Despite closing weekly markets during the two-month lockdown, farmers in the French region of Hérault have succeeded in continuing or expanding direct sales to their customers through new channels. Now that all the stalls have reopened, some of them are struggling to keep up with demand.
At a market in Montpellier, Véronique and Antoine serve the queue of customers wearing masks, who wait their turn under the watchful eye of a public security officer.
The couple is up to their necks in work. With their delivery basket system, which they had used during the lockdown, and the subsequent reopening of “normal” markets in June, the 24 hours in a day are barely enough to satisfy demand, confounding previous fears about coronavirus restrictions.
“During the lockdown, a completely new type of clientele from the immediate neighbourhood suddenly appeared, buying directly from our farm. Today, they also come to the market. It’s high season in production and it’s getting really difficult to manage the workload,” explains Antoine.
The announcement of market closures for at least two months had initially caused anxiety among local producers, as well as frustration that the strong demand for products from the region might not be sufficiently met.
A few communities, however, managed to maintain their weekly market even during the lockdown. This resulted in bizarre scenes such as those in Murvielle, a small town near Montpellier, where “the stalls were completely empty at 10AM,” recalls Mayor Elisabeth Touzard.
Markets not collapsed
The feared loss of sales simply did not occur for a large part of the producers organised in local supply chains. No matter whether by direct sales on the farm, thanks to delivery offers, with distribution points for previously ordered baskets of goods in parking lots and marketplaces in the cities, the producers reached their target group.
“It is even difficult for some of our producers to continue to use all these systems,” confirms Bénédicte Firmin of Civam Bio34, an association for the development of organic farming in the Hérault region. Her association is in turn a member of InPACT 34 (Initiatives pour une agriculture citoyenne et territoriale), an organisation that promotes the distribution of agricultural products at a local and regional level.
Just two weeks after the lockdown, InPACT34 was able to organise four weekly ‘farmers’ trips’ in Montpellier alone, which brought products to the surrounding towns and communities in conformity with safety regulations.
The system is as simple as it is practical. After placing an order on the Internet, customers were able to collect their vegetables, cheese, meat, wine, etc. directly from the producers, who were present at distribution points approved by the municipal authorities. “The results of these two months – with more than 1,800 orders from about forty producers – were a great success,” Firmin notes with satisfaction.
Good cooperation, good future prospects?
The local organisational structure, which was formed at short notice in response to the lockdown restrictions, was thus able to contribute to further sales opportunities and a strengthening of the short local supply chains. This was also made possible by institutions such as chambers of agriculture, city and departmental authorities, which circulated lists of local producers and appealed to the public to contact farms directly.
The success of the new direct sales channels could well continue. In a survey of customers at the distribution stations, 147 people expressed their willingness to continue using the pre-order system in their neighbourhood, according to InPACT 34.
According to a second regional survey conducted by Interbio Occitanie in June 2020, 20% of the 324 organic producers surveyed expect to change their marketing and distribution methods in the long term after the COVID-19 crisis.
Meanwhile, slightly more than half of the companies surveyed stated that their income had remained stable or even increased during the crisis. According to the study, vegetable growers in particular have been extremely successful.
However, among those farmers and other producers who suffered a drop in sales, some reported having lost more than half of their usual revenue.
Due to the prolonged closure of restaurants, the winegrowers in particular suffered a drop in sales. Livestock farmers and meat producers faced similar problems, and the effects were felt particularly by those of them who had previously been responsible for local catering for public authorities, especially through short supply chains. The closure of all canteens dried up their main sources of income.
Unlike vegetable farmers, for many winegrowers and cattle breeders direct sales, via whatever innovative channels, were not sufficient to compensate for the massive losses due to the lockdown.