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Le Moulin d'Yvon

by afew Sun Jun 13th, 2010 at 04:54:36 AM EST

A month ago, in a discussion about wind power and its potential usefulness for farmers, I said I'd report on a farmer I know who has a windmill.

So here's the huge beast, on a ridge overlooking the plain, open to the westerlies and to the Autan, the south-easterly that comes in from the Mediterranean about 120 km away. This is in hilly but good wheat-growing land about 40 km south-east of Toulouse. If the windmill looks like something rigged up by a DIY enthusiast, it almost is (but not quite). There's a little story attached.

In the Wind series.


Yvon, the farmer, and his brother-in-law, farm over 80 hectares, producing wheat, rapeseed, sunflower, pulses, and raising beef cattle. Yvon chose to go in for organic farming about ten years ago, not as a question of principle, but for economic reasons. Reading the tea leaves, he foresaw declining prices for "conventional" wheat and beef, meaning that the farm would have to continually expand to gain economies of scale, or gradually go bankrupt. Organic offered better prices and less subjection to international markets, since he could sell all or part of his produce locally, even directly to consumers. He could also add value by partly transforming the produce: from wheat, he could mill flour; from rape and sunflower, press oil. This would require energy to work a mill and a press. The extra electricity needed for his plans had to be renewably produced on the spot. A windmill would be a great idea, since it would be a local talking point and would help define an image, at the same time as producing electricity.

So some years back, he found a French firm that would install their own build of small windmill. It was a disaster from the start. The firm was overwhelmed by demand and took orders all the same, resulting in shoddy workmanship, no after-sales service, and, finally, a jump through the hoop that deprived Yvon of both service and the guarantee on the equipment. A rotor dropped off. An inverter (one out of three) conked out.

A German neighbour had bought the same windmill at the same time, and his fell apart too. Yvon bought it from him for spare parts to fix his own mill, except for the inverter, which had to be bought new at 3,500. (The German neighbour swore off French suppliers and got a mill from Aircon, which he now represents for Southern France). Yvon, meanwhile, got his windmill working.

OK, this is laughable compared to the Megas we hear about here. The windmill's capacity is 7.5 kW. Annual production is around 10,000 kWh, which is roughly what the farm and household together consume. There is no feed-in tariff, but Yvon has an obligatory buy-back contract with EDF at parity with the rate he pays as a consumer. The total investment stands at about 30,000, on which he got a tax credit of 8,000. No problem amortising this over twenty years. Yvon's DIY talents and his stock of spare parts will see him through that time -- as long as the inverters don't crash and cause added costs.

His business as a miller is doing well. Here's the current flour mill. In the foreground the flour is sifted after being ground up above.

This is too small to deal with demand, so Yvon is building a bigger mill:

If anyone wants a millstone for neck purposes, here's one that's waiting to be mounted on the new mill:

Here's the press, working on sunflower seed. The seed comes down from a hopper above, the oil flows out through the pipe, the oilcake is ejected on the far side. The press is Chinese, welded on to a frame by Yvon.

All the produce (including the beef, only part of which is directly sold to consumers, the rest going to a cooperative) is labelled AB, the official French organic label (equivalent to the EU's organic label).

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Historically, the area grew wheat and had hilly exposure to wind, so there were windmills: you know, the kind that ground flour and got tilted at by mad hidalgos.

It seemed to me a neat idea to present the generating windmill as the modern version of the old sail windmill. I asked Yvon if that was part of the marketing for his wind-milled flour.

Nope. He'd never thought of it.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Wed Jun 9th, 2010 at 09:42:01 AM EST
this is the future, and yes it can be done.

very uplifting diary, thanks.

'The history of public debt is full of irony. It rarely follows our ideas of order and justice.' Thomas Piketty

by melo (melometa4(at)gmail.com) on Wed Jun 9th, 2010 at 02:02:58 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Excellent diary, thank you.

Does he have a river/stream that can be converted to a watermill ?

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Wed Jun 9th, 2010 at 09:50:14 AM EST
Nothing big enough. And small watercourses tend to run dry here in summer.

He might be tempted by photovoltaic (since the success of his early plans means he'll be needing more electricity yet), but says he'll never hand the job over to outside contractors again, he'll do it himself.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Wed Jun 9th, 2010 at 10:08:15 AM EST
[ Parent ]
He should introduce himself to Dick Strawbridge

keep to the Fen Causeway
by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Wed Jun 9th, 2010 at 10:38:02 AM EST
[ Parent ]
This is fantastic! Both the diary and Yvon's setup.

Just out of curiosity, do you have any idea what volume of oil & flour he produces?  And I'd guess the production is seasonal?

by the stormy present (stormypresent aaaaaaat gmail etc) on Wed Jun 9th, 2010 at 10:30:46 AM EST
You've got me there! I was busy asking him about the windmill.

I know he sells between 2 and 2.5 tonnes of flour a year through our local food "co-op", and about 3.5 hectolitres of oil. Also about 200 kg of lentils, and almost as much chick peas. He delivers to several other similar "co-ops" and also to organic grocers, apart from business transacted on the farm.

He can store the wheat and seed, etc, and so produce and bag or bottle the finished product on demand, all year round.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Wed Jun 9th, 2010 at 10:48:53 AM EST
[ Parent ]
A second cousin of mine - Torrey Reade - and husband have this operation Neptune Farm .

paul spencer
by paul spencer (spencerinthegorge AT yahoo DOT com) on Wed Jun 9th, 2010 at 11:53:41 AM EST
Interesting stuff on the practicalities of renewable energy and of reducing yer carbon footprint:

http://www.neptunefarm.com/Renewable%20energy.htm

fairleft

by fairleft (fairleftatyahoodotcom) on Wed Jun 9th, 2010 at 01:34:22 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Inspiring.

