THE OLDEST PIVOT STILL OPERATING IN FRANCE IS 47 YEARS OLD AND IS SITUATED IN THE LANDES REGION
by Fleur Martin
Irrigazette n°181 (2020 November/december)
Francis Dubourg, the owner-occupier since 2004, welcomed us onto the farm. He was accompanied by José Maya, an irrigation dealer in Cestas, now retired, and his son, the owner of the neighbouring farm. Francis Dubourg’s farm covers 335 hectares, including 320 ha cultivated and 15 ha fallow. He grows seed maize (seed corn), grain maize (grain corn), potatoes and green beans and he has 10 pivot machines in total for irrigating the whole farm (7 pivots and 3 linear move machines).
MAIZE (CORN), POTATOES AND GREEN BEANS ARE GROWN ON THE FARM
We got back into the car and headed for the field with the oldest pivot still operating in France. Beans are grown in this field; this is the second crop of the season. Mr. Dubourg explained to us: “We planted on 8th May and 10th May, then we had very heavy rains, so we lost everything and had to plant again. Fortunately, we were covered by the insurance”. The beans were reseeded a short time afterwards and then reseeded two months later, 3rd August, after the first harvest. “There is now some uncertainty about the success of the second harvest because the crop was reseeded too late “, explained Mr. Dubourg: “The crop is generally harvested 63 days after seeding/planting, which would take us up to 6th October. There is then a risk of frost”. For the beans and seed corn, Mr. Du bourg has entered into a contract with the cooperative Lur Berri, which reduces the risks because they are the ones who decide when to plant and when to harvest. They are leasing the land to a certain extent.
The fact that he has a contract is a kind of insurance for the farmer, who is practically certain of receiving a specific amount at the end of the season, even though the canners have tended to reduce the margins for the farmers over these last three years. “ln supermarkets and hypermarkets, the consumers always want to have the lowest prices, and that has
repercussions throughout the whole of the chain “, explained Mr. Dubourg.
“The canners see how we are doing with the maize (corn) and then they set the price for the beans.” And he continues: “But when we have a contract for the beans, then we really want to keep it. Even more so since I only have one employee on the farm”. The neighbouring field has been put down to potatoes, which bad already been lifted. Mr. Dubourg also has a contract for the potatoes, with a neighboring farmer, Samuel Allix, who supplies the supermarkets. He has decided to diversify into different crops because the profit margins for the maize ( corn) are too volatile: “when I bought the farm, the price of maize was € 200 per tonne, it was € 100 3 years later and now it is around € 150. When we plant the maize, we don’t know what the selling price will be. That is why I have decided to grow potatoes as well as beans.” The profit margins are better for the beans than for maize. However, the low-height crops have lightly more constraints than maize: For some low-height crops, Brussels is ob1iging the farmers to rotate and apply green manure in winter in order to re-fertilise the land and preserve soil structure. This is not the case for maize, though: “we were able to grow nothing but maize for 30 years because the maize refertilises the soil”, commented Mr. Dubourg. Out of the 320 ha of arable land, Mr. Dubourg only grows 20 ha of maize in his own right. The remainder is grown under contract.
“THEY HAVE BEEN IRRIGATING NON-STOP FOR TWO WEEKS”
“We didn ’t have a single drop of rain between 20th June and JOthAugust”, explained Mr. Dubourg. The summer of 2020 has been one of the hottest and driest since temperaturerecords began. The farmer says that he irrigated non-stop during the two summer months, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. For the maize, the pivots were operating continuously. For the potatoes and green beans, irrigation was applied as required: two cycles per week were necessary. Fortunately, Mr. Dubourg is not short of water because his farm lies on the groundwater table of the Landes, which has an abundance of water. This water, which cornes from the Pyrenees, is ferruginous (high iron content) so it is unfit for human consumption. This is a specific feature of the Landes. “We are lying on top of a giant sponge”, explained Mr. Maya. In the summer, the groundwater table falls to a depth of 10 metres and in the winter, it cornes back up to the 2.50 metre mark. Mr. Dubourg told us a little more about the pivot in question. “This pivot is a simple F63. It is more than 47 years old and it was installed by my predecessor, Joël Delacour, when he bought the farm in 1972, while he was clearing the land”. At that time, the pivot was built by Irrifrance and installed by Irriland (which became Otech). The previous owner had the vegetable patch at Cassy. He grew fruit and vegetables (strawberries … ), but Mr. Dubourg discontinued with the vegetable patch for the sake of simplicity. Some time after having bought the farm, Mr. Dubourg added the remote-control feature to his pivots.
He showed me the old control box that had been installed at the time. “In the evening, before switching off the lights, I quickly check my mobile phone and I can then sleep in peace “, he said. In fact, a few years ago, two of his pivots were involved in a collision and collapsed. It then took a week to repair them. “If this had happened during the season, it could have been disastrous for the crops.” He explained. It was after this event that he decided to become equipped with a GPS system (RainLoc by Otech) and he connected up the two pivots in the fields where they were operating so as to prevent them from crossing over. The system costs € 1,200 per device; it can also be used on the linear move machines. He will eventually have to connect all the devices. The dealers maintain our farmer’s current fleet of pivots and are responsible, for example, for replacing the pipes and dealing with any damage. “They were in the right business”, commented José Maya. But today the famous F63 has a pierced tube and it is at the end of its life after 47 years of loyal service. It will have to be replaced this winter because it will be too risky to start another season with it in this condition: “If it fails me at the height of the season, that would be a disaster.” He is going to make use of the opportunity to redesign the pumping station and convert the pivot to a low-pressure system.
He must also order a second pivot; on one of his fields there is a kind of regrouping of agricultural lots and a corner has not been irrigated. The second pivot will allow us to cover that missing quarter turn. It will thus increase the arable area by 10 ha. Therefore, he is going to purchase an 8-span pivot to replace the old one and another 9-span pivot, with control boxes, giving a total investment of€ 110,000. I asked him about the VRI system, which allows for irrigation to be adjusted for different points in the field. According to Mr. Dubourg “That will be the next step. I have a field of maize ( corn) which is very uneven, at Cestas, irrigated with a 12-span pivot. I have a very wet area in the middle of the field, which is overirrigated. It would be good if I could divide up the applications of irrigation water”. During the irrigation season, Mr. Dubourg is supported by the GRCETA (Agricultural Research and Development Group from the Landes). Out of the 200 farmers who irrigate in the Landes region, one hundred are members of GRCETA. The organisation regularly sends them advice about their irrigation. There is a pilot farm equipped with moisture sensors in the Galabon region, which allows them to know in an instant the precise amount of water that must be applied, for each type of crop. “This information is very useful”, commented the farmer. The GRCETA also organises several meetings throughout the year, one in June, one in September and two in the winter, which allows the members to exchange information with other farmers. “However, the September gathering has been cancelled because of the Coronavirus”, laments Mr. Dubourg. I asked him about being organic: “We are not organic, but our farming is sustainable and reasoned. We apply water and inputs in the best way possible at the right moment and in minimal amounts”.