In the midst of his sheep, Christian Cros does not lose his temper in the face of what he describes as the “erosion” of a know-how of several centuries.

“When I was ten years old, there were 4,000 farms, today it’s 1,300!”, Denounces this 56-year-old breeder living in Saint-Rome-de-Cernon, near Roquefort-sur-Soulzon , where the tomes of the first French cheese recognized with a designation of origin in 1925 are matured, which has become a protected designation of origin (PDO) recognized at European level.

Behind him, a huge inscription “Société tu m’auras pas” is painted on the wall of his agricultural building, alluding to a song by Renaud and to Société des caves, a subsidiary of Lactalis, the main industrialist in the sector.

With a herd of 380 animals, Christian Cros represents the Peasant Confederation within the General Confederation of Roquefort (CGR), where the milk producers and the seven manufacturers, three industrialists and four independents sit.

He denounces a “fall in the price of milk” and in the number of producers “since Lactalis bought Société des caves in 1992”.

– Decline in consumption –

The secretary general of the CGR Sébastien Vignette speaks rather of “eroding consumption for several years”, of 1% per year, a reduction comparable to that of farms dedicated to Roquefort.

As for the multinational dairy, which claims to produce “52% of the 15,885 tonnes of the total volume of Roquefort”, it specifies that it “significantly increased” the price of milk in October.

The group with 22 billion euros in turnover, including 120 million from Roquefort, also estimates that it generates 5,000 direct and indirect jobs in the region.

A gigantic weight, particularly in Roquefort-sur-Soulzon where Lactalis owns 80% of the buildings and the land, including the majority of the cellars, large natural caves where the volumes are aligned on wooden spans for a unique refining.

Hugues Meaudre, general manager of the Lactalis AOP and terroir division, told AFP that the group plays “the role of locomotive to pull this AOP”.

“The sector is in a slightly negative position. Our first line of work is to stabilize its volumes and, once stabilized, we will have to start growing again”, he explains.

But for Véronique Richez-Lerouge, president and founder of the Fromage de terroirs association, the presence of such actors in such a typical sector is “toxic”.

“Industrial cheeses represent 90% of the French cheese platter. They have something to express themselves. Why do they come in the AOP? It’s for the image”, she believes.

Hugues Meaudre prefers to evoke “the love of the product of the shareholders of Lactalis”.

“In the AOP, a high-end segment comparable to that of haute couture, we should limit the presence of multinationals to allow a sector to hatch in a harmonious way”, retorts Ms. Richez-Lerouge.

– Haute couture or industry –

For Vincent Combes, boss of the Combes house, which manually produces 180 tonnes of Roquefort Vieux Berger per year, “the advantage is that everyone has their place, their market, their quality”. “We respect the specifications, but we give ourselves other constraints to have a product of excellence”, underlines this master cheesemaker, the smallest manufacturer of the AOP.

But according to Christian Cros, with Société des caves, which his family has been supplying for three generations, the pitfall lies in the price of milk and the proportion transformed.

“Roquefort is very well paid. But we ask the manufacturer to transform at least 50% of our production into Roquefort, and it’s barely 10%”, deplores this farmer who sells his milk at a price average of €1.17 per litre.

“In the Roquefort basin, we collect 117 million liters of sheep’s milk, a third of this milk is devoted to Roquefort”, assures Hugues Meaudre, the other two thirds being used for “diversification”, in other words industrial sheep cheeses.

Sébastien Vignette is however delighted with a collective that “lives well” and where all the actors, industrialists and small producers, are working on “Roquefort Tomorrow”, a “vast tourist development project” supposed to see the light of day in 2025, for the centenary of the PDO.