How to Save Rural France

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Photograph by Ambroise Tezenas for TIME

Rough pastures In France, life on the farm is changing, with farmers having to cultivate more land, more efficiently and at less cost

Surrounded by a deep blue sky and the green-fleeced slopes of rolling Basque-country hills, Bernadette Pochelu winds her way between an outdoor pen of pigs, a noisy barn full of lambs, and her zigzagging dog, whose barks announce each change of its mistress's direction. She strolls through a milking hangar and cheesemaking area, and finally the shop where she and husband Jean-Claude sell specialty Basque cheeses, sausages and ham to the around 10,000 people who visit their Agerria farm each year. Many who go for a free tour of the homestead in Saint-Martin-d'Arberoue, about 40 km west of Bayonne, wind up taking armfuls of its products home — or bedding down in one of the five B&B rooms the Pochelus operate. Their workdays stretch from 6:30 a.m. until after 8 p.m., with only a 20-minute break for lunch and the odd moment between chores to contemplate the single week of vacation they get away for each year. "Still, I wouldn't trade this for anything," Bernadette Pochelu says.

What the Pochelus have at Agerria is an example of how many of France's smallholding farmers are adapting to secure their futures. It involves finding a way out of a tightening trap of falling prices that markets are willing to pay for produce, together with plans to reduce aid and decouple it from production criteria when the European Union's current $1.1 trillion Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) expires in 2013. That challenge is especially critical for French farmers, who currently receive nearly 20% of CAP funding — a total package worth about $54 billion this year alone. E.U. criteria linking subsidies to greener, sustainable farming practices and wider rural development rather than traditional production volumes will expand considerably, placing additional pressure on France, whose $82 billion agricultural sector is by far the largest in Europe. While no one expects that financial support to go away, it's already clear its enormous costs to the E.U. — which spends around 45% of its entire budget on agriculture — will force farmers to look for new ways of doing business, and with less aid.

Both farm productivity and competition have surged in the past two decades, while the wholesaling and food-processing businesses in European agriculture have undergone significant consolidation. Globalization means that food companies can shop around, so fewer farmers can find industrial buyers willing to pay them as much as it costs to produce fruit, vegetables, milk and meat. Some French farmers prefer to give their produce away — or dump it in protest. For many, the choice is now a stark one: find some new way to make ends meet, or risk being a victim to a farm sector that's predicted to shrink.

All of this is part of a wider evolution that has brought profound changes to rural France. The land — fruitful, fertile and able to deliver the highest-quality products to consumers — has been an important part of modern France's mental makeup, and has assumed a central role over decades of French economic development as other E.U. neighbors focused on industry. La France profonde, an almost untranslatable term, conjures up the idea that the "real" France is rural France, found in the landscape that shifts constantly from plain to mountain and back again, and which produces here a cuisine based on butter, but just over there, one that relies on oil. It's not just the French who think there's something magical about it all; at a time of the year when TV viewers around the world are watching the Tour de France wind its way through the countryside, the sense that there is something special about rural France is one that has long been held far beyond the Hexagon.

But rural France has been changing for years. François Purseigle, an expert in rural sociology and an agriculture professor at the National Polytechnic Institute of Toulouse, says that fully half of France's active population worked in agriculture at the turn of the 20th century. But the sector has shed 4 million jobs in the past 40 years, and now accounts for less than 3% of the national workforce. Purseigle says the number of farms in France has plunged from 2 million in 1960 to around 657,000 now, and only 346,500 of those are classified as professional operations under cultivation. With fewer children stepping up to take over from retiring parents, the total number of farms is set to drop further to 320,000 by 2020. Many of those, meanwhile, will bear no resemblance to the family-run farms of yore, but instead take the form of the megaoperations dominating grain production in the Ile-de-France region — historically the nation's breadbasket. Those have brought an industrial mind-set to agriculture by relying on massive production, using dwindling numbers of farmers to cultivate multiple holdings that were abandoned by retiring neighbors, and raising crops for wholesalers who supply food-processing companies.

"As recently as 20 or 30 years ago, there were 120 smallholding farmers in our village compared to two or three now — and they all cultivate areas covering four or five older farms just to survive," says Joseph Lacroix, 80, who along with wife Marie-Thérèse worked their corn and kiwi farm 160 km south of Bordeaux before retiring and handing it over to their son in 1992. Before they did, they transformed buildings on the farm into two studios and a guest room to rent to tourists to fill revenue shortfalls, and they continue running the operation to augment their pension. A vacation in the country "is something that appeals to people with memories of childhood summers spent on their grandparents' farm, or who want their children to see what farms are like," says Marie-Thérèse Lacroix. But as a business, she continues, it is "too small to turn back the trends we've seen in recent decades. No one wants to inherit family farms because it's too much work for too little money, and that's emptying the countryside."

It's tempting to explain the change as a consequence of globalization — and its impact on the relatively high costs of agricultural production in France. Though the amount of French land cultivated has steadily reduced over time to 32 million hectares, French farmers have adapted and modernized to increase volumes, cut costs, and boost efficiency. In 1970, the work of each French farmer fed 15 people; now it feeds 60. But however French farmers have improved their efficiency, wholesalers and food processors now can access even cheaper alternatives — wheat from Ukraine, strawberries from Morocco.

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