Economic Sectors, Agriculture
French agriculture, Massif Central, French farmers, Loire River, Common Agricultural Policy
France is one of the world’s leading agricultural nations. France has more surface area devoted to agriculture than any other nation in western Europe— 19.5 million hectares (48.2 million acres) in 1999, or 35.5 percent of France’s total land area. Within the EU, France is the largest exporter of agricultural products; in world markets, France is second only to the United States. Important farm commodities in France include dairy products, wine, beef, veal, wheat, oilseeds, and fresh fruits and vegetables.
The large volume and diversity of agricultural products in France is made possible, in part, by favorable natural conditions. France is endowed with extensive tracts of fertile soils, a generally moderate climate, ample rainfall in most regions, and an extended growing season. Regional variations in soil, topography, temperature, and climate permit farmers to produce a wide variety of crops and agricultural products. For example, the cooler and wetter northwest region provides plentiful grasslands for the grazing of cattle and sheep, while the warm, dry Mediterranean region offers a good environment for growing many kinds of grapes.
Agriculture in France has changed considerably since World War II. In 1954 the agricultural sector, which includes forestry and fishing, employed 5 million people; by 1998 only 1.1 million people worked in the sector. During the same period agricultural output grew dramatically. Great changes in farming techniques contributed to this growth in production, including the rapid modernization of French agriculture. Many farmers have come to rely heavily on machines; irrigation is now widespread; and the use of fertilizers, pesticides, and other chemical products has risen dramatically. In addition to modern production techniques, the size of the average farm has more than doubled in recent decades, from 15 hectares (37 acres) in 1955 to 37 hectares (91 acres) in 1995. These changes have driven ever-increasing yields, productivity, and efficiency.
The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), provided for in the1957 treaty that created the European Economic Community (EEC), had an enormous impact on French agriculture. The CAP created a system of common prices for agricultural products across the EEC and, later, its successor organizations, the EC and the EU. The CAP stimulated agricultural production and improved the incomes of many French farmers. As the foremost agricultural producer in western Europe, France is the largest recipient of CAP funds.
The most important crops in France are cereal grains. France is the EU’s largest producer and exporter of cereals. These cereal crops, especially wheat, maize, and barley, are planted on roughly half of France’s commercial farmland. The bulk of cereal crop production occurs in the low fertile plains of the Paris Basin, a vast region in north central France that comprises the nation’s traditional breadbasket. Sugar beets and oilseeds, mainly rapeseed and sunflower seed, are also grown extensively in the Paris Basin.
Production of dairy products, including France’s world-renowned cheeses, is concentrated in the northwest and along the eastern border. Beef cattle are raised mainly in eastern Brittany and the Massif Central. Quality wines are produced more broadly, in Burgundy, around the city of Bordeaux, in the Rhone Valley, in Champagne, and along the Loire River. An extensive assortment of fruits and vegetables is cultivated in the Mediterranean region.
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