I was watching the news the other day and there was an article about the state of the farming sector in France. Over the last three decades farming has changed dramatically. From a situation where the percentage of big farms was in single figures, they now outnumber small family owned farms. Mind you, big is relative and to qualify a farm just has to be more than 100ha. The number of farmers has halved, their average age is 55+ and the amount of land under agriculture has reduced by a third (mainly due to the reduction in the use of forage crops). Farm incomes have fallen in real terms and 80% of farm income is from subsidies. Despite this France is the biggest poultry and beef producer in the EU, and the third biggest producer of pork and lamb.
|Crop spraying in spring. Photo courtesy of my father.|
There is a perception that farming is a powerful political lobby in France, but I don't think the reality of the situation backs that up. They are a tiny percentage of the voting population, and despite being remarkably vocal and prone to dramatic public protests, farmers are not wooed in the run up to elections. The subsidies they receive are mostly associated with the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). The main aim of the subsidies is to stablise farmers incomes (which it appears to be failing dismally at), ensure food security and reward non-revenue generating environmental activities. There are also grants available to young farmers (under 40 years old) to encourage generational change and recruit new blood.
|Dairy cows in a shed. Photo courtesy of my father.|
Farmers here had a particularly hard year last year. Rain in the first half of the year, with its concurrent lack of sunshine, meant that wheat did not thrive, but weeds and pests did. The weather conditions resulted in the worst wheat harvest in 30 years in France, whilst rival producer Ukraine experienced a bumper crop, causing prices to plummet. The quality of the French grain was very poor this year too, with the damp causing grain to germinate in storage, ruining it entirely, or at best reducing it to animal feed. The centre of France, here in the Loire Valley, to the east in Berry and to the north in the Beauce are the big wheat growing areas. Many farmers rely on wheat as their main activity, and France's bakers rely on them too.
The suicide rate amongst farmers is three times that of the general population. Farmers are talking about not being able to service loans or equipment. The evidence is that many farmers are working harder and harder every year -- longer hours in the fields and a lot more paperwork. They can get to a stage where they are physically burnt out and feeling hopeless. It doesn't help that many farmers spend seven days a week working on their own, with no social contact other than with family at meal times.
|Harvesting wheat in July.|
Milk quotas came to an end this year too. This was not an unexpected event or natural disaster such as the wheat farmers have had to deal with. Also the government stepped in to offer an aid package to dairy farmers who were struggling financially. For the cereal farmers there have been tax breaks announced, but nothing like the pot of money offered to dairy farmers.
|Bringing in hay in May. Photo courtesy of my father.|
Last September the French agriculture minister Stéphan le Foll called a meeting of his EU peers and they gathered at Chambord (closing it to the public for the day). On the agenda was primarily how to deal with Brexit, but also market fluctuations and the financial struggles of farmers. One of the solutions is to produce less to force prices up, but it's a tricky thing to manage, especially when you are also trying to encourage young farmers to enter the sector.
Certain natural habitats may benefit. For example, cereal farmers may be enticed to establish wild margins. Other sectors, such as forestry are currently trying to stop the trend of short-term opportunism offered by the sale of wood chips for so-called renewable energy. Another beneficiary of France reducing production could be the developing nations. The WTO has long criticised the CAP because it favours EU produce at the expense of developing nations for whom the trade in agricultural products could be the key to pulling themselves out of poverty.
|Machinery shed on a local farm. Photo courtesy of my father.|
France is self-sufficient in food, and anything which disrupted that would cause considerable disquiet. People have to be fed, and they have to be able to afford food. Farmers have to eat too, and they need a return for all their labour. They are also the guardians of a huge swathe of the natural environment. They need to be supported to maintain their local ecology and engage in nature conservation. Anyone who thinks that farmers are bludgers living off tax payer funded subsidies needs to think about how much maintaining the countryside costs and what the real cost of food is.
|Ploughing up weeds at Clos Roussely, an organic vineyard in the Cher valley.|
Unfortunately, at the moment the subsidies don't always encourage best practice or provide the safety net farmers need. Farmers are spending so much time trying to earn a crust that they are amongst the least well informed about new agri-chemicals (fertilizers, pesticides) and farming techniques that are better for the environment. They don't have time to read trade magazines and attend conferences to learn new things, nor can they afford the risk of experimenting with new ideas. They often depend uncritically on advice from middlemen (who I, as an Australian would call stock and station agents, but in general terms are farm supply merchants).
Farmers are key to the future of humanity, but they are being ignored politically. Farming is causing the single greatest impact on the environment now that the problems of heavy industrial pollutants have been addressed. But farmers are also feeding the world. They are not an easy group to deal with in times of change, being naturally conservative, and their attachment to their land and lifestyle needs to be handled with care. They are proud of their product and suspicious of attempts to interfere by government.
|Harvesting wheat in the background, with sunflowers in the foreground (July).|
French Farming in (2014) Figures:
- French agriculture represents 19% of total EU production, in front of Germany at 15% and Italy at 10%.
- 40% of the land in France are natural sites (forests, heaths, rocks).
- Woodland and forest covers nearly 31% of the land (17 million hectares).
- 54% of land is under agriculture.
- The main crops of cereals, oilseeds, pulses and sugarbeet represent 40% of agricultural land area.
- 16.5% of this land is under cereals.
- 53% of the cereal grown is wheat. France is the 5th largest producer of wheat in the world, after China, India, Russia and the USA.
- Livestock farming comprises 36% dairy, 22% beef, 14% poultry, 13% pork, 6% veal, 4% eggs, sheep and goats 3%, others 2%.
- France has the largest cattle herd in the EU (19 million head, of which 3.7 million are dairy cows).
- Drinks, wine and alcohol is the largest export category.
- 5.6% of world exports of agrifood products are French.
- France has 474 000 farms.
- 922 000 people live and work on French farms. 63% are farmers (23% fewer than in 2001).
- A quarter of farmers or farm managers are women.
- Women represent 32% of fulltime agricultural activity.
- With 9.1 billion euros in 2014 agrifood is the third biggest market sector in France, behind aeronautics and pharmaceuticals.