Nantes: “It’s untenable for us…” A coveted specialty, lamb’s lettuce once again stings its crisis

It’s a winter salad that has look and taste, which makes it particularly popular during the holiday season. The lamb’s lettuce harvest season, which will last about six months, has just started. A period synonymous with peak activity in market gardeners in the Nantes basin, where the vast majority of this product comes from. However, the context is particularly delicate this year due to a sharp increase in constraints and production costs. Point.

What does lamb’s lettuce represent for Nantes?

Between 30,000 and 35,000 tonnes of lamb’s lettuce are produced each year, generally in the open field, in the Nantes region. That is more than 85% of national production. “It is a quality salad, demanding, which appreciates the moderate winter and the sandy soil of the edges of the Loire”, explains Régis Chevallier, president of Qualifrais, the association of management of the IGP mache Nantes. The activity, which developed strongly after the Second World War, today employs around 200 companies and around 4,000 employees from Loire-Atlantique and Vendée.

Are consumers loyal?

French demand for lamb’s lettuce is stable but the craze for young shoots and sprouted seeds, competing products, does not allow it to look to the future with serenity. Outside of Europe, lamb’s lettuce still appeals to northern countries, particularly Germany. Nearly a third of Nantes’ production is exported there. A market that German market gardeners cannot supply due to climatic conditions, but that Italian growers covet more and more.

Why are Nantes producers angry?

Because the costs of inputs essential to the culture of lamb’s lettuce have increased sharply in recent months: + 10% on the price of sand, + 45% on fertilizers, + 50% on the price of plastic film reels, according to the Faculty. Not to mention that the cost of gas and fuel has also gone up. ” This is unheard of. Our margins are now extremely small ”, Regis Chevallier warns. “We are reaching an overflow,” confirms Laurent Bergé, president of Océane, the main vegetable cooperative in the Nantes basin. Producers can no longer absorb these additional costs on their own. We must find a solution otherwise we will not be able to get out of the mash. As if that were not enough, the ban on plastic packaging and rubber bands on January 1, 2022 will result in additional packaging costs deemed to be “significant”.

Lamb's lettuce is a specialty of the Nantes area (illustration).
Lamb’s lettuce is a specialty of the Nantes area (illustration). – F. Elsner / 20Minutes

Is the metam-sodium crisis digested?

In October 2018, metam-sodium was suspended and then banned by the state after several intoxications of agricultural workers. Deemed dangerous to health and the environment, this pesticide was previously commonly used to cleanse soils before lamb’s lettuce is planted. The profession therefore had to urgently test new weeding methods, such as the use of steam or the so-called false sowing technique. “Overall, labor needs and costs have increased,” says Régis Chevallier, who also remembers having to “throw a lot of lamb’s lettuce” due to illnesses during the winter of 2019-2020. Organic has developed but remains very much in the minority.

What solutions are the producers asking for?

To support the additional production costs, the profession therefore claims a repercussion on the price sold on the shelves. But this requires an agreement with wholesalers and mass distribution, who also defend their margins while not wishing to undermine the purchasing power of consumers. “We have to increase prices. We no longer have a choice. The box of lamb’s lettuce at 0.99 euros in the supermarket, for example, is untenable for us. If we don’t want to import everything from abroad, we have to give ourselves the means ”, proclaims Régis Chevallier. “I think consumers are willing to spend a few more pennies. Distributors can also cut a little of their margin. The effort is not that great if everyone plays the game, ”said Laurent Bergé. At the same time, the industry is considering revitalizing the image of lamb’s lettuce in order to “give it back its value”. A Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) already exists around the name “Nantes mache” but it is little known to the general public. “At one point, we may have bet too much on volumes, considers the president of Océane. There is a work of recognition on the quality that must be operated to bounce back. This is what the Muscadet did. We can succeed, but we will only succeed if we are united among ourselves. “