A calamitous harvest in Spain drove prices up in May and early June. But with the summer season approaching, producers fear that the melon will once again be sacrificed on the altar of the price war.
For the past few weeks, your melon and prosciutto may have cost you more in fruit than in ham. Since the start of the season, Charentais melons, whether they come from France, Spain or Morocco, have reached stratospheric prices. To offer you the star fruit of Cavaillon, you will sometimes have to pay around 5 euros a piece. When it’s not more.
On an E.Leclerc drive from the west of France, Charentais from the Mylibon brand (Boyer group, one of the most important French producers), you will even pay 10 euros. At this price, you can cross your fingers that it is good.
While melons are generally more expensive at the start of the season when production is lower, this year prices are breaking records. There is certainly inflation with production costs which have swelled by 30% this year with the increase in the prices of energy and raw materials. But that’s not the real explanation. It is above all the lack of supply that explains the high price level of the past weeks. The capricious weather in March and April severely limited production.
The melon in crisis
“The retail melon sold in May and early June comes mainly from Spain, recalls Jérôme Jausseran, the president of Force Sud, a group of Hérault producers. In April, it rained a lot in Spain and the bees did not pollinated the melon flowers.”
It takes an average of five weeks to produce a melon. In May, with the return of good weather in France, the desire for melon was felt. The profession estimates that demand is multiplied by three when temperatures exceed 25°C. But as the supply was not there, prices soared on the Markets of National Interest (MIN) and therefore on our shelves.
“In May, we normally ship melons at 1.80 euros per kilo (price sold by producers to distributors), estimates Jérôme Jausseran. This year, we were above 3 euros. Which makes a public price of more than 5 euros.”
But don’t worry. Prices will drop in the coming days. With the May harvests arriving on the stalls, the melon is gradually returning to its usual price of 3 euros apiece.
If the increase was painful for consumers, it was rather well received by producers. Because the melon has been going through a deep crisis for several years. In two years, the two largest melon producers in the country have completely or partially ceased their activity.
In 2020, the Poitou Rouge-Gorge company, which alone produced 10% of French consumption (30,000 tonnes per year), sold its activity to the Force Sud group to focus on apples.
A year later, it was the new number 1 in the Soldive sector which almost completely abandoned melon production. At the end of last year, the group Les Vergers du Sud, owner of Soldive, closed most of these sites and divided by five the number of hectares cultivated with melon.
“The weather and the production were catastrophic, commented last November in West France Lucas Crosnier, general manager of Les Vergers du Sud. As with Rouge-Gorge, we have reached the limit of what is economically viable.”
A third less surface area in 10 years
And the phenomenon is global. Areas cultivated with melons have been shrinking for a decade. From 14,750 hectares in 2012, the total area in the three main producing regions has fallen to 10,400 this year according to data from the Interprofessional Melon Association (AIM).
Production, which was around 300,000 tonnes per year, fell to 240,000 in 2020 before rising slightly in 2021 (260,000). Not enough to satisfy French consumers, the most fond of Charentais melons in the world. The major French producers will thus produce in Spain and Morocco enough to supply our country with melons. The melon trade deficit is widening year after year and reached a record 121,000 tonnes in 2021.
A deadly price war
Why such a production crisis when the French continue to favor the fruit of summer? Admittedly down slightly, consumption is still sustained with 80% of French people buying it each year for a total of 8kg consumed per household.
The problem with the melon is that its production is less and less profitable. If the French buy it for 2 euros on average over the year according to Kantar, it is mainly sold on promotion. During the summer, the purchase rate on sale rarely falls below 40% according to the annual study of FranceAgriSea. It is not uncommon to see the melon sold for 0.99 euros each in certain stores in the summer.
“The melon is the loss leader of the summer, the price referent for all the brands on which they do a lot of communication, explains Jérôme Jausseran. A brand manager told me that when he advertised on the melon, he was summoned each time by his CEO to assure him that his product was indeed the cheapest on the market. It was the only product that gave rise to this summons!”
By definition, a loss leader is not intended to be profitable. Its objective is to attract flow at the point of sale. But if the Leclerc, Carrefour and other Intermarché are catching up on other products, the producers, who only do that, cannot balance themselves when a product is bought from them below its cost price. This happens frequently during promotions.
“I have to sell it so that it doesn’t stay on my hands even if it’s below the production cost, confides Jérôme Jausseran. We try to balance ourselves over the year but we still have a low margin.”
As long as the harvest is bad, the results are guaranteed to be in the red. Hence the abandonment of activity in recent years and the gradual reduction of cultivated land.
Especially since in addition to the “curse” of the loss leader, the melon is a difficult and expensive production. It takes between two and three people to grow and harvest one hectare of melon over the season.
“Take the count, if you have 100 hectares, you need 250 people, whereas for the same surface area in cereals it is one or two people maximum, estimates Jérôme Jausseran. And in addition, for cereals, you have a guaranteed sale price.”
More and more growers are abandoning their melon fields to grow wheat or barley. In 2022, only 400 of them are still producing Charentais melon in France.