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Letter from France: A time voyage back to the Prairies of my childhoold

June 20th, 2009 · 7 Comments

It hit me while I was listening to the radio, driving along through the endless fields, how much France is still farm country — a place that resembles, in some ways, the Saskatchewan farm country southeast of Regina that we used to drive through to visit my grandmother in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

I had the radio tuned to a local station and the host was taking calls from people phoning in to sell things. One man was selling a betonniere (had to look that up later — a cement mixer). Another woman seemed to be selling her entire dining room and kitchen, from table and chairs to washer and dryer.

I haven’t heard those kinds of on-air for-sale ads for a long time — maybe on a road trip through Montana 20 years ago — but they had them on all morning, in between syrupy French songs. They fit with the countryside, where you realize after a few hours of driving why France has a culture that’s so fixated on food. It’s because it’s such rich growing country, a place where vines and wheat and corn seem to grow like Jack’s beanstalk.

In spite of the dominance of their Carrefour and Intermarche chains — supermarket/everything chains that make Wal-Mart look like the friendly neighbourhood corner store — the attachment to farm life and farm produce still hangs on here.

We went into the market in Pezenas this morning, where crowds of people were stuffing their cloth shopping bags with lettuce, those incredible sweet green onions they have here, zucchini, eggplant, goat cheese, olives, fish, and much much more.

And whenever we go for walks in the smaller towns, we see that back yards densely planted with vegetables or small, fruit-bearing trees.

I was on a radio program last month where one of my fellow panelists dismissed community gardens as a pleasant hobby that had no real impact on the global food production and distribution system. At the time, I didn’t challenge his opinion.

But when I’m here, looking at the attachment people have to the land, to their gardens, to food that is connected to where they live, it makes it seem possible that we don’t have to give in completely to a world of plastic tomatoes shipped in from Mexico or pallid pieces of chicken that have come from Unknown Factory #453.

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  • Bill Lee
  • gmgw

    Frances, with all due respect, I think you’re romanticizing. The small family farm is an endangered species in France, just as it is in North America, and for the same reasons: The younger generation(s), for the most part, don’t want to work the same 12-hour days as their parents did, for the same pathetic returns; not when the siren calls of better jobs in the cities, however illusory, is to be heard. There is also the spectre of industrialized farming– especially in other EU countries– and the consolidation of smallholdings into mega-farms to consider. Because of France’s remarkably varied terrain, the latter is not happening at the same rate in all parts of the country; probably it’s most visible in the relatively flat northeast, where it makes more sense to stitch holdings together. But when we were in the Dordogne in the early 90s it was becoming common, even then, to see abandoned farmsteads by the side of the road, even in remote areas. Since that time many one-time productive farms have been made over into country residences, hobby farms, and vineyards for well-off people from Paris and Lyon and other cities. Those properties’ former owners had undoubtedly sold the results of their life’s work with decidedly mixed feelings.

    We were driving along a road in the Dordogne one day and came upon a bizarre sight: A life-size effigy of a farmer, complete with overalls, straw hat and striped shirt, hanging by its neck from a tree. There was a sign attached to its chest, the exact wording of which I can’t recall; something like “Mort de la fermier”– “Death of the farmer” (I’ve got a picture of it somewhere). It was meant to dramatize the plight of the small-time farmers in the area, many of whom, I discovered later, were being forced out of business– and often from homes in which four or five (or more) generations of their families had lived– by tough economic times (and by increasing competition from industrialized farming operations throughout the EU). I could only imagine the bitterness and despair that inspired the construction and hanging of that sad effigy.

    Most of the people you see selling produce, preserves and those wonderful, endless regional varieties of cheese at the street markets to be found in villages all over France (and every village seems to have its own distinctive cheese) are desperately dependent on those markets– and on tourists and travelers like yourself– to make a living on which they can survive. There’s no way they can make a living from raising crops or livestock anymore, so they’ve had to become craftspeople of a sort instead of producers. It’s good that this enables some smallholders to survive on their land, but that doesn’t make them any less of an endangered species. Many of the people one sees selling produce in the village markets are themselves recent arrivals from the cities; in the same way that Vancouverites who tire of the rat race may retreat to small acreages in the Kootenays and raise goats or whatever, some Parisians eventually chuck the urban lifestyle and move to areas like the Auvergne and do the same (many others dream of it but never do it). And ironically enough, if the rural culture in France that you praise has a hope of surviving, it may be in part due to those refugees from the cities.

    There’s a great documentary filmmaker in France named Raymond Depardon, who has made a series of three films in recent years, collectively titled “Profils paysans”, that explore the slow death of traditional French farming culture. All three have been shown at the Vancouver Film Festival in recent years (the most recent was “Modern Life”, aka “La Vie Moderne”, shown at the 2008 VIFF), but don’t appear to be otherwise available in North America. If you ever get a chance to see them, Frances, do so; because they convey a sense of this unfolding tragedy (which is, of course, hardly unique to France) as well as anything has.

  • Frances Bula


    I completely agree that I have probably romanticized. It’s always the problem when you’re travelling is to see the differences in front of you as the sign of a better way of life. France still has a stronger small-farm culture, in spite of the declines, than the U.S. or Canada, so it looks thriving in comparison.

    We are currently staying in the country in Languedoc and, from our Canadian friends who have gotten to know a little locally, we hear plenty about the struggles of people operating the vineyards here and just how gruelling the work is. However, we are also seeing field after field after field of vines (though some are currently being torn out to be replaced with other crops) and stories of people buying properties around here to work them.

