Dompaire (France) (AFP)

"It's a bet for the future!": In the Drought-stricken Vosges, Jean-Luc Bernard cultivates a promising plant, silphia, over a hundred hectares, much less greedy in water and phytosanitary products than corn or soybeans, for feeding their cows and methanization.

On a field in the Dompaire valley, the silphia, planted last year, displays its tall stems next to a barely field of corn, crushed by the sun. "The corn is roasted ...", sighs Amédée Perrein, manager of the Vosges agricultural trade HADN.

Perennial plant that can reach 3.50 m in height and native to North America, the silphia grew in France until the years 1960-1970, before being gradually abandoned. Primarily intended for anaerobic digestion (a process for upgrading livestock effluents which, mixed with plants, produce biogas and then electricity), it also includes feed for ruminants.

It is in Germany, which has 6,000 hectares of cultivation, that Mr. Perrein unearthed the seeds of this plant "with flagship advantages".

In 2019, 160 hectares were sown in the Vosges, Haute-Saône and Haute-Marne, then 750 hectares this year in 29 departments. The only distributor in France of silphia seeds, owned by two German agricultural groups, Mr. Perrein's business has seeds for 3,000 hectares to be planted next year.

"It's an ecological plant!", Enthuses Mr. Perrein, recalling that it does not need to be irrigated thanks to its roots which develop up to 2 m deep, as close as possible to the water tables. phreatic.

Sown only once, the plant with large yellow flowers grows every year between spring and summer and hardly needs attention for at least fifteen years. "It is a saving of burden for the farmer", who, in addition to an annual fertilization, no longer has any sowing, plowing, or phytosanitary treatments to carry out after the first year, underlines Noémie Choffel, agronomy advisor at the Chamber of Agriculture of the Vosges.

- Not a "miracle" plant -

Jean-Luc Bernard, a cattle breeder, has already planted 114 hectares of silphia and plans to sow it on all of his plots by 2021. The 52-year-old farmer recently installed a methaniser in Dompaire.

The cost of establishing the silphia - 3,600 euros per hectare - did not discourage him. “For the price of a tractor, silphia is planted over more than fifty hectares!” He exclaims, listing the savings in labor time achieved over the years.

"We cannot present the silphia as a crop of tomorrow to replace corn, it remains sensitive to the lack of water", nuance Marielle Stimpfling, arable crop advisor at the Chamber of Agriculture of Alsace, region where the plant blooms on about fifty hectares.

Between the absence of rain in spring and the summer drought, a water supply is necessary, "otherwise it will not give anything", according to the advisor.

"In times of drought, silphia will yield less than a good year, but it will yield more than other plants," retorts Mr. Perrein.

"It is not the miracle plant", he admits, but a first cut in mid-June "gives farmers a security of fodder before the big blows" of drought which force them to buy straw, he explains. he.

For the agricultural chambers of Vosges and Alsace, however, the protein content of the plant remains insufficient to replace corn or even soybeans.

"The silphia fills the stomach, makes the animals ruminate, but does not give them many energetic elements", warns Mrs. Stimpfling, who nevertheless recognizes many advantages for methanization. "We have very little perspective on this plant" whose only literature at the present time dates from the 1970s, she also recalls.

Around the large yellow petals of the silphia buzz the bees of fifteen hives, installed by a beekeeper at the edge of the plot which delighted Mr. Perrein: "It is a very honey-bearing plant and a watering hole for insects and birds with its domed leaves that retain water. "

© 2020 AFP