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre
by ATinNM on Wed Jun 9th, 2010 at 02:20:11 PM EST
Great reading, hope other farmers get inspired by Yvon.
by Fran (fran at eurotrib dot com) on Sun Jun 13th, 2010 at 01:58:06 AM EST
The neighbouring wheat farmers all lost money on the last harvest. They are all thinking of going organic. There are subsidies to help the conversion process (it takes three years), so some of them may be eyeing that. And probably none of them are thinking of the windmill/flour mill set-up. Just selling their wheat at a reasonable price based on cost of production.
by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Sun Jun 13th, 2010 at 04:45:51 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Going "organic," i.e., going back to sustainable farming practices, is the sina qua non of getting ourselves out of the mess we're in.  The second step is the Farmers need to start thinking about how to grab the final consumer dollar or, in your case, euro.  For wheat bread is the primary consumer product, obviously, so your local producers should start thinking about how to tap that market.  

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre
by ATinNM on Sun Jun 13th, 2010 at 12:05:44 PM EST
[ Parent ]
A market they would be looking at is chickenfeed. In 2004 the EU tightened up its organic label by demanding that more than half the grain fed to organic poultry (or pork etc) should be produced on the farm itself. This meant that only farmers with the necessary land surface and infrastructure could produce organic poultry etc.

The rules have now been relaxed, creating space in the market for smallholders who will buy in the grains they need. Also creating a market for cereal producers who will sell to them.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Sun Jun 13th, 2010 at 02:51:08 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I wasn't aware of that, that was a really dumb move (no doubt intended to wreck the organic sector). Glad to hear it's been relaxed.

Does a move to organic arable framing require a return to crop rotation ? If so with what ? might that include animals ?

keep to the Fen Causeway

by Helen (lareinagal at yahoo dot co dot uk) on Sun Jun 13th, 2010 at 04:35:39 PM EST
[ Parent ]
It's a bit more complicated than that. There was organic-movement pressure behind the 2004 ruling to tie animal production "to the soil", in the name of authentic local produce and of diversity on the farm -- and I recently heard organic-movement people complaining the new relaxed ruling is meant to kill organic farming...

There's a continuum between self-sufficiency at one end and free trade at the other, and the allowed percentages (2004 and 2009) of animal feed bought in from off the farm are benchmarks on that line. What some organic people fear is that the game is now too open and will favourise, in particular, (comparative-advantage) specialisation and a tendency towards monoculture.

Because, afaik, there is nothing in the chart that forces an organic farmer to prove s/he's rotating crops. Organic farmers in fact do this as a matter of course (and it may include animals, as on Yvon's farm, where the muck goes to the soil, as well as intercropping with proteaginous plants). But, if larger numbers of grain farmers take the subsidies and "convert", they may be tempted (not being necessarily believers in organic principles) to specialise in, say, wheat, buy in organic fertiliser, and sell the crop on to middlemen.

So some fear this. I'd say that if we want a higher percentage of organic production in total production, it's probably a necessary stage to go through.

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Tue Jun 15th, 2010 at 12:51:24 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Looks like necessity makes once more a great teacher. I really wish farming go back to organic and sustainable.

afew:

probably none of them are thinking of the windmill/flour mill set-up.

Looks to me like there is a PR problem - funny that all those marketing firms haven't jumpt on this yet.

by Fran (fran at eurotrib dot com) on Mon Jun 14th, 2010 at 01:04:43 AM EST
[ Parent ]
Well, if all the local farmers got on to the flourmill bandwagon, they'd quickly saturate local demand. Two or three might be able to get into the local market, but no more. The jump from there to creating a brand and selling to organic grocery or supermarket chains is one that would take more capital and business acumen than they are likely to have.

Yvon also supplies Yannick the baker (who also supplies our "co-op"). Here's some wholemeal sourdough:

by afew (afew(a in a circle)eurotrib_dot_com) on Mon Jun 14th, 2010 at 04:11:56 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Driving through Cheyenne, Wyoming a few weeks ago I saw small wind turbines like the one pictured- generating power in suburban backyards. Wyoming is a windy place, and some folks there find a personal wind turbine worthwhile.

There are also some large scale wind farms up there, including one next to the oil refinery in Casper (nice contrast), with more on the way.

by US Blues on Sun Jun 13th, 2010 at 10:40:58 AM EST
There's quite a number of small wind turbines in my neck of New Mexico.  Most of them are idle or spinning purposely due to, truth be told, crappy engineering from being bought in the DFH days.  That experience, and  everybody either put one in or knows someone who did, has soured people on the concept of local wind power generation.

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre
by ATinNM on Sun Jun 13th, 2010 at 12:14:04 PM EST
[ Parent ]
That's too bad! Crappy engineering always causes problems.
by sgr2 on Sun Jun 13th, 2010 at 04:47:47 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Herr von Crazy Horse would know better than I ...

It seems there were some companies that got into making wind turbines with more enthusiasm than expertise back then.  The tools were around - wind tunnels & such - but it didn't occur to anyone, apparently, to cough up the cash to run their prototypes through Quality Assurance and Quality Control.  

She believed in nothing; only her skepticism kept her from being an atheist. -- Jean-Paul Sartre

by ATinNM on Sun Jun 13th, 2010 at 07:51:00 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Wasn't a lack of QC, merely a matter of start-up companies at a time when the technology was not well developed.  today one can buy small windmills from yacht mast battery chargers to 100 kW farm size that perform as planned.

"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage." - Anas Nin
by Crazy Horse on Tue Jun 15th, 2010 at 06:51:19 AM EST
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