Renowned international seed company Mas Seeds has been developing and supplying maize to distributors and wholesalers for decades.
But its acquisition of Bright Maize in 2018 brought with it a new challenge: selling directly to UK farmers.
Gonzague de Carrère is Mas Seeds’ commercial and marketing director for Northern Europe. He lives in the foothills of the Pyrenees where, when not working, he enjoys playing rugby with his three sons and looking after three very productive bee hives.
He recently spared us a few moments to share his thoughts on maize, hot summers and the future of farming.
Gonzague, four years in, how is the new – or not so new – venture going?
Very well. In the beginning it was quite different – quite difficult – because it was a new job and a new market; but thanks to the people at Bright Maize, we succeeded in developing the business. And four years later I can say that it’s been a big success.
What does the UK market mean to Mas Seeds?
It’s not our biggest market for maize but it’s a market with a lot of opportunities and it’s a very stable market.
If we compare it to other countries – like Russia, Ukraine, the Baltics, Turkey – in the UK we have a very stable customer base of loyal farmers. So it’s a strong market, we can count on it, and it’s increasing year after year. It’s important.
And did Brexit cause you any problems?
The process of variety registration is quite complex and it’s very expensive. In the past it was easier because we could have a very wide range of varieties. Now, due to Brexit, the range is narrower. We don’t have any choice, we have to register every single variety.
It’s been especially difficult this year because of the very hot summer. And – speaking not just on behalf of Mas Seeds but of KWS, Limagrain, Pioneer, of all seed companies – we don’t have enough seeds. So, it’ll be very difficult to supply all the UK market this year – due in part to Brexit: because it’s more difficult to enter the country.
More difficult because?
More expensive. Technically, the process of registration is no more difficult than before Brexit. But it’s the price for the volume. If the volume is too low, it’s not worth it. To spend, say, £4,000 just to sell fifty bags of one variety, it’s not worth it.
You mention the very hot summer. In what ways did that impact business?
We produce seeds in south-west France where we’ve suffered a lot from the hot temperatures. It’s not just the lack of water. In the seed-production process the most important window is the flowering stage. If the temperatures are too high during this one/one and half weeks, it has a very strong impact on the final production.
This was the case this year in France – and in Romania and Spain where we also have very strong production areas. It means that we achieved a very low production – because the fecundation was not so good.
Maize is a tropical plant. It can tolerate high temperatures. But when it’s 45, 46°C, it’s too high – especially for the maize flower.
In northern Europe, though, have rising temperatures not been good for maize-growing?
Yes, I’d say for the UK it’s good news; it means the maize yield will be better. For you it’s a good situation!
Maybe the UK?
Maybe the UK! You never know. Perhaps in ten, fifteen years’ time, if global warming continues.
Are you worried about this hot summer repeating itself? Are you worried about next summer?
Yes, for sure. I’m not worried about maize; because with maize it’s just a question of managing the production better. As I say, maize is a tropical plant and these species can handle this kind of situation. We just have to be very cautious about the flowering period.
All in all, if we have more hot summers like this one, I think it could be a good opportunity for maize. Ok, you have to irrigate a little bit if you want a very high yield but even without water you can more or less have a good yield. It’s a very resilient plant.
If we’re looking at a scenario where summers are getting generally very hot, then maize is a very good fit for that situation.
What are Mas Seeds’ plans for the future?
We want to carry on with maize and grass because it’s our core business.
But we’re also interested in selling more species. For example, oilseed rape has a strong market in the UK and we have a selection programme for rapeseed at Mas Seeds. So this could be a new challenge over the coming years.
And sunflowers perhaps. We’ve been talking about global warming – perhaps one day there’ll be a need for sunflowers in the UK and we would be in the market for that.
Just to give you a comparison, we had the same situation in Poland. We entered the Polish market fifteen years ago with very early maize, like in England. Then, in Poland as everywhere else, we started getting higher temperatures and now we sell late maize and sunflowers there. And we think it’ll go the same way in the UK.
So we’ll be both responding to global warming and developing new markets.
So do you see the UK maize market expanding over the next few years?
In the British market, thinking mainly of dairy farms, you have a balance between grass and maize. Looking at the current situation, there is a lack of grass because of the hot summer; so certainly the maize market will increase a lot. And I think over the upcoming years it will be more or less the same situation. It will be more difficult to raise grass and maize could be the best alternative feed.
We can also see that in the UK maize is getting later and later. For us, this isn’t a big deal, we can provide it. And, for farmers, the later your maize the more yield you have. So it could be good news.
What do you think the future looks like for the UK farmer?
I don’t know what the final goal of agriculture in the UK, after Brexit, is.
In the European Union there is a strong desire to get rid of fertilizers and to get rid of chemicals, and this will change the financial outcome for the farmer. It will be a challenge. For example, in the Netherlands they’ve put some strong restrictions on nitrogen fertilizer and this will have a big impact. We can assume that 20% of farms there will close down this year.
But in England we don’t know where the government wants to go. Perhaps they’ll continue to allow the chemicals to stay in place, perhaps they’ll follow what the European Union does, in which case it could be challenging. I don’t know.
Any thoughts on the future of farming more generally?
I used to live in Italy – for four years, five years ago. And I found one thing very strange but very interesting. There, like everywhere, the number of farms is decreasing. But in Italy the average age of a new farm owner is 30 years old. It means you have one generation that’s very old and one that’s very young – and the young have a new, totally different mindset.
The new Italian farmer doesn’t want to overly develop the farm, they want to respect the environment, they don’t want to use too much fertilizer, too many inputs. And I’m optimistic about this new generation with its new mindset. I’m sure it will act as a renewal for agriculture. I felt it in Italy and I’m sure it will come to France and I’m sure it will come to the UK. Perhaps it’s already happening.