Because I didn't really understand what they were planting in Monsieur F's field in the spring, I posted a question to Total France. This is what Colebags told me:
It's jolly hard work, very labour intensive and not yet automated (here at least).
Picture a small group of itinerate workers (on minimum wage paid via cheque d'emploi service) standing around a table in an open sided barn in February, temperature near freezing. A lorry reverses in and tips its load of baby betterave onto and against the table. The workers trim the beets, no conversation allowed until a brief coffee break, then on again with the pile of beet gradually diminishing until lunch. Assorted packed lunches and friendly chatter until it's time to start again. The group continue to work until 18h30, it's dark and bitterly cold and at no time have there been chairs to sit on apart from in their own vehicles at lunchtime.
Trimming the beets is considered easy money compared to planting ....
The people I met were embarking on a year of planting and harvesting, following the seasons and the various crops, they are back in the region now to harvest melons. They were happy to work, knew the farmers well and didn't complain.
The farmer and his wife worked along side during the morning, leaving the others to continue without them in the afternoon, a couple from Morocco, a single man also from Morocco and a young couple from the north of the region who lived in an old van with two dogs, a cat and a wonderful zest for life!
We have the utmost respect for the people who work in the fields, it is a jolly hard life.