A modern, organic and entrepreneurial orchard – EARL Vergers des Pruneraies

Clément and Philippe Sfiligoï are arboriculturists in the South-West of France. Philippe, as a pioneer, converted the farm to organic farming fifteen years ago. Clément, his son, is in the process of setting up and wants to diversify the farm’s offer by producing nuts, pears and quinces.

Both convinced by the need of a sustainable fruit orchards that respects the environment, they are developing innovative practices to boost the soil and biodiversity in orchards: cultural associations, robotization, plant cover, etc.

With an approach focused on discovering new horizons (labels, practices, crop varieties, machines, etc.), they consider that success depends on continuous improvement and the sharing of information and feedbacks.

The farm        

Les Vergers des Pruneraies is a family tree farm that enters now in its fourth generation. It is located in the south of France, in Lot-et-Garonne, which is characterized by an oceanic climate. The Protected Indication of Origin (PIO) Pruneau d’Agen (Indication d’Origine Protégée in French) is a local label that gathers some specifications especially related to the process of the fruits. The area of production is large since it embraces six French departments: Lot-et-Garonne is one of them and almost entirely covered by this area. The Ente prune is the required variety to produce plums under this label.

Doubly valued, the plum production of the farm benefits from the organic label which rewards environmental practices and from the PIO which values the traditional know-how. The organic label also concerns the other fruit productions of the farm which leads to a better payment when commercialised.

The owners have looked for modernisation and optimisation of their fields tasks while producing qualitative fruits. They work with five permanent employees and one of them is the manager of the team.

Besides, Philippe is involved in the local development of organic and entrepreneurial farming since he is also the president of the apple cooperative.

Development paths               

After his parents immigrated from Slovenia in 1926 and started the plums cultivation, Philippe’s father took over the farm and developed the apple production in the orchards. In the 1980s, Philippe took over the family business. At the beginning of the 2000s, Philippe considered that ‘it was a stupid job, not interesting, not rewarding, with no technical solution, only dead ends. A bad image of fruit cultivation in short, only negative.’ He thought he was going to stop his activity, but ‘then the organic farming came along’.

For him, the conversion to organic farming had been a long and complicated journey for the first few years – mainly because trees needed time to adapt to a new way of cultivating. Also, fifteen years ago, organic agriculture had a closed-minded look and was less popularized and modern than today. Even if he went through a period full of doubts, he still decided to meet the challenge of organic fruit cultivation. His neighbours and colleagues were sceptical ‘you will work all alone, with a beard, you will go bankrupt, etc.’. Fortunately, things are quickly working and ‘this is rewarding!’.

Now, Philippe handed the farm over to his son Clément. After six years of law school, Clément decided to undertake a professional reorientation, becoming an arboriculturist. Currently, he is completing his diploma thanks to an Accreditation of Prior Learning (APL). It allows him to benefit from installation subsidies. He diversifies the farm through the production of quince, new varieties of pears and plums and continues to develop robotization at the farm level.

By producing under the Ente plum label from the beginning of its creation, the farm has been placed on high value-added agricultural production market. Even if problems in structuring the sector still occur, Philippe and Clément want to keep this production because it is traditional and also because they have the proper equipment to carry out the transformation.

In order to strengthen their credibility and the quality of their work, they aim to obtain the Demeter label through a farm audit that will be carried out by the end of 2019. They have been interested in biodynamics for three years and are looking to broaden their vision of arboriculture to make it more sustainable.

Business model                       

Commercial strategy

For their entire production, the commercial strategy is based on a supply chain approach: the packaging and storage are handled entirely by cooperatives. Each kind of fruit, which is produced on the farm, is managed by a specific cooperative. Philippe is the president of the cooperative responsible for apples. A commercial company affiliated with each cooperative carries out the sale. Three sales channels are used to distribute the products:

  • Specific stores (organic supermarkets);
  • Marketers in order to reach a larger number of small stores and thus optimize their efficiency and effectiveness;
  • Large and medium-sized supermarkets e.g.: Carrefour, which is a long-standing commercial partner of the operation and which tends to remain so (‘it [the Carrefour partnership] is going well’). The demand for organic products is constantly growing, which ensures a certain sustainability for the future of the partnership. With this collaboration, Clément and Philippe intend to pursue the development of contracts with other agro-industrial actors

First years

The installation of an arboriculture requires investments of at least 50,000 € per ha for labelled PIO plum and apple orchards (based on a calculation accounting for operating expenses and structural expenses).

