An Organic Farm shop managed and run directly by local producers in Northern France
Key words: Organic, local, farm shop
Name of the initiative? The Green Basket (Au Panier Vert)
Region Near Lille
What kind of initiative Farming/production, processing, marketing, environmental, community
2006 found me in a dilemma: I was considering opening a shop on my farm to sell my milk products directly, but it felt like a burden on top of the work I was already doing. My children were young and knowing that customers might arrive at any time would be disruptive to the way we lived… It seemed far better to join an established group.
I was fortunate. Au Panier Vert (The Green Basket) had just moved to larger premises and was able to accommodate another producer of yoghurt and ice cream.
Au Panier Vert farm shop was birthed in 1986 just outside Lille. After a local co-operative went bankrupt and was no longer able to pay farmers for their vegetables, Sabine Catteau, a cattle breeder and potato farmer who already sold her products on her farm, reached out to her neighbours proposing a new form of co-operative. She’d seen a shop outside Paris where farmers came together to sell their produce. Already used to working together, the local farmers agreed.
“…there was no precedent in French economic and tax law…”
As there was no precedent in French economic and tax law, they enlisted a lawyer to help them create a new legal entity allowing them to farm and sell their produce directly. Their next problem was finding and funding a shop that could accommodate them all. Undaunted, they cleared out one of Sabine’s barns that had been used for cows, and this became Au Panier Vert. There wasn’t a lot of money but by buying second-hand materials and taking advice from marketing experts they were able to furnish it and make it an attractive place for customers. Finally, they came up with rules that have been key to success:
New farmers can join the collective only if they are bringing something that is not already supplied. This stops competition from within. Only if a farmer is struggling to meet demand, can a second producer become part of the collective and a suitable arrangement is made. It was this that enabled me to join: the new shop was much larger and allowed for my contribution of local yoghurt and ice cream.
“…regular customers get to know us and are realising the benefits of buying local and regional produce directly from the farmers, and we get to know what the customer wants and can respond to any feedback they give us…”
We expect producers to work half a day a week in the shop whether that be selling, processing, painting, cutting grass, or other jobs to keep the shop functioning. Some enjoy this more than others, but it’s important as regular customers get to know us and are realising the benefits of buying local and regional produce directly from the farmers, and we get to know what the customer wants and can respond to any feedback they give us, especially after a taste-testing event! We’ve learned honesty is really important. Even if things aren’t going well.
“We’ve learned honesty is really important. Even if things aren’t going well.”
Our cooperative is owned and managed by farmers through an office and a Board of Directors that meet most weeks. Being non-profit making, anything left after expenses, is distributed among the members as a form of fair trade.
In big investment decisions each farmer has one vote and we hold meetings for all members twice a year.
I took over as the president when Sabine stepped down a year and a half ago. Currently Au Panier Vert has 27 farmer-members and turns over three million euros. We employ 18 staff including 4 butchers, 2 cooks and 2 bakers. All processing is done on site and we can offer things such as sausages, ready meals and canned goods all made with the ingredients from our members.
“Au Panier Vert’s goal is to do the best for its farmers, so we constantly push ourselves to be better.”
Of course there are always challenges. We have competition from other shops that want to replicate us, but are not farmer-run, and they often have a bigger budget for advertising. Au Panier Vert’s goal is to do the best for its farmers, so we constantly push ourselves to be better. If someone brings sub-standard produce, it reflects badly on us all. Equally, excellent produce reflects well. That’s why producers have annual contracts – we must keep quality high.
Commitment from our members is strong – we all have invested our own money in the shop and processing plant and are part of the Panier Vert family, however, some producers have been with us since the beginning and are ready to retire and it can be hard to replace them with a younger farmer who is willing to work in the shop. We never go out to look for new farmers. We let them come to us because they want to.
“We never go out to look for new farmers. We let them come to us because they want to.”
I think one reason Au Panier Vert works well here is because culturally in Northern France we love food and hospitality and there has long been a tradition of people buying directly from farmers. People are prepared to pay for quality so long as it’s reasonable. We always try to price everything fairly – comparable to artisan prices as opposed to supermarket.
Most of our customers come from a 12km radius, so our big dream is to start small satellite shops, still with the same quality local produce, that reach new customers.
Between producing, processing, working in the shop and managing the collective, we don’t have much spare time, but we recently hosted an agricultural school to show them what we do here. We think this way of working is a good idea so we are happy to show it to anybody who would like to see.
“We think this way of working is a good idea so we are happy to show it to anybody who would like to see. “
The best thing about being part of Au Panier Vert is to see everybody using their different strengths, working together for a common goal.
Repository compiled by: Marie-Odile Smets