How to Save Rural France

  • 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

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    The consequences have been predictable: even as French farms revved efficiency over the past four decades, prices paid for their crops fell 60% during that same period — with a pronounced acceleration in recent years. Accordingly, average per-farm income in France has decreased steadily since 1998, with revenues last year falling 34%, following a 20% drop in 2008. One upshot of that sectorwide pinch is that 26.4% of French farms now qualify as officially poor, nearly double the national figure of 14% of households being below the poverty line. A recent study by a specialized unit of France's state medical-research institute finds suicide rates in the sector are much higher than those among other occupations. "There's never been any other profession that has undergone such radical change or experienced such violent pressure as farming in France in the past four decades," says Purseigle.

    The Lure of the Countryside
    So what will farmers do now? With its increasingly green emphasis linking subsidies to better land use, the E.U. hopes more farms will embrace the booming natural-food market by turning to bio-agriculture. This involves raising relatively small volumes of crops and livestock in natural conditions on land that has been purged of all man-made chemicals used in regular farming. Though such produce fetches more on the market, stringent rules make bio-farming a longer and more laborious activity that generates limited yields. For those reasons, bio-farms aren't expected to surpass their nearly 3% current stake of the entire French sector anytime soon, even though their numbers have increased by an annual average of 2.5% since 2001.

    By contrast, growing numbers are tapping into the urban French's infatuation with the countryside. Though roughly 75% of France's population now lives in cities and towns, the nation's adoration of its countryside means that its villages, farms, plains and rivers are the leading destination in France for both domestic and international tourists. According to France's Chambers of Agriculture, that fondness for the people, places and quality foods rooted in the French terroir already generates around $25 billion in tourism-related income for the countryside per year. "France may live in the cities, but its history is in the country, which is a big reason why so many visit it regularly and hook back up with our traditions," says Agnès de Saint-Aubin, who a decade ago adapted the Picardy grain farm that has been in her family for three generations to offer lodging, meals and educational visits to school groups and tourists who travel there to experience a slice of rustic life. Saint-Aubin, 58, now draws between 250,000 and 300,000 people to her farm each year, producing over a quarter of its revenues. "People want to learn about and interact with the people and animals that have fed this nation and its culture for centuries, and there are lots of farmers like us only too happy to provide that," she says. "These days, outsiders seem aware that financial pressure is reducing the number of French farmers, and that our way of life is disappearing."

    Agro-tourism is big wherever old rural ways are under threat, but its potential is particularly high in France. Despite the country's dominant Jacobin ideology of one country, one language, one people, the French have long shrugged off a national myth of uniformity and headed for areas where regional flavors and customs remain vibrant. In The Discovery of France, an excellent 2007 historical exploration of France's evolution into an integrated nation, British author Graham Robb detailed how those in large cities shunned and disdained the countryside and its inhabitants as semisavages long into the 19th century. It was only when central leaders decided to seek out, tame and assimilate the bumpkins in the interests of creating a more stable, integrated country that urban France sowed the seeds for its future love affair with the countryside. "Even if country people were lured or forced into the cities for work, they retained a strong attachment to their villages, communities and patois that's still perceptible today," says Robb. "Unlike the British, who wax lyrical and poetic about natural objects, the French have a very direct, immediate relationship with the countryside. Maybe it's their love of the terroir and the wonderful food it produces, or maybe it's because there's just so much rural land out there beckoning to them, but the French have integrated the countryside into their collective consciousness and identity in a very distinctive way."

    That's precisely the thinking behind the Pochelus' transformation of their Basque-country farm. They've joined thousands of French farmers in diversifying their activities away from traditional agriculture and into profitable growth niches in tourism, bio-agriculture and direct sales of goods to consumers. In many cases that effort to find additional sources of revenues has not only revolutionized the way they work their farms, but also their relationship with the outside world. "Back when my husband was producing to sell to wholesalers, he was working even longer hours and scarcely making minimum wage," says Bernadette Pochelu, who in 2005 gave up her job as a school secretary to help transform Agerria into a producer of quality finished foods. "The transition required a lot of work and investment, but the result is we're now hustling to keep up with demand and have more than doubled our income. When we first decided to make this move, everyone said we'd fail. Today, I wonder how most farms will survive if they don't undertake similar diversification — which may be why some of our visitors include fellow farmers asking us how we made it work."

    For some, restructuring their operations toward individual clients begins with a single inspiration. Nathalie Bertranine, 32, whose Mountagnès farm lies around 30 km north of Agerria, took over the operation in 2005 when her parents retired, and promptly sped up their efforts to extend activity beyond cultivation of the farm's 62 hectares. She began by refurbishing the farm's large barn into modern stables and a riding ring, and filling spaces once occupied by dairy cattle — increasingly less profitable — with horses. (She now has 44 of them.) That allows Bertranine to serve tourists ready to pay for horseback excursions in the surrounding countryside, and run a popular equestrian club for locals. Like the Pochelus, Bertranine says her decision to move beyond crop and livestock work came with the gritty realization that agriculture had become a buyers' market dominated by wholesalers whose sole objective is to crunch prices they pay as low as possible. "When you understand the take-it-or-leave-it prices now being offered mean you'll pay more to produce crops than you'll get back in proceeds, you're left with the choice of either becoming a slave to this impossible system or find a niche to begin other activities in," Bertranine says. "With an average of 115 regular riders per week, our horse-riding niche has grown into something much more than that. It now brings in around 50% of our annual revenues, and has changed the internal life and functioning of the farm."

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