Edition Seuil with Reporterre https://reporterre.net/
French agriculture is in plain crisis. The idyllic countryside so beloved by tourists and the French imagination is in most cases just that, an imaginary fantasy, a rosy glassed memory of a time past that in reality never existed.
France remains Europe’s largest farming nation, producing 18% of the EU’s agricultural output, that is of course pre Brexit figures. 53% of mainland France is farmland, and France is Europe’s largest producer of cereals, maize, sugar, beef, and of course wine.
The reality is however that a farmer commits suicide two day of the year, in the last ten years over 10,000 farms have disappeared and 200,000 agricultural jobs have disappeared. On average 200 farms close up ever week, for every two workers in agriculture who retire only one new starts.
The average debt per farm has risen from 50,000 euro in 1980 to 163.700 euro in 2011.This rise in debt has been driven by two key pressures, firstly the need to increase the size of a farm to maintain a standard of living under threat from lowering prices with the necessary investment in new larger machinery to exploit this large surface, the second is the increase in pesticide use, despite the Ecophyto project aiming to reduce chemical us in agriculture by 50%between 2008 and 2018 the use of pesticides has actually gone up by 5%
In France the most common size of farms is between 50 and 99.9 hectares of agricultural land , representing 97,780 farms, or 19% in 2010. The avaerage farm size has been steadily growing, from hectares in 7 in 2005. At the top end size wise, farms over 100 hectares now farm 59% of France’s agricultural land
This concentration at the top end of the pyramid is also reflected in the type of agriculture, the mixed farming of the past is being replaced by monoculture farming, dominated by cereal production and large scale animal farming, particularly milk and beef production.
Increasingly run by farmers who rarely “Get down from their tractors” as the French say. Farmers have less and less control of what they produce and how. Software programmes plugged into the latest Common Agrcultural Policy support regime decide what is sown when. Outsourcing of the key farming functions, ploughing, sowing, harvesting to work crews is more and more common. It is the major seed companies, as a condition of sale of their sterile seeds, that determine the treatments that each cereal has to be sprayed with little if any understanding of the nature of the ever thinning top soil.
Animal raising is also turning into a industrial process, whether it be shed farming of chickens, veal, pigs and beef or the faact that in Brittany, France’s leading meat producing region 78% of fodder is now bought in, almost 100% for chickens, pigs and veal production. A growing trend is that farmers actually do not own the animals they raise, they ‘bed and breakfasting’ for fixed periods of time, with feed and antibiotic treatments been delivered by the owner, often a food company not a farmer.
It is no surprise to see that the number of agricultural workers in France has plunged, in 1988 it stood at 1,176,567 , by 2007 it had dropped to 770,000.
The tradition of family farms that pass from generation to generation is breaking up, a survey in 2914 showed that 42% of farmers did not expect their siblings to take over the enterprise.
So is this slow decline and concentration inevitable, and what can be done to shift towards a more humane and environmentally sustainable agricultural system?
In Les Néo Paysants Gaspard d’Allens and Lucile Leclairlook at one encouraging trend, the neo ruralists that are turning to the farming despite not coming from an agricultural background. Now as any French film buff will tell you neo ruralists are not exactly a new phenomena. Marcel Pagnol’s Jean de Florette is all about one family and their efforts. The post 1968 generation can still be spotted hanging about at organic festivals, indeed the Domaine de Montrouch was first renovated by a 1968 couple motivated by their Maoist politics.
In Les Néo Paysants the authors use tye simple took of visiting a wide range of neo ruralists accross France anduses their experiences and context to address the key issues facing French agriculture. It is a superb introduction to the skills and experience that neo ruralists bring to their new profession, as well as the wide range of small scale agricultural projects that are re animating rural French life.
Today 30% of all new agricultural start ups are neo paysants, over 60% of these new farms are organic or in transition to organic production. France is now Europe’s third largest organic producer, behind Spain and Italy with 4% of agriculural land now under organic production representing 1.1 million hectares of farm land.
Equally important there is a strong tendency to move away from the industrial productivist model. That does not mean however a less intensive agricultural model, small scale mixed farming if done in an integrated way can be a very productive use of available land. This is true about horticultural production although organic rules about the space required for animals means that meat production requires more land per head, equally organic cereals and viticulture have on the whole lower yields per hectare. Recently released research from the Rodale Institue on it’s thirty year comparison of industrial agriculture yields vs organic methods however cast doubts on this generalization see http://rodaleinstitute.org/our-work/farming-systems-trial/ It is naturally being contested by the industrial agriculural lobby.
Alternative marketing systems are slowly emerging, from local producers markets, organic markets, box schemes, to local producers co op shops. Restaurateurs are finding that marketing themselves as users of locally produced products and traditional recipes are attracting a loyal clientele. Here in France school canteens are being actively encouraged to source locally. Increased consumer interest in organic and local production has been a factor in the growing market aided by associations such as the Slow Food movement.
Such positive developments however can be over egged, the rise of out of town shopping centres, the French are second to the US on them, low cost supermarkets, pre-prepared meals and fast food all means that we are a long way from an alternative food paradise. Having more pizzerias than Italy, and being McDonald’s second most profitable market show that the reality is going to be a lot harder to change than green activists would have one believe.