The least we can say is that Michel Welter, director general of France’s biggest dairy farm, is a tough cookie. At 51, this former dairy producer works not only under daily pressure from the citizens of his village, Abbeville, located in northern France, but from the whole country for having built an “industrial farm” of 1,000 milking cows.
France, the European Union’s second-largest dairy producer, relies on almost 62,000 dairy farmers who milk an average 59 cows for its fresh milk, yogurt and cheese. The country is deeply attached to its “paysan” roots, where farmers are linked to their region by ancestral tradition and family history.
General Charles de Gaulle, the country’s Second World War hero and first president of the V Republic (1959-1969), once said “How can you rule a country that produces 258 kinds of cheese?”
Well, today France produces about 1,200 cheeses.
Dairy is serious business here, no matter how you look at it.
So the day that Welter started production on his 1,000-cow farm in September 2013 was also the day that the farm started experiencing strange breakdowns of milking parlour machinery, receiving death threats, and being plagued by lawsuits and trials involving citizen groups and la Confédération Paysanne, one of France’s three largest farmers unions.
During our interview at his office, Welter kept a constant eye on a screen with black and white images transmitted by the cameras installed on the property. At one point the tension rose when intruders were detected, but they were intercepted quickly, and it turned out they weren’t a risk.
To build the 1,000-cow operation, Welter says he was inspired by farm visits to the U.S., Germany, the Netherlands and Israel. Also instrumental, however, was the well known French businessman, Michel Ramery, who had made his fortune in public works.
It turns out Ramery had been raised on a farm and had always wanted to be a farmer, and the pair had little difficulty finding nine area producers willing to hand them the management of their herds so they could fill their new 7.6 million euro (C$11.4 million) dairy complex, especially when the deal gave the farmers access to the company’s equally new machinery park, which helps members use the newest tractors and seeding equipment in one of the most fertile areas of France.
Plus there was another common link among the farmers they approached. “Each producer who joined the project has their own personnal history — divorce, health issue, retirement age, no one to succeed the farm to,” explains Welter.
It was also a time when French agriculture was under high pressure, both economicaly and socially. Milk price at the farm gate is a constant issue, and French farmers are quick to block roads with their tractors, set tires on fire or dump tons of fresh milk on their local authorities or at the European Parliament in Brussels.
Farmers could also see a wave of change coming. With the end of the quota policy, areas like southern France are in danger of losing their dairy farms as milk production concentrates in the country’s “green belt,” such as Brittany and Normandy, where good forages can be grown with sufficient rainfall.
Plus, a majority of French dairy producers are at retirement age, and they know they would have to increase the size of their farms for the next generation, at least in conventional dairy production, to achieve some economy of scale.
But what farm size would be socially acceptable: 100 cows, 200 cows, 500 cows?
In front of Welter’s office, there is a huge blackboard. On it, the monthly prices written in white chalk oscillated between 330 euros (C$495) and 350 euros (C$525)/1,000 litres in 2017 and between 190 euros (C$285) and 230 euros (C$345)/1,000 litres in 2016.
At such prices, the question is how a farm can be profitable, even at 1,000 cows.
“In France, nobody wants to talk about cost of production or salary,” Welter says. “These topics are taboos.”
For him, the biggest expense item is not feeding the cows based on a TMR (total mixed ration). Instead it’s the salaries of his 29 employees, who even at that rate have a turnover of 30 per cent.
It is not an easy task.
During my visit, Welter had his cellphone glued to his ear. He took photos, for example, of a corner where heifers are standing in a square of very wet litter due to a broken pipe, a perfect recipe for diseases. The employee responsible was immediately contacted and politely invited to correct the situation on the spot.
The “1,000 Cow Farm” is under regular attack from various citizen groups legimately concerned with animal welfare and farming. But in the modern free stall barn, the cows seems to ruminate in perfect happiness before getting milked three times per day.
Three workers are busy gently directing the animals and milking them on a 50-place carousel in a cozy atmosphere.
Even so, no French dairy processors or French supermarkets dare buy Welter’s milk for fear of consumer reaction.
So when we go outside, I see a tanker truck parked near two huge milk tanks, and Bernard Frédéric is busy pumping his daily 23,000 litres before he jumps in the cab and drives across the border to the Belgian dairy co-op, Micobel.
Welter is pledging not to give up his fight, even though he knows it’s tough when he is trying to fight emotions with facts.
But not all is gloom. In fact, he has a smile this day. Micobel has just been in touch. They are asking him to double his production.