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This Vegetable Vending Machine Could Save France's Bankrupt Farmers

As French farmers compete with the cheap, food imports sold in many supermarkets, Paris shop Au Bout Du Champ is cutting out the middleman by selling local produce in coin-operated automat machines.

George Nelson

All photos by the author.

Right now, it's not much fun being a French farmer.

As France's major supermarkets favour foreign imports over home-grown produce, the country's food prices have plummeted and 10 percent of its livestock farms now find themselves on the brink of bankruptcy. Strategically placed shit heaps fester in cities as makeshift blockades against trucks bringing Spanish and German food into the country, while François Hollande's promises of tax relief for farmers have been criticised for failing to deal with the "distortion of competition."

But in a former philosophy cafe tucked away on the Rue des Dames in the north-western quadrant of Paris, an agricultural revolution is stirring.

Au Bout Du Champ ("At the end of the field") is a shop creating a direct link between grower and consumer using a distribution system that rose to prominence during the Great Depression and post-war era US: the automat.

READ MORE: Farmers Are Trying to Protect France's Food by Blocking the Borders

Back in the day, the chrome and glass-fronted automat vending machines dispensed everything from cream spinach to apple pie for hungry Americans in need of a quick, cheap bite.

But at Au Bout Du Champ, the automat is reinvented as a portal between Paris and the French countryside. Two hundred Perspex-fronted, coin-operated compartments are crammed with organic fresh fruit, vegetables, and eggs sourced from the Île-de-France area, no more than 50 kilometres outside of the city.

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An automat machine at Paris shop Au Bout Du Champ. Photo by the author.

Producers take as up to 50 percent of the proceeds, a far higher cut than that offered by many supermarkets and one made possible thanks to Au Bout Du Champ's self-service system and minimal staff expenses.

"The big distributors have killed small producers in France in the last ten years," explains Julian, who began Au Bout Du Champ with friend Joseph. "Supermarkets like Monoprix demand cheap prices for food but the fruit and vegetables are not fresh and are imported from places like South America—they're terrible and it's not logical. Every weekend, I go to my parent's house for a traditional Sunday lunch and we always buy well-priced, freshly picked produce from the farmer who has a stall close to the road. In the city there is nowhere to buy such food."

Julian aired his grievances to Joseph and the pair decided to act. Coin-operated lockers used for temporarily stashing valuables at Gare de Lyon inspired them to adopt the automat format but because the model is based on self-service without shop assistants, there was no telling how the public would respond.

Julian and Joseph set up their first shop in Paris' Levallois-Perret commune two years ago before rolling out the more central Rue De Dames joint in 2014. Both were installed with cameras to gauge shoppers' reaction.

"My mum told me it was a bad idea because when she buys vegetables, she likes to speak with the seller. She also likes to touch the tomatoes to feel if they are ready to eat," says Julien. "I understand but imagine 100 people touching your tomatoes before you buy them—it's not hygienic."

He shows me the video taken inside the first shop and explains that customers did not seem to miss the traditional buyer-seller dynamic.

"After a month or so we noticed that because there was no specific relationship between us—the seller—and the buyer, a bond was born between the consumers," he adds. "The people entering the shop speak with one another about cooking, how the system works, and sometimes team up and divide the contents of each locker depending on what they want. It's like a community."

READ MORE: Feeling Shat Upon by Regulations, French Farmers Dumped Manure on Government Buildings

The pair aren't the only ones to see the automat's potential in bridging the divide between producer and customer. In Scotland, East Perthshire farmer Peter Grewar uses a similar vending machine to sell potatoes at Dundee's Overgate Shopping Centre.

"It only took five minutes to fill them [the automat machines] up each morning and they became popular very quickly. We are only 30 minutes drive from Perth and Dundee so we thought if we took the idea into the city, it would work better," explains Grewer. "Our prices are very competitive and there is nobody between us and the consumer so we save money and can communicate directly with the public."

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A wall of self-service automat machines containing produce from local farmers.

Back in Paris, Julien and Joseph's automats are supplied by not just one, but four producers. The seasonal fruit and veg is sent to the shops every day, equating to about 25 to 20 percent of each farmer's overall production. Information displayed near each automat explains the farmers' stories and the philosophy of supporting local businesses. Thanks to the self-service operation, the shops stay open seven days a week—a rarity in Paris.

The pair are setting up third automat shop at the end of the year, as well as working on a home delivery system.

"We are constantly speaking with the farmers, working out how we can do more, how to get fresh food straight to Parisians' tables. The fact that they get 50 percent of the price is very important," says Julian. "It's also about education and showing people how good food is grown, where it comes from, and the value of supporting local economies."

As tensions between France's farmers and its supermarkets show little sign of easing, Joseph and Julian's fresh, coin-operated approach may be the way forward.