I live in a rural community and I admire the farmers I know.
It is a demanding job and without them there would not be much to eat in the shops – all of it would be imported from far away at enormous cost to the environment.
Then again, around me I see endless fields of maize and sunflowers kept under control with fertilisers and pesticides, and chainsaws ripping through ancient woods and hedgerows to squeeze a few more square metres of cash-crop cultivation.
On the news, there always seem to be disgruntled farmers living off Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) subsidies blocking the roads in protest at some new government directive preventing them doing exactly what they want.
Self-sufficiency and subsidies
To understand what is really going on in French agriculture, says Jean-Luc Laffonta, who runs a family arable farm of 70 hectares in the Adour valley, north of Tarbes (Hautes-Pyrénées), people need to know the historical context.
It begins almost 80 years ago when a decision was taken, after World War Two, to make France as self-sufficient as possible in food production.
It is hard for us to imagine how things were in post-war continental Europe.
Until the 1950s, field size was determined by how many family members and hired hands could be mustered to pull out the ever-encroaching weeds, and the choice of crops was entirely dependent on the climate.
Automatic irrigation was a dream for the future. Farm work was back-breaking. My late neighbour Pierre showed me his ox-drawn plough that he used until the first tractor arrived in our village. He grew up using the same farming techniques employed by the ancient Gauls 2,000 years ago.
Then, French agriculture suddenly leapt into the modern world. Farmers needed to be encouraged to let go of the traditional methods of cultivation, to mechanise, to concentrate on profitable crops, and to make liberal use of synthetic chemicals to boost production.
This required a generous regime of subsidies and policies favouring farmers that drove the sector forward for the next 30 years.
Environmental cost & declining workforce
This policy of nurturing agriculture at any cost to keep produce flowing into the shops was almost universally accepted during the boom years of the Trente Glorieuses – the three decades of post-war prosperity.
The result was that France became the biggest food-producing country in the EU – accounting for 18% of the total – and the third-biggest food exporter in the world.
Only in the 1980s did it become apparent that an environmental cost was being paid for such intensive domestic food production.
Since then, farmers have been subject to mounting public criticism about their record on pollution and habitat protection, and have had to deal with heavy government regulation.
Farming needs to change, to adapt to both the threat of climate change and global economic forces that do not favour anything other than industrial production.
Farming paradox started in the 1950s
That change is made more difficult to effect because of a paradox that began in the 1950s. While French agriculture was becoming more efficient, it was simultaneously starting to decline.
People born into farming communities began to leave the land in search of more varied, less demanding work.
“Farming has changed,” agrees Jean-Luc Laffonta. “I used to have some free time. Now I don’t have any.
“In high season, I have to survive on four or five hours of sleep a night.”
For a long time, he found it difficult to recruit an assistant but he has now found someone dependable and that enables him to “catch up with work that should have been done long ago” and even have the occasional weekend off. If not, farming for most of the year is a 24/7 commitment.
At the same time, the mass importation of cheap foreign food began to be a reality for consumers and the domestic farm industry became less important.
Farming now contributes only 1.6% to French GDP. The 760,000 people employed in it (only a quarter of whom are women) represent just 2.4% of the workforce – far behind the service sector.
Yet no politician can afford to treat farming as a marginal economic force.
Every presidential candidate knows that he or she does not stand a chance at the polls if he/she has not visited agricultural fairs to admire prize bulls or been photographed at market stalls sniffing local cheeses.
The land is held in almost sacred reverence and the custodians of most of it (52%) are farmers.
They are the people who keep France looking as it does in the ‘nostalgiimagination’, who keep the landscape well tended and rural communities alive.
Farmers are also essential to the culture of good French living: they supply the foods and wines that make up the most famous culinary tradition in the world.
No surprise, then, that in September Agriculture Minister Marc Fesneau proposed an additional €1billion for farming in 2024 – a 15% increase in the budget – and €2.5billion for 2025 and 2026.
Part of this will go towards creating a “food sovereignty and ecological transition fund” to support farmers decarbonising their activities, developing renewable energy production or adapting to climate change.
With half of France’s farmers due to retire in the next 10 years, Mr Fesneau said he also wants the number of new farmers joining the profession to grow exponentially.
To that end, the government is setting up a ‘farmland holding fund’ to make land more easily available to those who wish to purchase it.
Appeal for patience
So, once again, French farming is in transition. The challenge for the future is for it to continue producing food while also respecting the environment.
Mr Laffonta appeals for critics to be patient with farmers, especially with those who, like himself, are making an effort to operate in a sustainable way.
Adaptation takes time, he emphasises. It means unlearning the old ways and adapting to the new – and sometimes recovering traditional methods lost in the rush for growth and monoculture.
Farmers are squeezed from two directions, he says. They are expected to comply with ever-tighter environmental regulations and also to make a living with the minimum of subsidies.
These two pressures meet in a way that most of us are unaware of: conscientious farmers might do all they can to reduce their environmental impact but they have to compete with cheap food imported from other countries where regulation is more lax.
Subsidies alone are not the answer. No farmer wants to depend on them – they would much rather prices reflect the worth of their produce.
Those prices fluctuate, of course, for good or bad.
“The war in Ukraine has made grain prices go up,” one farmer told The Connexion, “which should be good for me but I don’t want to profit from someone else’s misery.”
Difficult choices ahead
Choices will have to be made: cheap food is not always compatible with the highest standards of production or environmental protection.
Vast fields of maize without trees and hedgerows can make agriculture profitable but they provide no habitats for wildlife. Farmers know this but cannot always do anything about it.
To replant hedgerow is a hefty investment of time, energy and money. Government and EU subsidies help but they are not sufficient in themselves.
Then there is the problem of handing on farms to the next generation. Most only keep going because of a hidden form of private subsidy: pluriactivité.
This is a hybrid lifestyle in which one or more members of a farming family earns income from non-agricultural work. It often involves various forms of paying guests for holidays à la ferme.
An estimated 40% of farm revenue in France comes from these other activities. It is only a short step from here to sons and daughters abandoning farming altogether.
Many young people – even from farming families dating back generations – do not want to work the land at any price. They want a 35-hour week, a working day that starts after dawn, not before it, comfortable conditions, the sociability of being part of a team, and a guaranteed salary at the end of the month.
‘Dialogue is key’
The government believes financial incentives will be enough to fix the problem. If it is wrong, small farms will be swallowed up and farming will become ever more ‘industrial’.
Mr Laffonta is adamant that we should see farming as more than a business. It is part of an ordered society.
To ask farmers to sort out their own problems is to miss the point. We are connected to them as consumers. If we expect to buy their products at the lowest prices, we can hardly ask for environmental protection as a complementary service.
“Clearly, agriculture and society need to engage in dialogue,” he said.
“This is possible and always constructive with the vast majority of people: those who are grateful, those who are aware, those who don’t pretend to know everything, those who question rather than assert. Those who trust us, who acknowledge the complexity of our profession.”
Everyone – farmers, consumers, campaigners, politicians – wants the same thing at heart: a living countryside in which the human need to exploit the land is balanced with the needs of nature.
If France is to continue to be a major food producer and meet its environmental commitments, the various parties involved are going to have to adapt to the demands of an increasingly free-market and wisely climate-concerned modern world.