Edible seeds in short supply chains

In the Berry region of Nerondes, France, Marion Breteau and Damien Sneessens produce a wide range of “super­food” seeds, which they market under their own brand. In doing so, they now buy from some 50 contract farmers. We meet this couple of young farmers, full of initia­tive and convic­tion.

At the end of her agri­cul­tural studies, Marion Breteau completed a six-month intern­ship, supporting projects for processing and selling farm prod­ucts. When her partner Damien, whom she met in engi­neering school, took over his family farm in 2015, they had a light­bulb moment and decided to sell their produce through short local supply chains. “We saw the concept as a whole channel, with the idea of managing the processing and marketing part ourselves,” says Marion. However, beyond the desire for autonomy, it was also about helping to build a resilient cultivation model, with crops that are more resis­tant to adverse weather and requiring fewer inputs. “This model promised to offer better value,” Marion remarks.

The exten­sion of the crop rota­tion gives us secu­rity, partic­u­larly with regard to climate hazards, but it also allows us to fight natu­rally against weeds.

Damien Sneessens

In search of a niche, the couple decided to go for quinoa. After a trip to Peru to study the cultivation system, they sowed a few trial hectares. Quinoa is a spring crop with very small seeds. It resists water stress well but requires careful planting and does not have conven­tion­ally approved herbi­cides. “We have there­fore put in a lot of work into mechan­ical weeding,” says Marion. “After sowing, preci­sion hoeing (by camera) is the other very impor­tant step in growing the crop, on row spacing of 45cm. We start quite early, and we can do up to three weeding passes.” Other­wise, the crop requires little in terms of inputs, partic­u­larly fertiliser.


Quinoa toler­ates water stress well but remains sensi­tive to heat stress during key devel­op­mental stages. The plant requires little input, espe­cially little fertil­izer. In terms of plant diseases, it is partic­u­larly suscep­tible to downy mildew.

Processing from A to Z

In parallel to their trials, Marion and Damien began to study the processing process. The goal was to step by step finance it and grad­u­ally take over the full process on their farm. This included taking in contract farmers’ crops at harvest, storing them in silos, a sorting line, huller, bagger, etc. “At the start, almost every­thing was subcon­tracted,” remem­bers Marion. “As the volumes grew, we invested. Every­thing is now done on site.”  

While this processing chain was getting under way, the couple were also looking for ways to market their farm prod­ucts in short local supply chan­nels. An initial brand, “Sa majesté la graine” (‘His majesty the seed’), was launched in 2018 for conven­tional quinoa, sold first in markets and in farm shops. However, they needed to diver­sify their customer base. “We just went for it,” recalls Marion. “We visited a lot of trade shows, partic­u­larly food trade shows (SIAL, and SIRHA in Lyon). We went to further proc­cessor stands saying: ‘We are going to produce these seeds, are you inter­ested, and in what volumes?’ In this way, we managed to put in place multi-year contracts.” 

The farm culti­vates 270 hectares, 100 hectares of which are organic, with a very varied crop rota­tion.

Through the initial sale to agri­cul­tural trade compa­nies and coop­er­a­tives, the entire processing chain on the farm could be financed step by step.

Storage in silos, sorting, peeling, bagging… every­thing is now done on the farm.

Today 40% of produc­tion is sold through a short supply chain.

Quinoa accounts for 65% of the quan­ti­ties marketed.

Two brands created

Today, they have diver­si­fied their crops on the family farm, which comprises 270ha, of which 100ha are farmed organ­i­cally. The crops grown now include durum wheat, barley, einkorn, quinoa, various legumes, and, depending on the year, sunflowers, amaranth, trit­i­cale, and buck­wheat as a catch crop. The farm has HVE (high envi­ron­mental value) certi­fi­ca­tion and has created a second organic brand, ‘Graines de sens’ (‘Seeds of meaning’). The couple now also buy from 50 farmers under contract, to safe­guard volumes. Forty percent of the prod­ucts go through “Berry Graines”, the company created for short local supply chains. The rest goes through a farm co-oper­a­tive and traders.

The farm sells to a wide variety of busi­nesses. “This is impor­tant to achieve our sales objec­tives,” says Marion. “Some take a large volume of one product from us, but in future will poten­tially have a need for another seed that we already produce. On the other end of the scale, we have other customers who take the whole range from us.” 

