Sales: EUR 1.4 billion ($1.89 billion) (2006)
NAIC: 112111 Beef Cattle Ranching and Farming; 112120 Dairy Cattle and Milk Production; 112990 All Other Animal Production; 115112 Soil Preparation, Planting, and Cultivating; 115113 Crop Harvesting, Primarily by Machine; 311611 Animal (Except Poultry) Slaughtering
Coopagri Bretagne is one of France’s largest agricultural cooperatives, and one of the country’s leading food processing groups. Based in Landerneau, in France’s Brittany region, Coopagri represents more than 20,000 farmer members. The cooperative operates through three main divisions: Farm Supply; Food Processing; and Specialist Distribution.
The group’s Farm Supply division provides its members with a wide range of services, including the supply of plants, seeds, feed, livestock, fertilizers, pesticides, and equipment; and technical support services, ranging from soil testing, plant and animal nutrition, breeding and selection services, among others. Coopagri’s Food Processing wing provides the public face of the cooperative’s operations, through its range of brand names. These include Paysan Breton, Valtero, Ovipac, Ronsard, and Prince de Bretagne, as well as a 50 percent stake in powdered and condensed milk specialist Régilait.
Coopagri’s food processing division provides collection services for farmers’ milk, vegetable, and animal production; and food processing and transformation, including dairy, pork, beef, poultry, eggs, cereals, and vegetables. The cooperative’s food processing operations, which include dairy group Laïta, and ingredients subsidiary Epi Ingredients, include a network of 45 factories, located primarily in France, but also in Germany, the United Kingdom, the Benelux market, Spain, Greece, Italy, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, South Africa, South Korea, and Taiwan.
Exports account for 25 percent of Coopagri’s total revenues, which topped EUR 1.4 billion in the middle of the first decade of the 2000s. Each year, Coopagri processes more than 620 million liters of milk, 40,000 adult cattle, 1.4 million pigs, 330,000 square meters of poultry, 100,000 metric tons of industrially produced vegetables, 455,000 metric tons of cereals, and one million egg-laying hens. Coopagri’s third division, Specialist Distribution, oversees the cooperative’s consumer and farmer distribution businesses. These include Magasin Vert, a chain of 20 garden centers, as well as 85 locally operating consumer-oriented gardening stores; Point Vert, a network of 83 self-service supply shops for farmers and rural consumers; 40 Coopagri Bretagne farm stores; and Culti Vert, targeting farmers. The division also operates three fuel oil outlets under the Point Vert name. Farmer-member Denis Manac’h serves as the cooperative’s president, backed by CEO Jean-Bernard Solliec.
FOUNDING A COOPERATIVE IN 1911
The cooperative movement, which swept through much of Europe during the 19th century, came late to France’s agricultural community for a number of reasons. One of the major factors preventing the rise of the cooperative movement in the country was the Le Chapellier Law of 1793, which had been adopted following the French Revolution in order to break the stranglehold over the country’s economy held by the guilds under the Ancien Regime. That law, which forbade the formation of associations and other groups, had the perverse effect of preventing farmers from forming the type of mutual aid associations that had proved highly beneficial to the agricultural sector elsewhere in Europe. Another factor that slowed the development of farmers’ cooperatives was the organization of land ownership that had long marked the French countryside. Until late in the 19th century, the country’s arable land remained controlled by a small number of powerful landowners. Farmers, forced to rent the land they cultivated, were therefore highly dependent on the landowners. This situation helped prevent any kind of organization among farmers.
For these reasons, the first attempts at developing an agricultural cooperative came only in the 1870s. Even then, these groups operated without any legal recognition, since their formation contradicted the 1793 law. It was only in 1884 that new legislation was adopted permitting the creation of associative groups, and then only under the legal form of unions. Nonetheless, the new legislation provided a structure for the creation of the first farmers’ cooperatives. These tended to function as purchasing cooperatives, enabling farmers to ensure the quantity and quality of seeds and other supplies and equipment they needed. Other cooperatives took the form of mutual assistance associations, providing insurance and related services. These mutual insurance associations were often operated on a local or regional level, and became extremely common throughout rural France.
The phylloxera infestation that destroyed much of the vines in the Bordeaux region provided the stimulus for the development of a new type of cooperative dedicated to the processing of farmers’ production. Unable to produce wine, many of the vineyards had turned to dairy farming. The local market, however, proved unable to absorb the surge in milk production. Instead, the farmers grouped together to transform their milk into butter—which could then be transported and sold in Paris. This type of specialized cooperative became highly prominent in the French agricultural sector at the end of the nineteenth century, particularly in regions of the country where the agricultural sector tended to focus on a single crop.
