The lentil sector of Le Puy fights to save the “green gold” of gourmets

published Sunday 20 November 2022 at 20:07

Will climate change get the better of the Le Puy green lentil? In Haute-Loire, the low yields of recent harvests, linked to extreme weather phenomena, are worrying growers and packers, who are fighting to save “the gold of Velay”.

Philippe Gire has been cultivating this legume for twenty years near Saint-Martin-de-Fugères and has never experienced such a “critical” year: three quintals per hectare against fourteen in 2016, his “best vintage”.

“It is the gold of the Puy. They are very precious lentils, each grain counts,” assures Huguette Trescarte, manager of a harvesting and packaging company.

The drought and extreme heat of July interrupted the ripening of the seeds. Result: the pods – each usually containing two grains – were empty, the harvest was “complicated” because the plants were small, explains Philippe Gire.

However, the 44-year-old farmer, who also raises dairy cows, wants to keep this supplement to put “butter in spinach.” Like him, most lentil farmers are also shepherds and appreciate the extra income.

This organic producer is doing well thanks to direct sales: with new consumption habits, “there’s a lot of demand,” he explains.

Cultivated on volcanic soils in the middle of the mountains, between 600 and 1,200 meters in altitude, the green lentil of Le Puy, a treasure for gourmets who pride themselves on its bluish marbling and light nutty flavour, is the only one benefit from a Denomination of Controlled Origin (AOP).

Protected from the perturbations of the mountains that surround the area, it benefits from a microclimate characterized by a foehn effect, a dry wind which gives a less floury seed, according to the AOP website.

But the extreme drought of recent summers, or on the contrary intense rainy episodes as in 2021, have upset this balance: “The rise in temperatures leads to a marked increase in evapotranspiration with a marked drying up of the soil”, explains David Marchal, contact person territory of Météo France.

In the last decade, the average temperature is close to 11°C in the Le Puy area and could rise to 15°C by the end of the century: “with an increase of +4°C, rainfall should triple and periods of drought to be multiplied by 5”, according to the meteorologist.

-“Breathless”-

“The yields have been worse for ten years. Before, an average year was around seven, eight quintals/hectare. Today we are happy if we get there”, explains Franck Rocher, president of the Le Puy green lentil AOP. The 2022 harvest painfully reaches an average of 4.5 quintals/hectare.

As a result, cultivated areas are decreasing, as is the number of producers: in 2000, production represented 5,000 hectares and 1,250 producers, halved to 2,500 hectares and 550 producers in 2022.

If “the green lentil in general is in competition with other cultures”, for that of Puy “we are in apnea”, deplores Huguette Trescarte.

The Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region injected 2.5 million in the spring to save the sector, but “we have many fears for the 2023 harvest because farmers need grass and will prefer to replenish their forage stocks rather than sowing lentils” , says the company executive.

With the rain and then the mildness of October, the fields are green again anyway, which should improve supplies and bring some hope.

“We hold on, we believe in it, because we think stopping would be heartbreaking,” Ms. Trescarte says. Le Puy’s green lentil occupied 50% of her company’s working hours, “less than 10%” today.

Due to lack of volumes, it had to replace “Velay gold” with lentils grown in central France to supply the brands of major distributors.

Its sales of AOP lentils are now regionally limited under its own brand “La Ponote” or in certain specialty shops.

For Franck Rocher, “the risk is very high in this sector”. He proposes a change of strategy involving harvesters and growers: “a kilo of lentils is sold to the consumer for 10 euros, we are paid 2.30 euros. The producer has difficulty orienting himself and the lentils are no longer worth gold”.

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