After 3 weeks, I am at one third of my journey. It was incredibly rich and enlightening so far. I realise that I have been quite positive. I guess that’s me. But also the farmers I have encountered, have an admirable optimism, while their circumstances sometimes hardly allow for this. Let me share my encounters of last week, and show the other side. A bit darker.
This morning I headed off in the pouring rain of the Vendee-region, for a short track of 48 km. Yesterday I had done 102 km and climbed more than 1000 meters, so I was happy with this recovery trip 😉. My hosts yesterday were no farmers, but had bought their farm-house from two unmarried farmer brothers in a very tiny village. The last brother had lived for a long time in the neighbouring house and farmed a few hectares till he passed away last year. My hosts inherited 5 chicken and ‘applied to be farmers’ for farming chicken in my string of farmers. Farming is in the French DNA. From their angle they could see many farmers in their hamlet struggle, economically and socially. A nearby farmer committed suicide recently. Lonely, they thought.
What happened on the righthand side vineyard?
On my route today, I passed a farm with a huge silo branded ‘Harvestore’. The typical pig farm smell penetrated my nose and reminded me of my childhood in Noord-Brabant, The Netherlands. A chained dog barked and a large roller door opened. After 100 meter, I decided to turn around and saw a 40 year young man, coming out of the door. I asked if I could ask him some questions. I introduced myself and slowly his initial suspicion disappeared. We talked for nearly half an hour in the pouring rain, about 13.000 pigs/year, fed by his own 260 ha and still not being able to write black numbers, with this family farm of him and his brother and parents. When I asked his name he told me he was called Pierre Erique. It’s the first time in my life that I meet someone with the same name! Reality is stranger than fiction.
François Guimond pointing out the 270 years of his family farm!
Last Monday I stayed in a 400 year old farm that was family owned since 1748! It had been an apple orchard, a dairy farm, and a pig farm until it almost went bankrupt in 2012. Now the farmer works in Paris (160 km away) in a construction company and his wife farms bees, sheep, B&B, and rents out the stables to woodworkers and a chicken farmer. They also inherited one employee, who was employed by the father, and who cannot be dismissed under the French law. The employment costs made the near-bankruptcy almost fatal.
On Tuesday I met with a female winegrower in the Loire region. I should have read her website before I met her…
I started my interview in my moderate French, explaining who I was and what I was looking for. When she responded she said , ‘I haven’t had time to read anything. I am on survival mode. On the 21st of November my 51 year old husband died from a heart attack.’ I was shocked and stumbled trough some other questions. It was clearly not a good time to talk harvesting technology or farm economics. We drank an excellent white wine instead.
Farm life is tough, risky and only exceptionally pays well. It’s usually the processing (of wine) or direct sales that makes a good income. Yet, in all these meetings I have seen a remarkable persistence to go on. In fact, very often there is no alternative. It’s not a job that you change, like most of us. It’s 25 years of building a winery, a huge loan or 270 years of family farming. I sincerely hope we all reconsider our farming systems, and make sure that it is not ‘farm-till-you-die’.
Correction of my last blog: France has very long, perfectly straight roads and I met two female farmers.