Jean-Marie Guinchard looks across his ancestral farm located at la Sommette, a hamlet near the Swiss border. “We are cheese producers before being milk producers,” he tells me. “That’s saved us because we get a much higher return than conventional milk.”
With his herd of 160 milking cows of the Montbéliarde breed, the 58 year old is among the 2,300 farmers who produce the champagne of French cheeses, Comté, whose production from raw milk dates back almost 1,000 years.
When Brussels dumped the European quota system in 2015, many farmers from the Netherlands, Germany and Denmark boosted their production to win cheese export markets with other products. But the Comté producers kept a cool head. “We set a quota per farmer and per hectare,” says the president of La fruitière de Flangebouche where Jean-Marie Guinchard is a member. (La fruitière is the name given to a co-operative and means “fruit of labour.”)
The Comté sector is France’s most important protected designation of origin (AOP). It counts 146 processors, among which 122 fruitières and 12 cheese refiners are key to the process.
Flangebouche president Olivier Vivot extracts some numbers from his computer to explain the Comté popularity. From 1999 to 2015, the production increased by 20,000 tonnes to reach 67,000 tonnes, although in 2016, bad weather cut it to 62,000 tonnes.
For the moment, less than 10 per cent of the famous cheese is exported, but the Americans and the English are quickly developing a taste for it.
“We have difficulty to follow up on our markets and we struggle to supply the demand,” says Vivot. One can bet that, under the Canada-EU free trade agreement (CETA), Comté will compete with Canadian artisan cheese makers, especially from Quebec which counts 30 of them.
Canadian dairy farmers complain that CETA, which allows importing 16,000 tonnes of European specialty cheese is unfair competition.
Although Brussels has dropped the EU quota system, it has not abandonned its Common Agriculture Policy subsidies. Jean-Marie Guinchard and his associate receive 50,000 euros (C$75,000) annually to maintain their business in this postal card environment. Even if they get 520 euros (C$780)/1,000 litres, compared with 320 euros (C$480) for conventional milk, “without the European subsidies we could not maintain our farm. It is a choice of society,” says Guinchard.
Two factors, however, limit the production of the French cheese flagship. The first is weather. The second is a series of very strict regulations. Comté can only be produced by two breeds of cows, the Montbéliarde or the French Simmental. The cows must be grazing seven to nine months per year and must be fed with locally produced forages.
Silage and GMO plants are banned. But some regulations are the source of high tension among farmers themselves.
“Should we limit the size of the farm to 150 milking cows? Should we ban the use of robots at the farm when we use robots in the maturity chambers of our co-ops to turn the 40-kg wheels of Comté?” asks Jean-Marie Guinchard.
The producer also worries about the consumer reaction to the use of glyphosate by some farmers to help ripen the cereals in the field.
Still, in one way at least, it looks like these cheese producers are on to a good thing.
Some 130 Comté farms are being taken over by young farmers each year and there is a lineup, according to Olivier Vivot. Among them is the son of Jean-Marie Guinchard, Baptiste, who intends to take over the family farm within the next five years, securing one of the French’s oldest traditions.