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AMAP - Associations pour le maintien d'une agriculture paysanne

France's small-scale organic farmers celebrate 10 years of boxing clever. Scheme provides consumers with direct access to produce and allows growers to plan for the long term

Pauline Curtet and Laurence Girard, Guardian Weekly, Tuesday 10 April 2012

Originally from Le Monde. 3 Apr 12:

Ces associations organisent la vente directe du producteur au consommateur pour défendre l'agriculture paysanne. Une tasse de café à la main, sourire aux lèvres, Vivien Lamouret, trentenaire, décrit son métier de maraîcher qu'il aime tant. Il est installé à Mareil-sur-Mauldre (Yvelines) et écoule tous ses légumes biologiques en passant par un circuit « court » : celui des Associations pour le maintien d'une agriculture paysanne (AMAP). Les AMAP permettent à un consommateur de rencontrer directement un producteur. Le premier s'engage, plusieurs mois à l'avance, à acheter un panier hebdomadaire au second. Vivien Lamouret travaille avec deux AMAP, dans lesquelles les consommateurs paient vingt paniers d'avance.

Vivien Lamouret, 30-ish, is only too happy to explain his work as a market-gardener. Based at Mareil-sur-Mauldre, a village 40km west of Paris, he sells all the organic vegetables he grows direct to consumers, thanks to the system invented by the Associations for the Preservation of Peasant Farming (Amap).

By joining an Amap, consumers deal directly with growers, committing themselves several months ahead of the harvest to buy a selection of fruit and vegetables from a particular farmer. Lamouret works with two groups, in which consumers pay in advance for 20 boxes. "It makes things so much easier. I can plan my earnings over several months before starting to sell the goods," he explains. He joined the scheme in 2005.

In his greenhouses, which extend over about 1,200 square metres, green sprouts are poking out of the neatly tilled earth, the beginnings of countless carrots, lettuces and spinach plants. At the height of the season he works 60 or 70 hours a week.

The first Amap groups started in 2001 and now there are almost 1,600, with regular deliveries of 66,000 boxes to some 270,000 consumers.

The buyers, referred to as Amapiens, prefer fairly small groups. "We distribute 60 boxes a week. To maintain a local spirit we don't want to get any bigger. It's hard enough as it is to know everybody," says Charles Brossolet, head of Les Lapereaux des Thermopyles, an Amap operating in the 14th arrondissement of Paris. To cope with demand other groups have been set up in the neighbourhood, he says.

Market-gardeners are struggling to keep up. Christine Aubry, an agronomist at France's National Institute for Agricultural Research (Inra), has identified "265 groups ready to launch an Amap but unable to find suppliers".

François Pelatan, who contributed to developing Amaps in south-west France, says there have been a few mistakes. "Consumers can sometimes be just a little bit too demanding for growers who are only just starting," he says.

At Vitrolles, near Marseille, Jean-Jacques Anglade also remembers a difficult start: "The first year almost half the group left. They wanted to eat organic at a reasonable price, but weren't the least bit committed to supporting small farmers. Others took their place," he says.

The group now has 80 members. They pay €23 ($30) for a big box of produce or €13 for a small one. Rather than just signing up for a supply of fruit and vegetables, they have joined a partnership with smallholders producing fruit, honey, eggs, meat and organic flour.

Amaps now face increasing competition from shops and supermarkets selling organic food. Even the French rail operator SNCF is distributing boxes. The food industry and retailers increasingly cite local producers in an attempt to authenticate their goods. "But organic retailers import much of what they sell. Some of the boxes on offer are not up to peasant farming standards. And a lot of the growers supplying organic food to big retailers only do one crop," Anglade says.

In the midst of his greenhouses Lamouret readily acknowledges his personal commitment. "I love the land and I respect it too," he says. In the next field he has just planted some fruit trees, to add some extra variety to his boxes.