2/3 cheaper now to buy than previously and have virtually no R&M

We ended up at Marc's other farm, which used to be where his mum and dad live. Marc and his wife and daughter now live in Chartres 35min away, so the farm house is not used. At this farm, Marc and his brother Laurent Henault, run a turf business called Espace Gazon (gazon means lawn). The soil here is clay mixed with flint, so it dries out quickly and is difficult to grow crops in. So after his Nuffield studies, visiting a UK scholar, who had got the idea from an Australian scholar, he started turf. The turf business now takes up 2/3 of their time, with a small but growing market to households.

They get seed from a Danish company, using rye grass, fescue and smooth stalk meadow grass mix. They sell direct into the Paris market 135km away for Euro $3.93 delivered

Even though Marc looks far too dapper to be an actual farmer, he did hop on and cut some turf for us - so I guess he does get his hands dirty!

Our B&B digs for the night very cosy

At Marc's we saw his turf, wheat, canola and orchard

 

It was an absolute luxury to be able to do some washing in his machine - we all had completely clean clothes for the first time in countries!

 

We managed to completely stuff up the drier settings, so it was drying the old fashioned way - much more picturesque!

 

After a very civilized glass of Champagne in the sun room we moved out by the pool to have dinner in the twilight - did I mention how much I like French farming?

 

The French Connection: FCGFP

Monday, 17th June was our first day of work in France, after a day and a half off for sightseeing and soaking up the Paris life.

Having the day off on a Sunday in Paris was magic – such a beautiful sunny day, strolling down the avenues, taking selfies at the Trocadero

Our first Nuffielding was a meeting at the OECD building. We had mapped our walk there – 2.8k, but it was pouring rain in Gay Paris, so we ordered a taxi. We had our first ‘incident’ when Guy tried to open the taxi door and lift up the seat so we could get in the back – the driver started yelling and saying ‘don’t touch it! I am taxi driver, you cannot touch it! Testy, testy! But it was the crazy eyes that Guy gave him back that really made it hilarious.

We got to the OECD with 40 minutes to spare, but nobody told us this place has tighter security than any airport we’ve been in – even the Chinese guy in front of us with a piece of foil-wrapped chewing gum set off the sensors and the poor fella was examined in minute detail.

So we were lucky we were 40 minutes early because that’s exactly how long it took to get through security and be issued with barcoded visitor tags.

The OECD is a governmental think tank that brings together liberal free market democracies

Hanging out at the OECD

Our meeting was with Carmel Cahill who works in the Directors Office, Wayne Jones, Head of Division, Agro-Food Trade and Markets, Trade and Agriculture Directorate, Vaclav Vojtech, Agricultural Policy Analyst, Gary Smith, an ex-Perthonian. They were very open with us and we had a really good discussion about global trends and issues, and picked up their latest publications full of useful facts and figures. They specialize in scenario analyses, and medium-term predictions and have a unique ability to work with member nation governments. Their PSE or Producer Support Estimate is a well regarded measure, and the manual is avail online at www.oecd.org/agriculture/PSE. For example, they have predicted that in the next ten years, developing counties will be responsible for 80% of exports in sugar, wheat, capturing an increasing share of the market. When we left Sophie, Kara and I all said “That’s where I want to work!”, but it may only be Sophie who follows through. Go Soph!

After that it was all precision farming GFP-style: we had a quick change out of the good clobber, pulled our suitcases up to the bus stop at the end of the street and bused back out to the airport. Of course, getting our hire car took longer than the time we had. We upgraded to a 9-seater and squeezed all the luggage in. There was no way we were ever going to fit in the 7-seater that had been booked for us with the bags as well. The Hertz man set the GPS to English for us, and entered the name of the town we were going to. It was only then that we realized we didn’t have an address of where we were going just the name of the guy that owned the farm, and our contact’s number. It is a little daunting heading off on your own out of an enormous city in a foreign land, with only the name of a village as your reference. But that was only the half of it. Next issue was that although Guy has done heaps of right-hand side driving, never manual, never a well-stocked Citroen Jumpy, and never with five control freaks as passengers.

Guy did very well all things considered, but the traffic on the Periphique (the ring road) was terrible and an hour trip turned into one and a half, so we were horribly late…And let me just say that whilst the swearing ratio has heretofore been very low on the GFP (as a function perhaps of the girl:guy ratio), the language coming from the Mr Hebblewhite’s mouth was extremely colourful. Particularly when he stalled it (again) trying to do a U-ey across two lanes with the traffic bearing down on him. Helpful navigator I was not…

This shot was taken before we actually started the engine, hence only one seatbelt in evidence, and lots of smiles…

Nevertheless, despite all our concerns, we called our Nuffield host Marc Enhoult, and met him without incident at his cousin’s farm: Pascal Dupre showed us around his green bean operation where he has a factory washing, cutting, packing, a one-of-a-kind operation.

Pascal invented a machine to cut French beans, this is his optical separator scanning for size and colour

 

He has 230 hectares of French beans supplying 20% of the market. Between 2000 and 2009 his business grew 18-fold

 

This is a shot of one of his old farm buildings from the 16th Century, next to his office

 

We stopped at a big supermarket so we could have a bit of a look at some of the produce. It’s always fascinating to check out the meat, fruit and vegies in other countries. ..

These beans are from Kenya as Pascal hadn’t started his harvest. He harvest 2000t per year, in a 100 day season

We saw a lot of UHT milk

We stayed in Chartres, and dined in the square in front of the cathedral with Marc and his wife Sophie who is a chemist, and their 16 year old daughter Laure

The Chartre Cathedral