Seeds: a key to competitiveness for farmers and the cooperative alike

L'activité semences chez Axéréal

Besides being one of Axereal’s historic activities, it is also a promising channel for the future. Seed production has to be considered today of strategic importance within the cooperative, and its significance across the French farming landscape attests to this fact. 

The Group is a leader on the straw cereals market. 11,000 hectares are earmarked for the production of conventional seeds. Axereal can draw on solid infrastructures. In all, 4 plants situated around France (Blois, Issoudun, Lutz-en-Dunois, Moulins-sur-Yèvre) handle the production of 600,000 hundredweight of seeds per year, and there is also a specialised farm in Croatia, at Nova Gradiška.

The cooperative is also France’s number one producer of organic straw cereal and protein crop seed, accounting for 30% of French seed-growing land (2500 hectares). 80,000 hundredweight of seeds from these organic species are marketed annually. What are the reasons for the success of these organic seeds? “We possess several assets to account for this: our experience in this activity, stretching back 25 years; efficient industrial facilities guaranteeing quality seed; an informed choice of seed-growers by our teams in the field; and, lastly, a geographical zone that is particularly suited to this seed-growing activity,” explains Jérôme Fillon, organic seed activities manager

Seeds: a key to competitiveness for Axereal? It most certainly is, according to Jérôme Plé, industrial and agricultural supplies supply chain director of the Group. This is true first and foremost for the cooperative’s farmers: “Our certified seeds offer them added value and allow them to increase their agronomic potential and their yields,” he says. For him, seeds represent the first link in the Axereal farming and food chain. It is a channel in which many services are provided to farmers: agronomic expertise, buoyant markets, as well as a complete offering that is constantly evolving.

This testifies to the strength of the cooperative, leveraging as it does the close relations fostered with the farmers. This close working relationship allows it to appreciate their expectations. “It is very important to have a cooperative that can secure our seed procurement, with seeds that are suited to our territory and its specifics,” says Fabien May, Axereal administrator and arable farmer in the Orne department. This seed production also makes it possible to meet the needs expressed by processors and consumers. For example, he continues, “we have wheat varieties that correspond to the demands of millers, for better working of the grain and flour production according to their requirements.” The production of malting barley seed is also conducted with a constant eye on market expectations. 

Investments on the uptick

While seeds manifestly constitute a true key to competitiveness for farmers, this too applies for the cooperative itself. The activity contributes to the structuring of the business channels within the Group and helps enable the expectations of each of the links in the chain to be met. At the same time, it facilitates strategic forward planning through reflection on the seeds that will need to be offered to farmers tomorrow, in the face of the climate changes to come. “We have developed a special relationship with our seed breeders, enabling us to build the future starting today,” Jérôme Plé goes on to say.

The seeds market is also an important development lever for Axereal, both locally, and also nationally and internationally. “It has been a growth market in recent years,” says Jérôme Plé. For his part, Fabien May adds: “We have been working in particular on growing our business with regard to soybean seeds in central Europe.” The cooperative is today working, moreover, on intensifying this momentum. From 2021, and through to 2025, the investments in the four French seed production plants of the Group will have doubled. This strong commitment shows just how much the seeds activity is today seen as strategic for the Group.

With Fertiberry, seeds tie in with agricultural transitio

Within Axereal Group, the seed producer, Fertiberry, specialises in forage legumes and service crops. Clover, alfalfa, lentils, forage peas… in all, the company markets annually between and 40 and 45,000 hundredweight of such crops, produced by 500 seed-growers on around 6000 hectares. 

Forage production today ties in with market expectations, particularly in France (representing 50% of Fertiberry’s market). “Alfalfa is an essential source of proteins for livestock, and farmers are increasingly looking to be self-sufficient in this regard,” says Pascal Gaucher, operational manager at Fertiberry. These certified seeds are able to offer them this self-sufficiency.

