In the greenhouse, Christophe and Sylvain harvest their salad by hand. The two brothers took on their parent's farm over 20 years ago and have turned to organic farming. ''Even when we were just helping out as family on the farm, we were sensitive to a quality production that respected nature,'' explains Sylvain Pontoni. ''The first 10 years were hard, the market was not yet prepared, it was a slightly crazy idea''. Now, the brothers are able to live off their produce and pay two permanent employees as well as about ten seasonal workers. This is not, however, a reason to rest on their laurels: the production prices are high and the demand is growing but challenging. ''What will guarantee the producer's livelihood is the price at which the product will sell. Many consumers are going organic but with conventional ideas,'' notes Sylvain. ''We want it to be attractive, good, and inexpensive. If the price was the only factor, organic French farming would no longer exist, because it is cheaper in neighbouring countries. The advantage of Biocoop is that it favours local produce.''
Cooperative and growth
Biocoop is the cooperative network of organic produce shops. The organisation has 4 redistribution platforms, one of which is at Port-Sainte-Marie. It is here where the production from organic farmers from the south-west is transported. ''Last year, Biocoop, which is one of our partners, was responsible for 95% of the volume of the cooperative's production'', specifies Claude Daminet, Cabso's quality manager.
A profitable partnership, because Biocoop took part in the development of the farming cooperative which also needs to produce more to supply the growing demand: ''Apart from in 2013, for climate reasons, our farmers are producing between 5% and 10% more than the year before to fill the shelves,'' calculates Claude Daminet. ''We also had to diversify, that includes offering products that one no longer finds in conventional farming.''
From a farmer's point of view, it is this diversity that enriches organic produce. Sylvain Pontoni, who has come to deliver his batavia to the cooperative points out a factor that is essential in organic farming: ''With organic farming, we avoid looking at things product by product, they all complement one another,'' he explains.
He illustrates this process: ''Our farm has 25 ha of alfalfa, that brings in next to nothing, but it structures the soil and allows us to rotate for other products.''
This variety is also found in shops. Aude, a loyal customer of the Pré Vert in Agen, confirms that she finds 95% of everyday consumer products there. ''For the rest, I complete it at the market. I only go to large retail stores for cat food,'' she laughs. Product quality and a short chain to retail, are the advantages that are making this form of consumption more and more popular. She will pay 2.10€ for the batavia produced by Sylvain or another farmer from the Lot-et-Garonne, but it is worth it. ''I know where the product comes from. Biocoop have an ethics charter which guarantees that the vegetable was cultivated within a 150 km radius.'' A price to pay for the small sacrifice of everything biscuit-related and other processed products which she realises ''become expensive'', estimating that she pays about 100€ a week for her certified organic shopping. Like Aude, there are more and more people opting for the quality claimed by organic produce. Delphine Noirot, shop manager, is glad to see the loyal customers coming back as well as attracting more and more new clients: ''Our shop in Boé counted 55.206 receipts in 2013, ten thousand more than in 2012. We can tell that people are starting to realise that you can't just eat anything.''
Happiness is in the Pré vert (green field)
Since its creation 30 years ago, the brand which is counted amongst the 5 Biocoop establishments in the region-has not stopped growing. ''It is Pierre Kung, himself a farmer, who set up the first point of sale in Agen based on a model from AMAP. Success and demand both contributed to it becoming a SARL in 2004 and since 2012 we are a Scop with 13 associates,'' explains the co-manager Delphine Noirot. With her counterpart, Anne Duloue who is in charge of the Boé shop, they registered a 12% increase in turnover last year compared to 2012 and it was not a successful year: ''The results always go up, or at the worst they stagnate, but this is the case at a national level'', they assure us. Their philosophy: establish direct contact with the producer. ''We are not in price negotiation, but in the setting up of long-term partnerships''.