Concerning the transition to organic farming, it takes three years of conversion (i.e. between the application of the production method under organic farming and the sale of fruits under the organic farming label). Especially within the first years, the subsidies strongly helped to compensate for the consequences of changing practices (yield diminishes due to tree adaptation) without being able to get premium prices for organic products. In addition, during conversion period climatic conditions were very complicated which resulted in very low yields. Since then, yields have been adjusted and accounts regulated, which makes the operation prosperous.

Labour force

Five permanent employees including a crop manager are working on the 80 ha farm. This organization allows the owners to free up time to discover new innovative practices (varieties, robotics, etc.) without impacting the farm’s production. Regarding the seasonal work (thinning, picking, pruning), it has been difficult to find and/or maintain staff. That is why they seek to address this lack of staff through innovative practices and robotization.

Innovative practices                                         

The conversion to organic farming has had an impact on the protection of pear crops and the development of orchard biodiversity. One of the major pests of this crop is pear psylla: a sucking insect that causes fruit rot. During conventional production periods, orchards were continuously attacked by psylla despite repeated chemical treatments. During the transition period to organic farming, treatments stopped and two years later, the psylla disappeared. This was mainly due to the development of biodiversity and more precisely of cultivation aids (such as bugs that are psylla predators). ‘This [integrated pest management] is encouraging in organic farming’. Since then, Philippe and now Clément have been developing innovative practices to minimize labour, develop biodiversity and regenerate the soil:

  • Plant cover: between two periods of orchard cultivation, they sow plant cover to coat the soil and regenerate it. Cultivate annual crops such as legumes (faba beans) or some herbaceous plants (flax) require new skills that they needed to develop or to reactivate from their farming education. In a sustainable agriculture and conservation approach, Philippe and Clément learn and practice the implementation of the plant cover (‘we rediscover things’). To go further in this approach, they have just invested in a seed drill to allow them to sow under plant cover and thus limit tillage.
  • Arboriculture – beekeeping association: For several years now, the farm has been working with a beekeeper who puts his fixed apiaries in the orchards. The collaboration is a twofold benefit. The mortality rate among apiaries has gone from 40 % to 1 % within three years. On Philippe´s and Clément´s side, welcoming apiaries into their orchards underlines the quality of their work: ‘we leave bees in our orchards so we don’t do anything randomly’. Indeed, the presence and positioning of apiaries have both an impact on the technical itinerary choices of arborists.
  • Installation of flowering strips: In line with their will to boost ecosystems within orchards, Philippe and Clément have positioned flowering strips in between rows. In addition to providing greater resource for bee pollination, they are observing an increasing biodiversity within their orchards. ‘It’s funny nature, it comes back very quickly. When you move away from the orchard, you see the herbs, you see a lot of things: ladybugs certainly but also hoverflies, wild bees, etc. ‘
  • Passage in a fruit wall: In order to reduce the pruning work of apple trees as much as possible, they have tested the technique of fruit walls and are satisfied with it. They use a machine to thin these orchards. They are also experimenting the “zero size” technique on other orchards, including the most productive one, which has not been pruned for twenty years.

Future                                        

For a few years now, Philippe and Clément have been ‘feeling that we will have to adapt’. Combined with random and recurrent storms, production maturity and tree behaviour are some factors that reflect changes in interactions and growing cycles from year to year. In addition, the seasonal work required for orchard management is labour intensive. Unfortunately, finding working force appears to be more and more complicated because tasks in orchards are tedious and they are precarious work.

These two main reasons explain why the farm seeks to robotize as much as possible: ‘the future of fruit cultivation will depend on its robotization’. Together with innovative practices regarding crop size and protection, robotic farming would allow them to have access to more information and technical data. So that, they would be able to refine the technical itinerary in real time (irrigation, thinning, harvesting, etc.) and limit the number of workers in orchards.

Tips for the learner                

  • Share your information, your practices and your experience with others and stay informed about innovations (technical, managerial, commercial, etc.)
  • Choose trees plots placed in different localisations to limit the risk of damage to orchards in the event of localized storms / bad weather
  • Fruit cultivation has a higher reactivity time than annual crops: ‘trees are big vessels, it takes time, you don’t do everything at once’. Especially for the application of innovative practices, even if technical, economic and financial criteria are met, time and logistics are often the limiting factors in the implementation of the idea.

Authors: Amélie COLLE, Marie-Anne PAULIN