In search of a green thumb, but also in search of a wild boar, I was inspired to attend the “premieres assises agricoles du pays Grassois” on Thursday, 22 February (2018), even though I had no formal role in the proceedings. Having settled into a semi-retired state by moving our primary residence from Geneva to Grasse, I had discovered a gaping hole in my skill levels when it came to figuring out what to do with the abundant land attached to our ancient villa and a disastrous first go at a vegetable garden. This failure was further aggravated by the sudden and unfamiliar appearance of what proved to be the diggings of an invasive wild boar, who left a mess in the grassy areas under the olive trees in our expansive terrain.
With some trepidation as a foreigner in a strange land (and unfamiliar about the basics of tilling the same strange land!), I took the bold step to, basically, “crash” this conference since no one responded to my email inquiry about a late registration. As it turned out, there was no registration desk at the entrance, just a welcoming party that waved me on into a buzzing crowd of farmers and breeders. In the process, I was surprised to learn a lot more than I had expected to learn.
Learning about the Pays de Grasse, Communes and Inter-Communal Collaboration
Not that I learned anything about vegetable gardens or about catching wild boars, but yes, it was useful to learn why agriculture is considered by the organizers of this conference to be “at the heart of the preoccupations of” – of, well, the city of Grasse? Well, actually, and this is one of those things that I had not anticipated to learn – it is “at the heart of the preoccupations of the Pays de Grasse.” And what is this “Pays de Grasse”, one asks. It is, much to my fascination, a relatively new entity called a “community of agglomeration”, a term that refers to an inter-communal collaboration that is different from any of the other more formally structured regions, departements, arrondissements, cantons and communes of French governance. In this case, the “Pays de Grasse” brings together 23 different communes.
Grasse is a commune, the basic unit of local government in France. Unusually, though, there are 36,000 communes in France, all deriving from the transformation of parishes and other local institutions into communes during the French Revolution – regardless of their size. Paris (pop. 2.2 million) is a commune; Nice (pop. 1 million) is a commune; Grasse (pop. 52,185) is a commune. But so is Peymeinade (pop. 8,069), St. Vallier-de-Thiey (pop 3,424), Cabris (pop. 1,459) and even Escragnoles (pop 600). There are far more of these communes in France than anywhere else, it seems. The median population for French communes is at 380; over half of them have fewer than 500 people. Many of these communes simply don’t have the resources to operate the basic public services normally provided by a local government.
Occasional efforts by the highly centralized national government to merge these communes into larger local units have failed, but a recent reform to encourage “inter-communal” cooperation has produced encouraging results. In the case of the Pays de Grasse, this inter-communal cooperation was established as a “community of agglomeration” (the “CAPG”) in 2014 bringing together 23 communes, or 22 of these smaller neighboring communes together with the larger commune of Grasse to operate as an extended network for public services around a medium-sized urban center. Read more about the CAPG here.
The Agricultural Focus of the Pays de Grasse
One of the questions, then, that I had going into this Conference on agriculture had to do with wanting to know why agriculture should be such a “preoccupation” of a town (i.e. the commune of Grasse) that appears to have almost no agriculture. The unexpected answer is that all these other communes do! This was an important learning experience for me.
What is more, Grasse might not be very rural in its cobble-stoned center with narrow streets and its panoramic hillside slopes with large apartment dwellings and villas overlooking the sea. But it is, after all, the “perfume capital of the world”. True, it has a heritage, a trademark, and a “savoir-faire” history based on horticulture for the making of perfumes, involving flowers like jasmin, rose centifolia, tuberoses and iris. But we have gone on numerous perfume factory tours in Grasse, and one of the common threads in the tour guides’ repertoire has been the globalization of the flower market and the demise of the local flower industry. So it was another learning experience to discover that the CAPG was featuring a revival of this perfume-oriented horticulture.
At this first Conference on agriculture for the Pays de Grasse, we also learned about the prevalence of olive trees and other commercial farms for fruit and vegetables in some of the lower communes as well as the breeding of cows, sheep, pigs and other livestock in the mountain communes, for both meat and for milk and cheese. But we also heard that the emphasis today is on new economic models of innovation based on urban/rural integration of supply chains linking agricultural production with finished products – and, furthermore, with an emphasis on the importance of local markets.
The Conference included several informative overviews of the numbers and trends in ownership of agriculture enterprises (close to 300 over all), along with more detailed information on the different “filières” – primarily horticulture, maraichage (commercial agriculture), elevage (breeding). There was an interesting proposal on how to develop a start-to-end local market on wool (“la laine locale”) and another on the production of products from a specifically AOP-recognized olive oil and olive of Nice. (Note that AOP stands for appellation d’origine protégée, a form of product protection based on a local, geographic source or “indication” for the product.) Reviving ancient olive oil mills and promoting oleiculture tourism were also part of this presentation.