The farmers’ cooperative movement was finally given legal definition in 1906, with new legislation that also provided the basis of a financial foundation for the movement. The new legislation led eleven mutual insurance associations serving the farm community in the Finistère region of Brittany to join together to form a central purchasing body. This initiative led to the formation of the Office Central des Oeuvres Mutelles Agricoles du Finistère in 1911. Founded in the small town of Landerneau, the new body was led by Austrin de Boisanger, who served as its first president and proposed that it adopt cooperative status. The Office Central differed from much of the existing agricultural cooperatives. These tended to be formed through the efforts of farmers themselves, and often as a result of a crisis, such as a natural disaster, or other pressure on the sector. The impetus to the creation of the Office Central, however, came from the region’s financial, social, and cultural elite, with founding members including local clergy and nobles.
Life in the group is driven by an intense cooperative spirit since the farmer members themselves own it.
The Office Central initially functioned in the credit and insurance sectors, as well as overseeing the operations of its various farm cooperatives. In 1919, a new president took over at the head of the body, Hervé de Guébriant. Born in 1880 in Saint-Pol-de-Léon, de Guébriant had begun a career as an agricultural engineer when he joined in the founding of the Office Central in 1911. Under de Guébriant, the Office Central became highly involved in all aspects of the region’s agricultural community. In 1912, for example, the body became the first to insure farmers against work-related accidents. In this way, the Office Central quickly became the dominant force in the Finistère region’s agricultural sector. De Guébriant remained firmly at the helm of the Office Central, holding the president’s position until 1956.
CREATION OF COOPAGRI IN 1966
By then, however, the region’s farmers had begun to prepare a revolt of sorts against the Office Central’s control of the region’s agriculture. Balking at the Office Central’s somewhat paternalistic direction, farmers sought to replace the body’s leaders with a more professional management. A major factor behind what has been described as a “cultural revolution” within the Office Central was the emphasis the farmers’ cooperatives had begun to place on the industrialization of their operations. Indeed, in the early 1950s, the farmers of the Brittany region eagerly embraced the new intensive agricultural techniques then being pioneered in the United States and elsewhere. The widespread adoption of the use of tractors in the postwar years, as an example, represented a huge step forward in productivity, permitting huge gains of time and the cultivation of larger areas. At the same time, farmers replaced the horses and oxen used to pull plows with milk-producing cows and other livestock, such as pigs and poultry, creating a surge in the availability of these products. The development of new food processing and preservation technologies, as well as the growth of the supermarket format, provided an expanding market for farmers’ production.
The adoption of new technologies, however, came at a cost. In order to finance their conversion to industrial farming and food processing, the Finistère farmers’ cooperatives grouped under the Office Central recognized the need to form a single organization. This process was accomplished starting in 1963, and involved the breakup of the Office Central into its three independently operating components. In 1966, the combined operations of the farmers’ cooperatives were renamed as the Coopérative des Agriculteurs de Bretagne, or Coopagri Bretagne.
Coopagri Bretagne differed from many of its contemporaries in its decision to preserve its status as a cooperative that combined operations across multiple agricultural sectors, including cereals, vegetables, pigs, and beef. While the operation of a multifaceted cooperative was not without its organizational difficulties—if only because farmers involved in one area were required to support the needs of farmers operating in another area entirely—Coopagri’s access to the wide variety of farm products enabled it to establish itself as a central player in the French food market. The company soon emerged as a major supplier of fresh vegetables to the French supermarket sector, through subsidiary Gelagri. By the beginning of the 1990s, that operation accounted for some 60 percent of all frozen vegetables sold in France.
Coopagri also invested heavily in the vegetable processing sector, launching its first frozen vegetable processing facility in Landerneau in 1962. The cooperative’s vegetable processing operations were to grow strongly, and by the dawn of the 21st century topped 100,000 metric tons per year.
The dairy market also provided a major outlet for Coopagri’s production. The company founded a dairy, Centrale Laitière de Lanrinou in 1965. By the beginning of the 1970s, the cooperative’s dairy operation had extended throughout the Brittany region. In 1972, the Lanrinou dairy was renamed accordingly, as the Union des Coopératives Laitières Bretonnes, or UCLAB. By then, Coopagri had begun to develop a number of its brand names, and especially its core brand Paysan Breton.
- Founding of the Office Central des Oeuvres Mutelles Agricoles du Finistère in the Finistère region of Brittany, France.
- Coopagri Bretagne is created following the breakup of the Office Central’s farming, credit, and insurance operations into independent components.
- The first self-service farm supply shop is opened.
- Coopagri acquires 50 percent stake in Régilait.
- Co-op enters poultry sector through acquisition of Ronsard.
- New Magasin Vert garden store format is launched for city center market.
