To help understand a transition – here the ecological transition in farming – it is always interesting to hear smaller stories: typical individual stories which are woven together to present a broader narrative over time. Here we have two stories, one from Brittany and one from the Vosges. The first is that of Denis Baulier, a breeder and crop farmer nearing retirement. The second is that of the Les Co’pains farming association (GAEC), whose diversified output is sold directly.
Their common ground: a consistent approach when establishing and developing a farm; economic viability based on an “ecological” approach; close ties to the region as key economic figures and proponents of the local landscape. They are forming new ties to encourage the transition of human organisations and to reinforce the link between farming practices and the management of a “natural shared asset”, water.
1- The story of Denis Baulier, horse breeder and cereal grower
Let’s start with the story of Denis Baulier, a Connemara horse breeder and organic cereal and apple farmer in Port Blanc, Cotes d’Armor. His choice of activities (diversification, technical aspects) and his beliefs have resonated for over thirty years throughout the Breton peninsula, a coastal region with a focus on both farming and tourism.
After initially discovering horse riding during high school and an unsuccessful attempt to study veterinary sciences which confirmed his interest in horses, the young Denis – from a large, non-farming family – was looking for a meaningful job.
Denis decided to work for himself and identified a farm to take over from some retiring farmers. This farm was in poor condition, and the buildings were completely renovated over a 7 year period. In 1989, Denis and his family decided to relocate, specifically due to green algae flourishing on the beaches and excess effluent from the pig farms upstream. Denis realised that it was no longer sensible to continue to invest in eco-tourism.
A Breton adventure: from horses to cereals, from farm to region
Denis also trained as a horse riding instructor, and became a Connemara horse breeder. He built a horse centre, stables, a covered riding area and a large wooden home, all self-built – both due to the pleasure of seeing his drawings come to life, and also to take advantage of winter days.
To produce horse feed, Denis rented additional land which did not really interest field crop growers in the area. On this land, he grew cereal crops (25 to 30 tonnes of oats per year to feed the horses).
He started building the barn drying unit in January 2008 and harvested his first hay in early June. Since then, Denis has decided to not give cereals to the horses, but just grass and hay.
This resulted in fewer health problems (including colic) in the horses. As he no longer needs to produce cereals for the horses, Denis dedicates his cereal production activity to feeding humans, and specifically wheat for personal consumption. He offers his wheat and buckwheat to organic cooperatives and local restaurants and creperies. Denis also believes that tourist and farming activities can work well together, both at farm and regional level, and that we just need to find the right balance to benefit everyone.
A farming and tourism region undergoing change
Like in many regions in France, farming and tourism activities in Brittany often go hand-in-hand. We should bear in mind that the overall revenue of the tourism sector in France is higher than the farming sector. This serves to remind us that the rural landscape is not just a place for production, but also cultural and physical development. Denis has always defended diversification through his professional choices, something which was unimaginable just a few decades ago due to the status of farming businesses and aid systems.
Many farms now also run a hospitality business (rural cottages, farm camping, restaurants, etc.). For farmers who live in a remote area, tourism is a good way to have additional earnings when farming does not provide a decent income. It also helps combat isolation and solitude.
Denis believes that his model – combining farming and horse riding – could be replicated in regions which have natural and/or historic heritage on offer.
The dominant output in his area is field vegetable crops (with the Paimpol and Tréguier Cooperatives Union (UCPT), a member of Triskalia), which now has an organic section. In recent years, 20% of cooperative members have transitioned to organic production, buoyed by increasing prices.
The UCPT cooperative believes that in 4 or 5 years, the region will have around 50% organic producers. They use compost from regional platforms (cuttings, twigs). The green waste infrastructure network is perhaps not yet fully adapted, but it is still a godsend for organic farming. Their vegetables are mainly exported to Germany and the UK.
