For centuries, southeastern Grasse has been a flower growing hub for the fragrance industry. Though regular business from luxury titans has been a lifeline for local farmers, they're finding it hard to survive in the globalized market.
GRASSE — It's 8 a.m. here in the hills of southeastern France. Some 20 women and a few men, all wearing hats and big linen aprons, are tirelessly picking Centifolia roses.
Leaning over bushes with tender green foliage and thorny stems, the pickers, all seasonal workers, hold each open flower between their thumbs and their index fingers, before delicately cutting under the calyx. A burly man regularly loads a truck with huge jute bags filled with flowers to be taken to the distillery.
In the region around the city of Grasse, there are only 40 to 50 hectares left of land reserved for the cultivation of fragrant flowers, including Centifolia roses and jasmine, and to a much lesser extent, iris, orange blossoms and geraniums.
At the beginning of the last century, the fields stretched as far as the eye could see between the Esterel Mountains and the sea; but now, there's almost nothing left. Intense land speculation took its toll, and housing developments eventually replaced the flowers.
Today, a hectare of agricultural land in the region can be bought for around 150,000 euros. "That's a hundred times more than in Normandy," claims Sébastien Rodriguez, who runs a rose garden called "La Roseraie du Vignal" in Grasse.
The flower-growing profession has been killed off by the massive offshoring of floriculture to countries with low-cost labor such as Bulgaria, Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt and India, and by the arrival of synthetic ingredients in the perfume industry.
And yet, in this industry that seemed to be dying, new floral career interests are blossoming.
"It took Chanel and Dior, the leaders in the luxury business, to play the game and sign long-term contracts with farmers, and that shocked industry professionals," Rodriguez says.
In 1987, Chanel was the first to sign an agreement with the Mul family — whose members own the biggest estate in Grasse (20 hectares) — to buy its entire jasmine and rose harvests.
Like his predecessors, Olivier Polge, the "nose" of Chanel, wants to control his supply of roses to offer a consistent quality of perfume, whether it is for the brand's NÂ°5, NÂ°19 or Allure fragrance. "I need 40 tons of rose petals and seven tons of jasmine every year," he explains.
Thanks to Grasse's fertile soil and microclimate, the perfume of flowers harvested there is nothing like that of Indian jasmine, which is 30 times cheaper, or that of the Damask rose, which is cultivated in Bulgaria.
For this reason, in 2006 Parfums Christian Dior signed a long-term pre-purchase agreement with the Domaine de Manon, and then more recently, with the Clos de Callian, a harvester located in the town where the famous couturier is buried.
For his next Miss Dior perfume, Absolutely Blooming, perfumer François Demachy is using one kilogram of fresh roses for every 100-ml bottle of juice. Today, he's concerned about the "real shortage of roses" on the market.
Flowers with exceptional quality
Today, around thirty farmers are based in and around Grasse. Over the last decade, about a dozen young people have started working there, which is an encouraging sign.
Carole Biancala, who runs the Domaine de Manon, fought alongside Rodriguez to bring the sparkle back to their profession. They created the group "Les Fleurs d'exception du Pays de Grasse" (The Exceptional Flowers of the Region of Grasse) to promote organic production, and they urge members to establish regular clients by signing long-term contracts with luxury brands and manufacturers. Rodriguez works for International Flavors & Fragrances, and provides the leader of flavors and perfumes with kilos upon kilos of organic flowers, seeds and leaves, for its research and development laboratory.
At Mouans-Sartoux, Yann Meistro is specialized in the cultivation of dried rose buds, which he sells to a big food company. Some of his colleagues have long-term contracts with Japanese firm Shiseido and the Brazilian company Natura, among others. Louis Vuitton has a similar kind of deal in place.
Biancala and Rodriguez don't just defend the exceptional quality of their flowers, they also help new farmers to settle in the area.
One such newcomer is Armelle Janody, a former literature professor, who took over the Clos de Callian in 2012, when "the old-timers looked at us with smirks and were a bit curious." Today, she sells her entire crop to Dior.
Christelle Archer quit her job as sales manager in a finance company to run a small farm with 7,500 square meters of orange blossoms, jasmine and roses.
"At the chamber of agriculture, they called me a fool," she says. But after she bought an expensive lot on the hills of Antibes, the young woman is already expecting to sign a long-term contract with a renowned perfumer, though she only started her business last January,
"I have a sore back, calluses on my hands and I work every day, all year, but it's amazing," she says. "I wouldn't like these flowers to be used for detergents' scents! It's so much commitment, time and self-sacrifice that I'd rather work with a nose who can recognize a flower's quality."
Fatal hail and cold
Due to its unpredictable nature, flower harvesting doesn't really make farmers rich. A kilogram of absolute roses (used by perfumers) sells for 15,000 euros and requires around 700 kilos of flowers.
All farmers study the weather forecasts carefully, fearing hailstorms and extreme cold. They work relentlessly.
"I survive, I pay my bills, but the first three years were very, very difficult," says Meistro.
Still, they have come a long way. In the 1990s, Rodriguez, as the son of a farmer, recalls the hit the region took from massive offshoring.
In the 1920s, a farmer might harvest 1,200 tons of blossom flowers, 1,000 tons of roses and 850 tons of jasmine. By 2012, these numbers had dropped to 69, 76 and 12 tons respectively.
"It's a profession where many have suffered â€¦ For a long time, around the middle of May, at the distillery, farmers were told that there was no more need of flowers because of overproduction," says Janody.
It took a while for politicians to react. Jean-Pierre Leleux, a former mayor of Grasse, is now fighting to get the traditional flower growing skills registered on the UNESCO list of Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
Meanwhile, the current mayor of Grasse, Jérôme Viaud, believes that one of the main concerns in the development of the town's planning will be how to maintain the most fertile agricultural lands. Viaud wants to preserve a total of 70 hectares and classify them as a protected agricultural area, to allow new farmers to settle there.
But even if they find a piece of land, new farmers will face another obstacle: finding staff for the grafting of roses and jasmine. It's a real headache, because in Grasse, there are only three or four "grafters" left and they are all around 70 years old. The next generation must step in now.