Dairy Farmer and the 1000-Cow Nightmare

France’s 349th richest man, Michel Ramery is determined to turn his planned 11 million euro, 1000-cow dairy farm in the Somme into a profitable, consumer-subsidised, biogas electricity supplier, but is he seriously underestimating the locals?

Plans for an battery- chicken style 1000- cow farm in the Somme faces strong local protest
Plans for a ‘battery chicken farm for cows’ in the Somme faces strong local protest

Since August 2011 small farmers in Picardy, eco-warriors and an assortment of outspoken retirees in the villages around the projected farm have dogged his footsteps objecting at every turn to the plan, fighting through the courts and mobilising support nationwide against France’s largest such dairy operation, the SCEA Côte de la Justice the company owning the Mille vaches or 1000-cow farm.

This mega-farm is located in the municipalities of Drucat-le-Plessiel and Buigny-Saint- Maclou (in the communes of Abbeville and Nouvion).  The architect for the project is Eric Mouton, who as activists grouped under the banner of Novissen (the acronym stands for NOs VIllages Se Soucient de leur ENvironnement — our villages care for their environment –) point out also happens to be the mayor of Buigny-Saint- Maclou.

Novissen says M. Mouton has confirmed he was paid 40,000 euros for his professional services plus a trip to a German mega-dairy farm to gather appropriate technical data, but as Mayor, M. Mouton denies allegations of any conflict of interest. He insists the vote by municipal Councillors approving the project was conducted by his deputy.

The opposition to entrepreneur Michel Ramery’s project took a significant turn on March 14 last year when the building permit for his factory farm, restricted at that time to 500 cows, was granted.

The Film clip from France 3 below shows activists in operation:

Then last Thursday (January 17) some 60 anti-Mille Vaches activists coordinated by the Confédération Paysanne, took the protest a stage further squatting on the giant dairy farm under construction near Abbeville, and chaining themselves inside the barn, according to a France 3 report.

This was the latest event in the two-year long guerrilla war waged by opponents of the project. It came just days after the National Assembly January 7, began a week-long debate on the future of French agriculture.

A bill tabled by Agriculture Minister Stéphane Le Foll, aims to strengthen the competitiveness of agriculture, food and forestry sectors, deal with major bones of contention such as genetically modified crops, intensive farming, biogas production and harmonise the French regime with new EU rules for the Common Agriculture Policy (CAP).

The start of the parliamentary debate was marked by a rally against factory farming staged by several radical agricultural unions including the Confédération Paysanne and groups concerned about animal and environmental welfare.

Earlier film clips uploaded to YouTube show scenes of sabotaged building machinery, tractors with punctured tyres and other vandalised heavy earthmoving equipment, as activists made clear their displeasure at the developer’s plan to use a intensively-farmed mega-dairy to generate electricity. More so as EDF (the national power utility) has promised to buy his output at a guaranteed subsidised rate (twice the market price), for the next fifteen years.

The squat was kept secret until it shortly after 8am on a rainy Thursday morning when 60 activists from Brittany and the Vosges symbolically chained themselves to posts holding up the barn on a site located between the towns of Drucat and Buigny- St-Maclou near Abbeville.

Their fight is supported by one of France’s best-known grassroots activists, the Euro-MEP José Bové, who once blocked McDonalds from setting up near the famous Millau bridge in the Aveyron and who has been strong supporter of the 40-year-clash and occupation of farming land designated for the new airport at Nantes formerly the fiefdom of Socialist Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault.

Listen to the clip of the Radio France Bleu report by Elodie Touchais:

The fight between the developer and his opponents has been long and unpleasant according to a November 2013 report by Sylvain Mouillard in Libération.

At Drucat in the Somme, the reporter writes,  construction magnate Michel Ramery intends to install an intensively-farmed, 1,000-cow herd on 5.7 ha, the largest such dairy farm in France. Drucat is a small quiet village in a cosy countryside setting, a few kms from Abbeville, in the Somme.

Visitors arriving there will see little that suggests it has become the epicentre of resistance to agribusiness, except for fluorescent yellow signs dotting street lights and front gates all bearing the same message: “Shut the factory farm, No to 1000 cows!”

The farm hopes to open this Spring and will eventually house 1,000 dairy cows in a 234m long barn. The cows will be contained in stalls where they will be fed, milked three times a day and rather than put out to pasture to graze and meander will have access to a restricted 10.5 m2 space outside the barn.

Additionally the 5.7ha farm will be home to 750 calves and heifers. Finally, a 1.5-megawatt biogas plant will be set up in an adjoining forest to convert cattle manure into electricity for sale to the national grid.

The total investment amounts to 11 million euros. The man behind the project is Michel Ramery who made his estimated at €120 million fortune in construction and related sectors.

His biography is well known to his opponents who have grouped together in the Novissen Association. For two years Novissen has fought the planning application and subsequent construction work through the courts.

Francis Chastagner 62, a retired English teacher, said: “when he first came here, Ramery did not think he was going to come up against a motivated group of active pensioners.”

Initially the group mobilised to protect their way of life, and because they feared the project would lead to polluting smells permeating the village. They also had animal welfare concerns. “But, as we learnt more of the plans, it has become clear that this involves much more, it is about society’s choices and the future agricultural model for France,” Francis Chastagner added.

