French farmers are in a bit of a pickle

Gherkins

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TESS VIGELAND: For years French farmers have led the charge against globalization, but now some are being forced to admit their best choice is "go along to get along." Believe it or not the front line in this battle includes miniature pickles, cornichons. They're considered the national condiment in France, but now cornichon farmers are learning to compete with producers from countries like India.

Anita Elash reports from Appoigny, in the Burgundy region of France.


ANITA ELASH: Florent Jeannequin has been growing tiny cucumbers to make cornichons on this parcel of land for 27 years. He used to be one of nearly 30 cornichon farmers in the area. They sold most of their produce directly to French food processer Maille-Amora. Its factory is just down the street, but then Maille-Amora changed hands, and its way of doing business.

FLORENT JEANNEQUIN: In 2004 Maille-Amora told us it was over. They would stop contracting with us because our cornichons were expensive, and they could buy cornichons for 40 percent less in India, so they said they were ending their relationship with us.

When Maille-Amora stopped buying cornichon from the Appoigny farmers, the growers lost 80 percent of their business. Now Jeannequin is one of just three remaining cucumber farmers in France. To survive they've adapted to the global market. They spent nearly $370 thousand to buy a warehouse and equipment to sort cucumbers by size. Then they learned how to grow bigger cucumbers for other markets, and when to pick them at their best. Now their produce is shipped to Germany for pickling, and sold in Eastern Europe.

JEANNEQUIN: It makes me sick at heart to think my cornichons have to travel 300 to 500 kilometers to be put in jars, when there's a factory right at my feet.

Farmers in France are struggling to compete in world markets. With protective tariffs gone, they've been hard-hit by imports from countries like China and India. Agriculture economist John-Christophe Bureau says that's because production costs in France haven't come down.

JOHN-CHRISTOPHE BUREAU: And because of the production costs, and mainly because of the labor costs, the imports are really much cheaper. So there's really a broad range of fruits and vegetables that now are more and more imported rather than produced locally.

Some farmers are targeting another new market at home -- the French gourmet. Alan Renaudin, a restaurant owner in the Appoigny region, refuses to eat or serve Indian-grown cornichons. He buys his cucumbers directly from Jeannequin, and makes his own pickles. He says importing cornichons from India is like taking the mustard out of Dijon.

ALAN RENAUDIN: I think it would be a shame for France to see the French cornichon disappear completely from our territory. If we call ourselves the leading gastronomic country in the world, we have to continue to make our traditional dishes with products grown on our own land.

The challenge in the next few years will be to see if farmers can do that, and still earn a decent living.

In the Burgundy region of France, I'm Anita Elash for Marketplace.

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