18 members of the Association participated in a study visit to Northern France over the three days 26 – 28 June 2013. The visit was hosted and organised by staff of the potato company Desmazieres, a sister company of Agrico. The aim of the visit was to look in detail at early generation seed production in the area of Northern France overseen by the Comite Nord, the industry body charged with controlling seed potato production in the area.
Almost 12,000 hectares of classified seed potatoes are grown by 400 growers in the Comite Nord area. These include varieties grown for processing, for supermarket sales and for starch. There are two other seed growing areas in France – in Brittany where 5,000 hectares are grown and in the Centre and South of France with 1,000 hectares. Each area has its own, industry controlled, inspection service, justified on the grounds of distance between each area.
The Comite Nord has a very impressive head quarters and modern laboratory facility in the north of the region at Bretteville Du Grand Caux, built, apparently, from funding provided by the 400 seed growers at a cost of 11 million euros. The organisation is entirely industry controlled and includes 25 seed companies in addition to the 400 growers.
A surprising finding of the visit was that around 30 seed growers also have their own mini-tuber production facility: unlike in Scotland there seems not to be a concentration of min-tuber production in very large units. Mini-tubers of up to 300 varieties are produced in glasshouses or polytunnels from 320,000 plantlets supplied by the Comite Nord laboratories at a cost of 60c each. Mini-tuber production seems not to be part of the routine inspection service.
Growing crop inspections appear to be less formal than in Scotland with Comite Nord inspectors visiting crops on a weekly basis. Following harvesting stocks also seem to be inspected on a regular basis. The organisation employs 25 dedicated seed potato inspectors – they work full time for Comite Nord and have no responsibilities other than for seed potato inspections. In addition to the 25 full time inspectors the organisation employs 40 laboratory technicians for the range of tests done on growing crop material and harvested tubers. A further 15 specialist scientists are employed on research projects.
As in Scotland all fields intended for seed production are sampled and tested for Potato Cyst Nematodes ( Globodera rostochiensis and pallida). According to the information we were given live cysts are found in very few of the samples. Typically, one sample may contain live cysts each year. For the 2013 season no cysts were found in any of the soil samples tested. These surprisingly low results appear to be related to the absence of any movement between farms of farm saved seed.
Blackleg, mainly caused by Dickyea species, seems to be an issue at growing crop inspections though data for rejections and downgradings were not given.
Interestingly, there was no requirement for field separations between pre basic seed crops and this surprised many participants.
Following harvest all seed crops are inspected and tubers are taken for laboratory testing at the Comite Nord head quarters. 100 or 200 tubers are tested from each seed stock depending on class and grade. Around 1 million tubers are tested each year. Tests are made for tuber borne viruses and for the quarantine bacteria that cause brown rot (Ralstonia solanacearum) and ring rot ( Clavibacter michiganensis). Around 500 hectares were rejected in 2012 due to virus infection. The quarantine bacteria have never been recorded in any of the tests made by Comite Nord. Interestingly tuber samples are also grown out by Comite Nord to monitor for glyphosate damage. This seems to be a small but regular problem and around 50 hectares are rejected each year.
Comite Nord’s seed certification responsiblities are overseen by the French Government who have ultimate responsibility to ensure that the EU requirements for seed potato production and certification are met but this supervision appears to be with a very light touch and we were certainly given the impression that all day to day control inspections are the responsibility of Comite Nord.
Certification costs seemed to be in the region of 500 euros per hectare which cover PCN sampling and testing, growing crop inspections and the routine tuber testing following harvest. Other laboratory tests are available at additional costs and, for example, the Comite Nord make around 200 DNA tests each year to confirm variety identification.
Overall, seed production conditions seemed to be very favourable – the land was relatively flat, stone separation before planting was often not required or practised and with an annual rainfall of around 1000 mm irrigation is usually not required. A further major advantage that seed growers in Northern France have is their close proximity to the extensive potato growing areas in France and Belgium.
Farms appeared to be largely family owned and run and land owning regulations in France appear to keep average farm sizes around 100 hectares. Seed growers regularly rent land at around 1700 euros per hectare. We had the impression that Comite Nord also control the overall area of seed production and it seemed unlikely that new growers could begin production without their approval.
In our short two day visit it was possible only to have an overview of seed production in Northern France and though there were some obvious differences between seed production systems in France and in Scotland more time would have been needed to examine these differences in detail. The relationship between Comite Nord and its seed growing members seemed to be very positive and we came away with the impression of a very efficient organisation, technically competent, flexible in its approach to inspections and testing and committed to supporting the seed industry in Northern France. All participants considered the study visit useful and worthwhile. The programme organised by Desmazieres staff Martine Bernardy and Edouard Fourrier included visits to ware and seed growers as well as to the head quarters of Comite Nord and their arrangements for accommodation in Arras and for lunch time meals and evening dinners were excellent. We are extremely grateful to them for their planning and hospitality.
Participants on the French Study Visit
Eric Anderson Scottish Agronomy
Greg Dawson Scottish Agronomy
Rob Scott McCain
Gordon Stark Greenvale
Sandra Goodfellow SASA
Claire Hodge Potato Council
Andrew Skea Skea Organics
Liz Crossley-Davies Skea Organics
Graeme Currie Agrico UK
Stephen Pedgrift Irish Potato Marketing
Ronnie MacKay PEP/CYGNET
Wednesday 26 June 2013 Travel by Ryanair from Edinburgh to Paris Beauvais
Accommodation in Holiday Inn, Arras
Dinner at Le Carnot restaurant, Arras
Thursday 27 June M Pottiez, Canlers, Basic Seed Grower
Lunch at le Clos de la Prairie restaurant, Gouy St Andre
Visit to McCain grower, Campagne Les Hesdin
M Loisel, seed grower, Vieil Hesden
Dinner at La Bulle d’O, Arras
Friday 27 June Tour of Arras and the Boves
Lunch at Le Boucher, Arras
Visit to Comite Nord Head Quarters
Travel by Ryanair to Edinburgh