Philippe Gire has been growing this legume for twenty years near Saint-Martin-de-Fugères and has never experienced such a “critical” year: three quintals per hectare against fourteen in 2016, his “best year”.

“It’s the gold of Puy. These are very precious lentils, every seed counts”, assures Huguette Trescarte, head of a collection and packaging company.

The drought and extreme heat of July disrupted seed maturity. Result: the pods – each usually contains two grains – were empty, the harvest was “complicated” because the plants were small, explains Philippe Gire.

However, the 44-year-old farmer, who also raises dairy cows, wants to keep this supplement to put “butter in the spinach”. Like him, most lentil growers are also herders and appreciate the extra income.

This organic producer is doing well thanks to direct sales: with new consumption habits, “there is a lot of demand”, he explains.

Cultivated on volcanic soils in the middle of the mountains, between 600 and 1,200 meters above sea level, the green lentil from Le Puy, a treasure for gourmets who praise its bluish marbling and its slight taste of hazelnut, is the only one to benefit from an Appellation of controlled origin (AOP).

Protected from disturbances by the mountains that surround the area, it benefits from a micro-climate characterized by a foehn effect, a dry wind which gives a less floury seed, according to the AOP website.

But the extreme drought of recent summers, or on the contrary intense rainy episodes like in 2021, have upset this balance: “The rise in temperatures leads to a marked increase in evapotranspiration with marked drying of the soil”, explains David Marchal, territorial referent of Météo France.

For the last decade, the average temperature is close to 11°C in the Le Puy area and could rise to 15°C by the end of the century: “with an increase of 4°C, rainfall events should triple and periods of drought be multiplied by 5”, according to the meteorologist.

-“In apnea”-

“Yields have been worse for ten years. Before, an average year was around seven, eight quintals / hectare. Today, we are happy if we get there”, explains Franck Rocher, president of the AOP green lentil from Le Puy. The 2022 harvest painfully reaches 4.5 quintals/hectare on average.

As a result, the cultivated areas are decreasing, as is the number of producers: in 2000, production represented 5,000 hectares and 1,250 producers, halved to 2,500 hectares and 550 producers in 2022.

If “the green lentil in general is in competition with other cultures”, for that of Puy “we are in apnea”, deplores Huguette Trescarte.

The Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region injected 2.5 million in the spring to save the sector, but “we have a lot of fears for the 2023 harvest because farmers need grass and will prefer to replenish their fodder stocks rather than sow lentils,” says the business manager.

With the rain and then the mildness of October, the fields have however greened again, which should improve stocks and bring some hope.

“We cling, we believe in it, because we think that stopping would be heartbreaking,” says Ms. Trescarte. Le Puy green lentil occupied 50% of his company’s working time, “less than 10%” today.

Due to a lack of volumes, he had to replace the “gold of Velay” with lentils grown in the center of France to supply the brands of major distributors.

Its sales of AOP lentils are now limited to the regional level under its own brand “La Ponote” or in certain specialized stores.

For Franck Rocher, “the risk is very high in this sector”. He recommends a change of strategy involving collectors and growers: “a kilo of lentils is sold to the consumer for 10 euros, we are paid 2.30 euros. The producer has trouble finding his way around and the lentil is no longer worth gold”.