    I agree, too that it’s interesting to see how refugees from other countries (Canada, Britain, South Africa, Holland are a few I’ve heard of in the last few days) are helping prevent the decline a little, either by running farms themselves or by buying at the markets.

    Thanks for the tip on the documentaries — they sound wonderful. But I still think that there is a significant difference between the current situation in France, which started at a much higher level, and that in North America. Sure, they’re both going through a decline, but that doesn’t mean they’re in the same place.

  • Duncan Cavens

    It’s also key to understand the EU subsidy systems- it’s one of the main reasons that agriculture in Europe has survived and why their landscapes look the way they are. I’m not as familiar with France’s subsidies (I know the Swiss system (non-EU, much higher subsidies) better), but I do know they have a profound impact on keeping farms that would otherwise be un-economic afloat.

    Without the subsidies, there probably wouldn’t be as much to romanticize about. I wish we as a society valued agriculture as much.

  • gmgw

    Duncan C:
    The kind of farms I’ve been speaking of are the small family operations– certainly too small and not “modernized” enough to attract EU subsidies, which tend to flow to larger, industrialized producers. The smallholders occupy an entirely different economic strata. As I’ve already noted, it’s these small producers who have been and continue to be in the most danger. The shift in the past twenty-plus years toward artisanal food production– cheese being a prime example– has enabled some of the younger, more adaptable farmers to hang on, as long as they qualify for bank loans (and get good weather, and their animals remain disease-free). And the idealistic new “refugees” from the cities add to their number.

    Unfortunately, a lot of the farms that have been in one family for generations are doomed as traditional farming operations. They simply can’t compete with the big players any longer, and many of the farmers themselves are getting too old and/or fed up to continue. And not every patch of farmland qualifies for conversion to a vineyard…

  • gmgw

    Frances, I wish I could direct you to a source for the Depardon films; unfortunately, you’re more likely to find them in France than you are in North America, except at film festivals. But on that note, here’s a link (which I hope works) to the blurb for Deaprdon’s most recent film, “La Vie Moderne”, courtesy of the VIFF’s 2008 program:
    Extraordinary filmmaking. Real cinema-verite stuff. And, in the end, heartbreaking.

  • Rick in Sooke

    I find it interesting that the main thrust of the comments so far have been on the survival, or not, of small farms in France and, presumably, elsewhere. Small farm food production is seen as critical because it seems apparent that the large industrialized farms may not be sustainable in the long run, particularly if the oil based economy that allows them to function collapses. I don’t know what the answers to the particular problem might be, but I do find it encouraging that small farms are beginning to make bit of comeback in our neck of the woods as the demand for organic, locally produced food increases and people seem to be willing to pay the higher costs of production for this type of food. Probably not enough to change the food production system, but it’s a start.

    A great deal of the discussion these days around food security focusses not only small farms but also community gardens. Big problem with that – there is no common understanding of what is meant by “community garden”, and many, if not most, of the local examples fit into the category of “a pleasant hobby” referred to by Frances. The average community garden plot size in Vancouver is around 30 square feet. Vancouver Park Board’s policy on allowing some community gardens on park lands is clearly not intended to replace recreation opportunities with food production, but rather gardening, on a small scale, is seen as a legitimate recreational activity. Your panelist was exactly right is assessing that such small gardens will have no impact on global food production.

    I haven’t spent a whole lot of time in Europe, but the community gardens I saw in Italy and Germany were much larger than most of the local ones. Each gardener had enough land to grow a significant amount of their own veggie and fruit needs. And there is a great local example – the Burnaby and Region Allotment Gardens in south Burnaby, with 370 garden plots of 1000 square feet each.

    Steve Solomon, known to local gardeners as a bit of guru for organic gardening in our climate has a new book “Gardening when it Counts”, in which he addresses the issue of how much land is needed for meaningful food production. He concludes that about 1000 square feet per person is needed to provide about half the caloric intake of people who are largely vegetarian. 30 square feet in a community garden won’t cut it.

    By way of example, he points out that during WWII, the British government mandated the creation of “Victory Gardens”, whereby anyone who wanted to grow their own fruit and vegetables (and thousands did) had to be given an allotment of at least 2700 square feet of land in large community gardens. These gardens provided much of the fresh vegetables and fruit grown during the war. Solomon also points to the example of community gardening in Cuba. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba had to take much greater responsibility for growing its own food. Residents were freely given garden blocks of 1/3 acre at the edges of cities and towns. By 2005, these gardens reportedly produced 60% of all the vegetables consumed in Cuba. Clearly community gardening can be taken beyond the “hobby” level, but there needs to be huge shift in attitude about plot size and purpose.

    Finally, I find it interesting, and on one level disturbing, that there is almost no discussion about the “grow your own” option. Frances notices the “back yards densely planted with vegetables or small, fruit-bearing trees” in France. Anyone who’s been in Vancouver for a long while will remember the fabulous backyard gardens in Grandview that seemed to be required of all Italian and Portuguese immigrants. Similarly, many Chinese immigrants grew amazing gardens in Strathcona. Of course, with urban development these gardens are disappearing, and are impossible to replace in higher density areas. As noted above, small plot community gardens can’t compensate for the lost food production of these gardens.

    But outside of the urban core areas, there are still thousands, hundreds of thousands, of houses on lots that are more than large enough to support food producing gardens for the residents of these houses, with enough left over for neighbours, friends and family. The nurseries and seed producers report that there is a silent revolution going on right now with explosive growth in home-grown food. So to the oft stated solution to food security being support for small farms and the creation of community gardens, I would add support for home gardening.