“It really is a wonderful profession,” reflects Christophe Grison, standing in his fields in the Oise region in northern France, on a bright and crisp spring morning. “I have many friends who tell me how lucky I am not to have a boss breathing down my neck. Not to have meetings where you are told ‘you have not hit this turnover, it is not good enough’. We do what we want to. If you miss something, you are the only person responsible.”
Christophe’s farm stands in Mareuil-sur-Ourcq, a pretty village, in a valley near a forest and the canal de l’Ourcq, one hour north of Paris. Though not the most productive land, it’s incredibly picturesque. And it’s easy to understand why the neighbours of Christophe’s 3rd generation mixed arable farm include numerous professionals make the daily commute to the capital city.
Urban-meeting-rural is an important theme for Christophe. “One of the challenges on my farm is to connect the urban world, today’s society, who are slightly concerned about our farming practices, to show them what we do, so that they might see that we are not doing just any old thing with our land. That we want to protect it, to protect the plants. There is no incompatibility between the modern farmer and innovation. Today’s agriculture is forward thinking.”
Challenging an outdated public image
Spend time with Christophe, and it’s clear to see how seriously he takes innovation in farming. This leads to a level of frustration about the predominantly outdated public image of the farmer.
“What shocks me with the public is that they have a very negative idea of our farming practices, although they have been evolving for 20 years. We have truly improved our practices.
“Some critics of agriculture would like to see a backwards move, with more backwards-looking farming; the return of draught-horses in the fields. But that is just not possible. The profession has truly evolved. Today everyone has a smartphone, and we can no longer do without them. Even I work with one: I take photos of my plants, I have applications connected to help me to better cultivate the fields. There are satellites that fly over the fields to take aerial photographs; we receive cartography, and every fortnight we know what condition our plants are in, right up until they are picked.”
Perhaps the facet of agricultural innovation least understood by the general public is the extent to which new farming practices are entirely consistent with protecting the environment. This can seem counter-intuitive, with the mental model people have of historic farming being environmentally friendly, and modern farming less so. Christophe strongly challenges this view.
“It is really this image that I would like to change: the polluting farmer. Because in reality, we are not polluters. To be a farmer in 2016 means to always produce better, to produce more, whilst respecting the environment. It is true that 25 years ago we understood less about the impact of our practices on the environment.
“We need to accept that innovation is there to help us to work, to improve comfort for my employees, to be more productive but also to better respect the environment. For example, the use of GPS on the tractor enables me to save on fuel because I can avoid going over the same area twice. Using GPS on the sprayer helps me to save 4% on the use of crop protection products. So on the contrary, innovation improves farming practices in the right direction.”
Redefining ‘conventional’ agriculture
While reducing the use of pesticides has been a priority, Christophe believes wholeheartedly that they remain essential to the very survival of his farm.
“Without crop protection products on my farm I simply could not live. My wheat yield would drop depending on the weather, by 40% to 60%. But I have other produce that would be completely finished, such as rape. I would have no economic gain in the end because my yield would be too low to cover my costs. So, clearly, I might as well abandon the farm.”
But what about organic agriculture, which is so often given as the alternative to ‘conventional’ agriculture that uses pesticides? Couldn’t the whole farm be converted to organic production? Christophe acknowledges the point, although also feels the typical debate is misleading.
“Certain plots could be turned to organic farming because they are easy to work, but for harder to work clay soils, organic agriculture cannot go into all farms.
“I have some difficulty with the titles ‘organic agriculture’ and ‘conventional agriculture.’ Because for me conventional agriculture no longer exists. Everyone practices sustainable agriculture, with integrated pest management. We all use crop protection products sensibly, and understand the attraction of organic agriculture. But we should not forget one thing: organic agriculture costs a lot more to produce and also uses chemical products. And the general public is not aware of that. It is time to re-establish the real truth.”
The essence is that today’s consumers want healthy and inexpensive products, and the best means for farmers to meet these expectations is by using measured agriculture with integrated pest management approaches.
Looking to the future
So how does a man committed to adopting innovative agricultural approaches and closing the gap between the public and the farmer about the realities of agriculture view the future of his farm?
“I do not think that the use of what I have currently on the farm will be the same for my son, in the same way that I do not have at all the same practices as my grandfather. It is constantly evolving. But always heading in the same direction: to improve production, to reduce environmental impact.”