FRENCH AGRICULTURAL LEADER IN THE NEW CENTURY
Coopagri continued to seek new areas of expansion through the next decades. The company initiated an active program of acquisitions in order to build up its range of processing facilities. By the 2000s, Coopagri had built up an internationally operating network of more than 48 subsidiaries, including 45 production facilities. The group moved into beef and pork processing in the late 1960s, forming a series of partnerships with another cooperative, Socopa, which specialized in meats. In 1972, Coopagri extended these operations into the production of animal feed, opening its first factory in Pontivy, and then opening a second two years later.
At the same time, the cooperative had been building up its own distribution network, opening its first self-service farm supply store in 1972. In addition to its Coopagri Bretagne stores, they built up a separate Point Vert network, dedicated to the farm and rural consumer sector. By the turn of the century, Coopagri counted more than 145 stores in its total distribution operations.
Coopagri focused on expanding its dairy operations in the 1980s and into the 1990s. In 1986, the cooperative acquired a 50 percent stake in Régilait, in partnership with France Lait. Founded in 1947, Régilait specialized in the production of powdered and condensed milk. After becoming the leader in this product segment in France, Régilait then grew into a leading European brand. Coopagri also expanded its intake of fresh milk, through the acquisition of Laiterie Nouvelle de L’Arguenon (LNA) in 1991. That purchase doubled Coopagri’s milk supply, to more than 600 million liters. Steady increases in its milk intake over the next decade enabled the cooperative’s milk supply to top one billion liters by the early 2000s.
By then, the cooperative’s operations in the beef and pork sectors had come under sustained pressure, as consumers shifted away from red meats in general, and especially beef, amid the emergence of human strains of mad cow disease in the late 1990s. In defense, Coopagri moved into the poultry market for the first time in 1998, when it bought the Ronsard poultry operations of rival BSA Bourgoin. The move also helped the group weather the next food scandal, this time involving elevated dioxin levels found in Brittany as a result of the industrialization of the pork industry. In order to counter sales declines in France, the cooperative adopted a strategy of boosting its range of value-added processed foods, while also expanding its export market sales. By mid-decade, these accounted for 25 percent of the group’s total revenues.
Coopagri Bretagne continued to seek growth avenues in the new century. In 2002, for example, the company acquired Guerin Rocton, a poultry slaughterhouse that specialized in the value-added Red Label certification. The company also boosted its animals feed operations, buying Moulins d’Hyeres, based in the Cote d’Azure. Into the second half of the decade, the group moved to boost its distribution wing, investing in building up a newly revamped chain of city center gardening stores under the Magasin Vert signage. By then, Coopagri Bretagne had grown into one of the powerhouses of France’s agricultural and processed foods sectors.
M. L. Cohen
Alwalis (Germany); Elton Chemicals (Greece); Epi Bretagne; Epi Ingrédients; Epi Ingredients–Chiltern Foodtech (United Kingdom); Eurilait (United Kingdom); Food Service & Technology (FST) BV (Netherlands); Gelagri Bretagne; General Foods and Flavors INC (China); Iber Conseil (Spain); Iframix S.R.O. (Czech Republic); Ovifrance; Ovipac; PQS–Brenntag Guzman Iberica (Spain); Prodotti Gianni (Italy); Régilait; Ronsard; Sica Bretagne Informatique (S. B.I.); Sicagri Bretagne; Slovamix S.R.O. (Slovakia); Socopa Pord; Socopa Guingamp; Sodiva; Sound Food Aroma and Chimical CO (Taiwan); Union des Coopératives Laitières Bretonnes (U.C.L.A.B.); Universal Commodities & Communications (South Africa); Usine d’aliment Coopagri Bretagne; Whanee Corporation Ltd. (South Korea).
Farm Supply; Food Distribution; Specialist Distribution.
Sodiaal; Groupe Terrena; Groupe Cecab; Groupe Glon; Provimi; Lambert-Dodard-Chancereul; Agrial; Bonduelle SA; UNICOPA; Groupe Roullier; Evialis S.A.
“Coopagri: Bilan 2005,” Porc Magazine, June 12, 2006.
“Coopagri Bretagne Acquires Three Companies,” Les Echos, June 12, 2002.
“Coopagri Bretagne Spreads Its Wings,” Eurofood, November 5, 1998.
“Coopagri Bretagne Va Investir 30 Millions d’Euros,” l’Usine Nouvelle, June 8, 2006.
“Cooperatives in Crisis,” Les Echos, June 15, 2000, p. 32.
Davis, Mary, “Gelagri Campaigns Hard for Recognition in French Market Dominated by Bonduelle,” Quick Frozen Foods International, April 1991.