Collective regional action to encourage sustainability
For 30 years, Denis has promoted a farming, food and energy transition in the region. He has helped reduce inputs, limited the proliferation of green algae, encouraged the adoption of collective processing and sales tools, increased the sale of local produce to regional residents and encouraged the energy transition… Denis is continuing his activism through environmental associations. Through the federation of nature associations (Fapen), he is working on water pollution by nitrates, and he launched an initial project to retain a portion of bills in an escrow account. 2,000 homes in the department took part, underlining their refusal to pay for tap water which contains too many nitrates.
Whilst this first operation was not a total success, Denis is continuing to take action with the environmental group Eau et Rivières de Bretagne. Action is organised at the level of the greater Brittany region, between complementary industries: this includes Réseau Cohérence, which has 120 member associations and which Denis has chaired for 5 years. Eighteen months later a specification was drawn up to limit the use of phytosanitary products and inputs, to have a good connection at district level between livestock/crops/vegetables and to develop straw-based pig farming. The “Le Porc Authentique” brand established as a result of these specifications has been developed with traditional butchers. We are now in the second stage of Denis’ project: he wants to encourage a dynamic to feed residents with mostly local produce, and to take action against green algae. Denis created the association EPAT (Study for food autonomy in Trégor). One of its objectives is to pool resources.
2- Sarah et Fabrice : Le GAEC des Co’pains dans les Vosges
The Co’pains GAEC (farmers’ association) also has roots in Brittany! It was co-founded by Sarah and her husband Fabrice. They both had a former line of work: Sarah at the company Michelin, and Fabrice as a dairy farmer in Pays de Loire. Sarah chose to retrain in agriculture. She decided to become a baker and wanted to create a farm which included livestock.
Many fields in the area are owned by Nestlé (Vittel and Contrex water). The Swiss multinational provided Sarah with 15 ha of organic farming land.
Established in April 2008, Sarah produces organic wheat and transforms it into flour and bread. The couple purchased 4,000 m2 of land to build the bakery (land sold by Nestlé) and a small home above the bakery. The couple opted for a straw building.
In 2011, they purchased 37 ha from a retiring farmer. They recruited an employee and started to rear laying hens and to manufacture pasta. In 2013, their friend Pierre-Olivier moved in with them.
The three partners all make their own bread. The other activities are distributed by interest. Pierre-Olivier produces the pasta, Sarah works on both the crops and admin and Fabrice is responsible for most production. Four people are now active within the GAEC and have achieved a satisfactory collective arrangement.
Bread, solar energy, land and water: what is the balance between private interest, protecting natural resources and sustainable economic development?
It is interesting to look at the relations, perceptions, preconceptions and ties formed over the years in the region. The project was very well received from the outset by the commune’s municipal council, a very rural council with 170 residents. Sarah obtained her building permits very easily. However the local people were not very interested and undoubtedly found it too exotic to begin with. Even through the new, non-family farmers arrived recently to the region, there were some examples of local resentment, when obtaining land, and then when purchasing wild land in the commune. Relations have since improved.
In order to ensure coherence with local ecological farming, when erecting the bakery building in 2013, the partners decided to equip it with solar energy production.
73 society members (62 individuals, 11 public and private organisations) took a holding in the capital of SCIC Horizon de Mains, and this helped finalise the installation of solar panels made in France, with 36 kW of power on the roof of the GAEC building, and its connection to the network in 2019.
The farm’s two current major projects are: biodynamics for its positive effect on soil; and shared rotation with other farmers (milk and field crop producers).
Regarding access to land and the use of arable land in the region, Fabrice has noted inconsistencies and shows some anger about future prospects. Sometimes the elected conventional farmers are the same who will battle to expand their farms and keep schools open in the villages, whilst the number of families continues to fall. He notes the continuing trend to expand existing farms, which often prevents farmers from settling down when they just want to cultivate 30 ha to raise a family. He does not think that the land is managed as a shared resource, a “natural shared asset” subject to governance adapted to balanced economic and human development.
The main obstacle to the agricultural and agro-ecological transition for Fabrice is the tendency of the farming world to be isolationist. In his opinion, the farming profession no longer represents anything in French society, and it is doing nothing to solve that.