Demanding commu­ni­ca­tion

When Marion and Damien started, they knew nothing about marketing and commu­ni­ca­tions. The begin­nings involved some trial and error. After filing the orig­inal trade­mark with Inpi, the French National Insti­tute of Indus­trial Prop­erty, a letter from a lawyer arrived two months later. “A co-oper­a­tive in Normandy had a name that resem­bled ours and they asked us to with­draw it,” recalls Marion, who recom­mends consulting a lawyer when starting out, to minimise risks. The lawyer will review the existing brands and confirm the validity of the name. “One of the pieces of advice he gave us, even if we didn’t neces­sarily follow it, was that if you want to be sure not to have any trouble, find a name that has nothing to do with the product.” 

We are seeking to build a resilient cultivation model, with crops that are more resis­tant to adverse weather and require fewer inputs. 

Marion Breteau

Once the brand is launched, you then need to manage its image. “We have several websites that need to be main­tained, not to mention Face­book, Insta­gram and Linkedin,” says Marion, who has become more profes­sional at marketing, through several training courses. Texts, photos or videos are devoted to both the prod­ucts and the field work throughout the season. “It involves a lot of moni­toring. You have to respond to comments and publish content regu­larly, always trying to keep the same tone and key messages. The advan­tage is that we now have access to a host of statis­tical tools to better guide our posts.”

“Suffice to say that the time taken up by commu­ni­ca­tion should not be under­es­ti­mated”, warns Marion, who devotes more than two hours a day to it, while remaining involved in the farm’s processing activ­i­ties as well. “Even if my partner some­times teases me by saying that I’m off to have fun on Insta­gram again,” she says with a smile, “it’s real work that is essen­tial from a busi­ness point of view. We have won several contracts via social networks, and as soon as we meet consumers, they tell us ‘we saw that on social media’.” 

While her husband Damien is respon­sible for the field cultivation, Marion Breteau, an agron­o­mist herself, concen­trates on the processing activ­i­ties.
Amaranth, another plant native to South America, has also found its place in the crop rota­tion.

Synergy between crops and live­stock

The farm main­tains 75 suckler cows (Salers and Limou­sins) on its 80ha of grass, in fields unsuit­able for arable crops. These breeds consume little in winter, and concen­trates are fully covered by waste from the sorting line. “We also collect the manure, which is very useful for us (adding nutri­ents and organic matter to the soil). We make our own hay and straw and are thinking about incor­po­rating meadows into the crop rota­tions.” The meat is sold as carcasses – there is no ques­tion of getting involved in local short supply chains here. “When I see the regu­la­tions and the constraints to which we are subject while producing dry prod­ucts, I take my hat off to those who produce fresh food,” says Marion. 

Strong believers in crop-live­stock synergy, this agro­nomic engi­neering couple make no apolo­gies for commu­ni­cating about the interest of plant proteins for their farm brands. “We are not targeting the vege­tarian or vegan public at all,” Marion notes. “But while we remain producers, we like to point out the fact that it is inter­esting, from time to time, to replace animal proteins with plants, partic­u­larly for nutri­tional reasons.” 

Going your own way

Marion Breteau and Damien Sneessens dared to go their own way: They founded the brand “Sa Majesté la Graine”. This means they have short marketing chains and a more resilient oper­ating system with more added value.

Restore meaning

So what are the strengths and constraints of such a system? “There are a lot of new skills to learn. It’s not some­thing that everyone will find rewarding,” insists Marion, a former short supply chain adviser. For example, human resources manage­ment, with the 11 Berry Graines employees, takes up 30% of her working timee. “The problem with having your own brand is that if there is an issue, we are directly respon­sible. We cannot blame anyone else since there are no more inter­me­di­aries. We must there­fore be irre­proach­able in terms of quality.” This also means keeping an objec­tive view with regard to ques­tions of scale. “The risk is in devel­oping the busi­ness too quickly, because very often, there is a consid­er­able demand increase as a result.” 

The couple’s growing repu­ta­tion brings them advan­tages. “It helps us get open­ings with new customers,” acknowl­edges Marion. Rela­tions with banks and insur­ance compa­nies are now stronger after what was a diffi­cult start, due to the unusual nature of the project. Finally, the job is not all about volume or image. “It’s very rewarding thanks to the contact we get with customers and consumers. We are no longer just industry suppliers,” she explains. “Our contract growers are always happy, when they go shop­ping at the super­market, to see the seed packets with their own prod­ucts inside. It makes them proud. They get packets from us and they give them to friends and family. It gives more meaning to the farming profes­sion, and this notion is very impor­tant to us.” 

Brand Berry Graines