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02.03.2021 Europe

France’s Covid-hit agricultural fair outsourced to the farm

By Alison Hird - RFI
© Salon international de l'agriculture
LISTEN MAR 2, 2021
© Salon international de l'agriculture

Known as the “largest farm in France”, the annual agricultural fair in Paris has been getting city-folk rubbing shoulders with farmers every year since 1964. Covid-19 put paid to this year's edition but a French farming union has launched an alternative which is arguably closer to the event's original spirit.

When General Charles de Gaulle launched the Salon de l'Agriculture in Paris in 1964 to showcase French agricultural produce, singer Françoise Hardy helped prepare a giant omelette.

Since then eating and drinking French produce has been at the heart of the farming bonanza. Some 630,000 visitors flocked there in 2019 to sample a host of regional specialities and swoon over the finest cattle, horses and sheep in competition.  

Over the years it's also become an essential date on the calendar of presidents and politicians in search of the farming vote, many of whom would scramble to get photographed stroking a Charolais cow.

Last year's edition was cut short when the Covid-19 virus began to circulate. This year's was cancelled altogether. But the Conféderation paysanne farming union has organised “Le Salon à la ferme” (Fair at the farm) instead to stop farmers in these increasingly challenging times from slipping off the agenda.

Some 200 farms across France opened their stable doors, chicken coops and fruit and vegetable patches to the public on 27 February and the initiative runs through to 7 March.

An advert for McDonald's

At the Potager de l'Epinay farm in Orcemont, 50km south-west of Paris, Rémy de Groulard and his brother farm three hectares of organic fruit and vegetables.

His interest in farming began when travelling in Congo Brazzaville, Senegal and Madagascar and he is keen to show what farmers actually do. Which is why he is also a representative of the Conféderation paysanne farming union.

He told RFI he had grown increasingly uncomfortable with the way the Salon de l'Agriculture was evolving.

“I noticed a drift at the fair last year, with big industrial food groups like McDonald's and Carrefour getting the biggest stands,” he explained. “They completely deform the idea of the fair which is to allow Parisians to see veal, cows, pigs and chickens…but when you go into the halls the first thing you see is a MacDonald's stand.”

Stéphanie regularly comes to Le Potager to buy fresh produce and supports this new locally-based initiative.

“The fact that everyone can go somewhere near their homes, to a small producer, and find out how he works, has a big added value,” she told RFI. “And to have the traceability of what you're eating, how it's made and by whom, all of that human contact is important.”   

Linking two different worlds

Marie is a graphic artist but also works on the farm two days a week. Today she's planting peas.

She admits it was easier to have everything under one roof at the Paris's Porte de Versailles exhibition centre but likes the fact they found another way of holding the agricultural show.

“It's super to be able to bring the public and farming community together, to link two worlds that don't often meet. That's partly what I was looking for.”

Jimmy, 26, said he hoped the initiative would continue “because each farm can show what it does best and benefit from that”.

Last week in the run-up to the alternative agricultural fair, president Emmanuel Macron visited a family farm in Burgundy alongside agriculture minister Julien Denormandie. Remy de Groulard is expecting other, arguably less famous, politicians to drop by.

“The agricultural fair is a place where politicians meet the public so we reckoned we could also welcome politicians and debate subjects like GMOs and farmers' seed systems  subjects we deem important.”