Linking the Conference to the Salon of International Agriculture
We even heard this emphasis on local integration in the “new” agricultural policy being promoted by President Emmanuel Macron, who stirred the waters – or perhaps more aptly ploughed the terrain – at the opening of the famous French “Salon of International Agriculture” in Paris this past weekend. This annual event, which brings mostly French agricultural interests from all sectors and all regions (and a smattering of international exhibits) to Paris, runs from 24 February to 4 March this year. Not surprisingly, we read that the President had a mixed reception – some applause but also some hostile whistle-blowing and chanting of negative slogans to taunt him. But media coverage (here is an example) was heavy as he broke a record for time spent by a President at the Salon (over 12 hours) and chose to confront his critics eye to eye.
Numerous issues were addressed as he deviated from his scheduled path to confront his critics. – hostility to the opening up of beef imports from Mercosur, banning a specific cancer-causing chemical that is widely used in farming, alarm over a huge purchase by the Chinese of wheat farmland in central France, regulating but not eliminating the spread of wolves (no reference, though, to wild boars), and even fears of a revised Common Agricultural Policy for the European Union. Although he appeared patiently to respond to these concerns, he also called for the reorganization of French agriculture in “filières” or channels that encompass more than specialized product sectors. He even described French agriculture as “une terre de conquête”.
Conference Proceedings in Grasse
Coincidentally, or perhaps not so coincidentally, we note that the Conference in Grasse was just two days before the official opening of the annual “Salon International d ’Agriculture”. The Conference was convened by the CAPG in cooperation with the Chamber of Agriculture for the Alpes-Maritime, and thus it was opened by the President of the CAPG, none other than the Mayor of Grasse Jérome Viaud, and by Michel Dessus the head of the Chamber. Mayor Viaud spoke eloquently about the importance of agriculture for development of the region, and his website confirms that the outcome of the Conference will provide the road map for the CAPG in the coming year. (Photo of the Mayor on the left is mine, but the conference photo below is from the Mayor’s website here.) A second Assises agricoles du pays Grassois is planned for 2019, with the stated goal of doubling the number of participants. So maybe this will become an annual event leading up to the annual Salon in Paris.
Meanwhile, we detected from Mr. Dessus that he was very critical of the agricultural policies of President Macron. It seems that his biggest complaint was the EU/Mercosur deal on meat, but he also criticized the plan announced by the Macron administration on culling of wolves but not eliminating this scourge to livestock farmers. He even boasted that his region was boycotting the President’s invitation to the youth organizations in agriculture to meet with him prior to the Salon and that he would be willing to participate in any protest activity at the Salon itself. His remarks at the Conference in Grasse sparked a lot of head nodding and sporadic applause.
Afternoon roundtables were devoted to three topics: access to land, water and equipment; climatic risks and predators; and the historic role of the culture of plants for the perfume industry. We look forward to the report on how this Conference will guide CAPG action on agriculture in the coming year. It would appear that the priority on agriculture in the CAPG is emerging as an important opportunity to strengthen the value of this relatively new “community of agglomeration” for the 23 participating communes. See the CAPG website on this project here.
So what does all of this mean for Villa Ndio? We are certainly inspired to prune our 17 olive trees this year – well at least some of them. And we will promote the revival of the ancient olive oil mill in our neighborhood. In addition, we do plan to lay out a serious vegetable garden this summer. No livestock, though. We’ll be the supportive urban consumers for the meat and cheese – and maybe even for that wool supply chain in the offing. As for the wolves and boars in the title of this musing, there was a presentation at the Conference that identified both of them as a nuisance to farmers. Media coverage of the Salon also touched on the ongoing controversy about the culling of wolves (but not eliminating them). We did not learn any more about culling the boar population, but we can certainly attest to the problem of an invasive boar. OK, we have learned that the only real protection is sturdy fencing around one’s property, and this, too, is on our agenda for the months ahead. And meanwhile, let’s hope we don’t run into any wolves!
Before concluding this musing, however, here are some additional observations about the Salon and President Macron’s visit. First, we understand that the Salon usually has competition each year to choose a different breed of cow to serve as the mascot for the Salon. This year the chosen cow, named “Haute”, was of the “Aubrac” breed (not from the Pays de Grasse). See the picture here of President Macron (known for his non-agricultural and very urban background) graciously but somewhat gingerly petting Haute! But then, he was also given the challenge of receiving the gift of a live red chicken named Agathe to take home with him to the Elysée Palace. Hmmm. There appears to be a bit of irony there. (Photos are from AFP, downloaded through Nice-Matin here and here.)