Raphaël Ogier, Chairman of the distillery Ogier “Nature has to be worked with – not against!”

Raphaël Ogier, Chairman of the distillery Ogier “Nature has to be worked with – not against!”

Thanks to responsible agriculture this enthusiastic fruit-grower, a partner of Les vergers Boiron, probably grows the best pears and apricots in France. Without loss of profit. The secrets of excellence…

The Ogier distillery is one of the most successful examples of responsible agriculture. How did you get there?

It’s a bit of a historical path. My grandfather ran a food-producing holding with live stock, a kitchen-garden, and fields for crops. He planted a first few pear-trees in 1919. My father really loved trees and fruits and developed the fruit-growing part from 1967. As for myself I joined the adventure twenty years later after a BTS* in farming, and I helped build a distillery to take even more advantage of our fruits. It was about then that we converted the whole operation to responsible agriculture. That went against all the trends of the period: chemical plant protecting agents then were all the rage!

What does responsible agriculture mean for you?

If I had to resume its philosophy I’d say it amounts to working WITH nature, and not against it. For water consumption, soil preservation, taking the animals into account… I’ll give you an example: our main problem is insects, which are generally combated with chemical products. Now, while some insects are indeed a menace for our fruits, others, on the contrary, respect them and even destroy those that are pests. So we work to keep a balance between the two sorts to protect our production. Which enables us to use chemical products as little as possible – or even to do without them altogether.

So you fight the insects with other insects?

Exactly! Take the psyllid. It’s a small plant louse that’s extremely harmful for the pear; it secretes honeydew that drips along the branches and spoils the fruits. To eradicate it we gave up the chemical treatments and resorted to… the anthocoris. It’s a crawling insect, a sort of flower bug, which cannot get enough of psyllid larvae! The first few years, in the spring, we released anthocores in our groves. But for three years that’s not been necessary because the balance between the two populations has been reached naturally – and our fruit have never been healthier.

With these natural methods your profits must have gone down?

Absolutely not. I’d even say – quite the opposite! We used to have to throw away some fruit spoiled by plant protecting chemical agents. Today, we only produce beautiful tasty fruit. And which therefore respect the environment.  On the other hand, there’s a price to pay, as a bigger labour force is needed. But we’ve been lucky enough to find intelligent and competent people prepared to pay more for these fruits than elsewhere to have the original quality of good fruit back again. Les vergers Boiron are among them.

You’ve set up a special subsidiary for Les vergers Boiron...

Yes, eight years ago Les vergers Boiron asked us to work on blackcurrant, and then on the pear. They explained to us straightaway they didn’t want the slightest trace of chemical products in their fruit purées. We were already quite advanced in our responsible agriculture methods, but here we had to go still further: by emphasising the natural treatment of the crops, indeed, but also by trying to make the fruit ripen perfectly. To do this, we pick the fruit fifteen to twenty days before it’s fully ripe, and we store it in a fridge at freezing point where under daily surveillance it ends up ripening slowly to reach perfect ripeness. This enables us to deliver them very high quality fruit, for instance a beautiful yellow pear perfectly ripe and firm with a delicious scent. Les vergers Boiron are the only client we do this work for. Their laboratory’s quality manager assists us in improving our methods every year.

However, first and foremost you supply early produce?

Yes, Les vergers Boiron are the only industrial group we’ve agree to work with: they’re the only ones to share our philosophy of quality at a just price, when others quite often just look for the cheapest prices… A large part of our production is sold fresh to greengrocers and wholesalers. And a third’s distilled on site for eaux de vie, liqueurs, aperitifs, or 100 % fruit and sugar syrups. Without any additive or colouring agents I hardly need to say.

The weather’s been particularly capricious this year, with an astonishingly mild winter… Is the harvest for 2016 going to be good?

It’s too early to say. Certain trees, like the apricot trees, started blossoming in March as it reached + 15° C in the day. The problem is the thermometer dropped to - 4° C at night, which can dry the blossoms and diminish the yield. But I’m an eternal optimist; so I prefer to think everything’ll go well. And come what may, at the end of September we’ll organise our big annual fête with our seasonal workers to celebrate two intensive months of harvest, as my grandfather used to do 80 years ago!

*BTS - Brevet de technicien supérieur – Higher education vocational cetificate

April 2016