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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    Beer, Bread and Pigs
    Given the success of farmers who've dared to branch out, it's astonishing that more haven't similarly diversified in the face of the tightening economic crunch. Yet most have not. According to the Chambers of Agriculture, only around 20% of its members are involved in diversified activities, with the vast majority limiting that to sales of finished products to consumers from the farm gate or online. Only a fifth of farms are involved in lodging or otherwise receiving the millions of tourists crisscrossing rural France each year.

    For all its financial promise, diversification has its limits. "Despite the urgency to find new sources of income for most farmers, the reality is a lot don't have the means or setup to diversify, while others simply refuse to do so, considering it a betrayal of the agricultural profession they took on," says Purseigle. "The reality is, there's only a certain degree to which these new activities can be extended before saturation — or refusal [by farmers] to follow along — cuts it off."

    So, unsurprisingly, many farmers hope that support schemes will continue to head off ruin. French President Nicolas Sarkozy says he will resist cuts in E.U. aid to France's farmers, even if it puts him at odds with his E.U. partners. "France," said Sarkozy in March, shortly after many of his followers in rural France abandoned his mainstream Conservative Party for the far-right National Front, "is ready to assume the responsibility of a crisis in the European level in order to assure the future of the common agricultural policy ... We can't wait any longer to resolve an unprecedented crisis in agriculture, which is creating anxiety in the countryside." Though governments in the U.K. and Scandinavia have called for the CAP to be significantly slashed, a majority of southern states have been joined by Poland in insisting that farming subsidies be maintained — a position the European Parliament also backed in July.

    But French farmers who've embraced change say that it is time the entire sector started thinking differently. With E.U. aid now representing 90% or more of the average French farm income — and with future CAP funding set to be tied to better use of land and diversification of activity — some farmers who've already tried to do things differently are urging their neighbors to be just as bold. Consider the Rabourdin family in Brie country who in 2000 had gotten so fed up with parsimonious markets and restrictions tied to European aid that they set up a brewery to transform some of the wheat and barley grown on their 100-hectare farm into beer. The 70,000 liters of Bière de Brie they sell each year typically represents 70% of farm income, says Hubert Rabourdin, but "100% in a year like this one, in which crops bring nothing." Moreover, he says, "Having this product creates a relationship with customers most farmers never see, which has been very enriching." Up the road in Picardy, Saint-Aubin similarly sells varieties of bread baked in an ancient stone oven using her farm's cereal. City types are also lending a hand. Alexandre Drouard, the 25-year-old co-founder of the Terroirs d'Avenir network, has recruited nearly 50 small farmers yielding quality produce traditional to their regions, and sells those directly to Paris restaurants run by famous chefs like Alain Ducasse. "Flavor — wonderful food — has been the biggest contribution of rural France and its farmers to French culture through history, and that's where its future lies too," says Drouard.

    Indeed, back down in Agerria, the Pochelus are looking to enhance their trade with tourists by focusing more on their products. To that end, they've banded together with other farmers who raise the pie noir Basque hog — a breed that nearly went extinct in the 1980s and '90s — to make Kintoa ham, whose light flavor of nuts and herbs evokes the Basque woodlands in which the pigs frequently graze. Now specializing in Kintoa as a Basque delicacy, the Pochelus and their partners are seeking the special Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) label reserved for traditional products from specific regions. "The AOC label is vital in tying a product to a single region, vouching for its quality and authenticity, and establishing it in the visitor's mind as a culinary part of a tourism experience," says Bernadette Pochelu.

    In a world where farm incomes are under threat, and where it's easy to think that size matters — more land under corn, more cows, more sheep — it may be counterintuitive to place your hope for the future on the flesh of a rare black pig. But French farmers need some fresh ideas if they are to survive. And — think of those millions watching the Tour in delight, as it wends its way from the Tarn to the Ariège — it isn't just the French who hope they do.

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