From Novissen’s point of view the Ramery project is full of errors. In health terms the barn is located just 600m and downwind from the closest homes in the hamlet of Plessiel.

Residents are worried by the high concentration of livestock which they claim increases the risk of an outbreak of disease.

“The herds will be pumped full of preventative antibiotics” claims Vincent Chombart, spokesman for the Confédération Paysanne in the Somme. The planned biogas digester provokes other concerns. A public inquiry into the plant concluded that “in terms of toxic and carcinogenic risks to neighbouring populations” it would have an “acceptable” impact. That word “acceptable” is what worries the activists: “In Germany, an installation of this size and power must be located at least 2 km from the nearest homes,” says Michel Kfoury, a medical doctor who heads Novissen.

"No to the 1000 cows" mega farm posters dot the surrounding villages

“No to the 1000 cows” mega farm posters dot the surrounding villages

Treatment of the waste from the anaerobic digester is also problematic. The plans are to produce 40,000 tonnes of “digestate” per year, but for now, the Ramery group does not own sufficient land on which to spread the sludge. Of the 2,700 hectares required, it currently has 1000ha. The prefecture has thus licensed an operation for just 500 cows. Except that the building permit provides for installations able to hold 1,000 cows.

“Ramery’s goal is to have enough cow dung to run his digester, says Michel Kfoury, “he is not interested in milk production.”

Biogas generation of electricity has advantages. Preferential tax treatment, state aid … it is an agricultural “perversion” according to its opponents, especially as EDF guarantees to buy all the energy produced at twice the market price and for a period of fifteen years.

In a separate 16 November 2013 profile of the developer Sylvain Mouillard writes: “For its opponents the Michel Ramery project is a symbol of all the excesses of ‘agribusiness’ ”.

While this is their main argument against the 1,000-cow farm another factor helps crystallise their discontent: the person of Michel Ramery himself, the man funding this megafarm and its biogas plant.

“He does not deploy an agricultural approach while his controversial image does not help,” says Barbara Pompili, (EE-LV) or Greens deputy for the Somme.

This “controversial image”, relates first of all to his “financial” success, a factor regularly invoked by his farm project opponents.

“We have nothing against the project as such, but his kind of outside investor is not the type we seek to promote”, says Olivier Thibaut secretary general of the Somme milk producers association. “We prefer to see such projects implemented by groups of independent young farmers because we know very well that Mr. Ramery’s future employees will not be given any say in the enterprise.”

Philippe Beauchamp, CEO of the Ramery Group criticised this “profile” of an employer he has known for 30 years. “These critics call him a financier, but he comes from an agricultural family. He worked from the age of 14 with his parents, who were farmers in Erquinghem-Lys (North). Still today he sleeps in the room where he grew up as a child.”

According to the CEO, Michel Ramery is not afraid of getting his hands dirty. “He spent the summer harvesting. He would go to bed 5am and get up at 8am to resume the task. “

Ramery Group is a diversified operation involved in public works, construction, environment, waste management: in 2013 it employed 3550 people and had a turnover of € 541 million.

But says Philippe Beauchamps despite this Michel Ramery has more ambitions. “He has had this dairy farm project in mind now for four or five years”. In 2009, Ramery in partnership with local milk producers launched a dairy company, “Lait pis carde,” a structure that allowed him to build up a herd of cows. He is also managing director of the agricultural company “Côte de la justice”, set up to operate the 1,000-cow mega-farm.

Henri Gauret Mayor of Drucat, remembers his first meeting in late 2010 with Michel Ramery. “I had no preconceived ideas about this mega-farm. Mr. Ramery chartered a private plane for 40 people and took us to Germany to visit farms of this type there near Hamburg and Bremen. I went along, but insisted on paying my own way and just as well I did.”

In the Somme, the contractor’s methods are the subject of much debate. All sorts of rumours circulate about his alleged close connections to local elected officials and other notables in the area. Farmers themselves hesitate to speak out openly. “Many do not dare too say clearly they are against the project,” said Henri Gauret. A dairy farmer confirmed this: “We want to stay out of the controversy,” apparently because of the supposed influence Ramery has with Crédit Agricole, the key farm sector bank.

There is also the sensitive issue of land, which Ramery needs for spreading the slurry. “He acquired the land at two to three times its real price , said Claude Dubois, of Novissen. “This is an obstacle to young farmers.”

The contested dairy farm planned closely follows this format.

The contested dairy farm planned closely follows this format.

All the intensive lobbying against the Ramery project is not the last word either. On 12 September 2013, Michel Kfoury, president of Novissen, filed a complaint about threatening behaviour with the Abbeville gendarmerie, following an altercation on the farm site with Michel Ramery, who allegedly threatened to damage Kfoury’s home in retribution for all the hassle the activists were causing.

The Ramery group did not respond to the Libération’ reporter when contacted about these claims. A spokesman did however say: “We have taken a decision not to discuss this project any further. We have invested a lot of time and money there and the feedback has been very bad, just making matters worse. We do not wish to pour oil on the flames and on a very controversial subject.”

Franck Berton, Ramery’s Lille -based lawyer, confirms the situation is tense and noted that his client had filed several complaints after being subjected to “insults, threats and vandalism.”

Story: Ken Pottinger


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