Agriculture remains a vital sector of the French economy, even though it engages only about 4% of the labor force and contributes about 3% of the GDP. Since the early 1970s, the agricultural labor force has diminished by about 60%. France, whose farms export more agricultural food products than any other EU nation (accounting for 22% of the EU's total agricultural output), is the only country in Europe to be completely self-sufficient in basic food production; moreover, the high quality of the nation's agricultural products contributes to the excellence of its famous cuisine. France is one of the leaders in Europe in the value of agricultural exports—chiefly wheat, sugar, wine, and beef. Tropical commodities, cotton, tobacco, and vegetable oils are among the chief agricultural imports.
As of 1998 35% of France's area was arable. About 11.8 million ha (29.1 million acres) of the usable farm area is under annual crops, with another 228,000 ha (563,000 acres) in permanent crops. There were 735,000 farms in France in 1995, of which only 454,000 were managed by full-time farmers. Since the 1950s, the number of farms has declined and the size of individual holdings has increased. By 1983 there were about 1.13 million farms, as compared to 2.3 million in 1955, and the average farm size was about 26 hectares (64 acres). Average farm size had grown to around 50 ha (124 acres) in 2000. Because French law provides for equal rights of inheritance, traditionally much of the farmland came to be split up into small, scattered fragments. One of the major aims of postwar plans for rural improvement has been the consolidation of these through reallotment. Such consolidation also fosters the growth of mechanization. In 1998 there were 1,270,000 tractors (fourth in the world after the United States, Japan, and Italy) compared with 100,000 in 1948, and 1,327,900 in 1974.
Of the total productive agricultural area, about 61% is under cultivation, 35% is pasture, and 4% vineyards. The most productive farms are in northern France, but specialized areas, such as the vegetable farms of Brittany, the great commercial vineyards of the Languedoc, Burgundy, and Bordeaux districts, and the flower gardens, olive groves, and orchards of Provence, also contribute heavily to the farm economy.
Among agricultural products, cereals (wheat, barley, oats, corn, and sorghum), industrial crops (sugar beets, flax), root crops (potatoes), and wine are by far the most important. In 1999, the wheat crop totaled 37,009,000 tons and barley, 9,548,000 tons. Other totals (in tons) included oats, 550,000; corn, 15,628,000; sugar beets, 32,776,000; rapeseed, 4,469,000 tons; and sunflower seed, 1,871,000 tons. Wine production in 1999 totaling 6,625,000 tons from 8,001,000 tons of grapes. There is large-scale production of fruits, chiefly apples, pears, peaches, and cherries.