Fertiberry is therefore posting ambitious objectives for the years to come, planning in particular to increase its alfalfa production plan by 50%. At the same time, the company intends to expand geographically the territories where its seeds are grown. Today it is therefore inviting new farmers to join its ranks and participate in this production.

This seed production also offers another significant advantage: it enables wholehearted commitment to the agricultural transition championed by the Axereal Group. The berseem clover or phacelia used, for example, by farmers as secondary crops represent French production “which is positive in terms of the carbon inventory”, as Pascal Gaucher points out. To promote French sourcing, the company has also created this year specific packaging with the label: “Seed produced in France”.

At the same time, the cultivation of legumes “represents a strategic interest in terms of sustainability,” Mr Gaucher goes on to say. “These plants capture the nitrogen in the soil and the air and need no mineral nitrogen. This is positive both economically and environmentally.” Above all, they provide soil enrichment. “Alfalfa, for example, has lots going for it in agronomic terms,” says Pascal Gaucher. “Introducing it in crop rotation brings many benefits.” The operational manager of Fertiberry also points out that “a hectare of alfalfa stores as much carbon as a hectare of forest.” Secondary crops also offer soil coverage and efficient protection against erosion. What is more, the presence of alfalfa plays a positive role in biodiversity, helping to maintain the populations of pollinators.

Lastly, the production of legumes and pulses may constitute a precious asset for farmers in the context of the upcoming CAP 2023, particularly with the new programme modifying the conditionality rules, and introducing a new form of aid designated “ecoregime”. Reflecting on how to run a farm is therefore indispensable before embarking on the new campaign, and the presence of legumes in the field could enable access to this subsidy.


Strategic positioning in central Europe on soybean cultivation

The seed activity represents an economic development driver for the cooperative. This is amply demonstrated by the momentum today of the Group in central Europe, where Axereal is a major producer of seed, and particularly of cereals. It has a presence across all the countries of the zone, with a strategic approach based on an efficient supply chain. Soybean cultivation has also grown markedly in these lands in recent years. “In 2009, in Hungary, the area covered by soybean cultivation amounted to 29,000 hectares; in 2021, this had grown to 64,000 hectares”, says Janos Nemes, regional representative in Baranya county. This is a trend which, according to him, is likely to continue unabated: “The rising price of fertilizers in 2021 made soybean an all the more interesting prospect, since it requires fewer inputs than other crops. The areas it covers should therefore continue to grow.” 

This is an economic opportunity that has been seized by the Axereal Group, striving to develop the seed market in this geographical zone. Work has been done, for example, to propose more efficient varieties on the Hungarian market. The cooperative has seen its market share grow (3.4% of the soybean seed market in 2021; between 5.5 and 5.8% announced for 2022). “In 2022, we have sold 70% more seed than in 2021,” says Janos Nemes.

Similar ambitions are driving the cooperative in Croatia. “We wish to propose to this country’s market the highest quality soybean seed,” declares Danko Vincetić, Axereal operational manager in Nova Gradiška. “To this end, we recently invested in a latest-generation optical sorter, equipped with cutting-edge cameras. It enables us to obtain seed of great purity and impeccable quality.” Tests have also been carried out for several years on soybean grown as a catch crop (grown just after a previous early harvested crop), which constitutes an economic opportunity for producers. “We are now able to support farmers in growing soybean after barley, with the prospect of good results, and requiring very little in the way of inputs,” says Danko Vincetić. The cooperative produced and sold 25,000 hundredweight of soybean seed for the 2022 Croat campaign, with the Group aiming to achieve 40,000 hundredweight of soybean within a few years.

This offers lucrative prospects for the Croat soybean channel, which in turn encourages the cooperative to look into developing other crops. “Our optical sorter should act as a growth lever for other seed markets,” says Danko Vincetić, underscoring this. “We are currently carrying out tests on growing flax, for example, and the results are very encouraging.”

Le soja, une culture stratégique pour Axéréal Europe Centrale