Having finished the work day, I have an interesting story to tell. Earlier this afternoon, as Alain and I were gearing up to split some wood, we heard a rumbling in the distance. Each of us leapt up from our seats and ran outside to see Mark, the neighboring dairy farmer climbing up the hill in his antiquitated tractor. The straw had arrived.
This year, the straw holds special importance at the Moulin Ruel. While it is generally spread over the floor of the barn to keep things tidy, it will also be used to insulate the second house on the property, home to daughter Marie, her signifcant other Fred, and their expected baby. Thus, the arrival of the straw marks the preparation for a long winter for both the animals and the humans on the farm.
Having unloaded the first trailor of straw, Alain and I decided to give Mark , a sixty-three year old, bronzed, and sprightly gentleman, a hand with the second trip. Off we went riding on the sides of the tractor pleasantly chatting about his cows, the dairy business, and the land. When we arrived, Alain and I used pitchforks to lift the bales onto the traditional trailer (its actually made of wood) while Mark carefully secured the load and dismounted with flair, swinging from a rope. Back at the Moulin Ruel, it was my turn to climb on top of the trailor to unload the bales. Standing about twenty-five feet off the ground, I wielded my pitchfork, sent straw flying, and felt pretty thrilled.
Aside from the theatrics of the whole experience, however, the fascinating parts of the day were two seperate conversations held with Mark and the Blancarts about the evolution of farming in France. When I asked Mark about his history as a farmer and the changes to agriculture he has experienced, he launched into a story about the wheat harvests when he was just fifteen. Instead of using tractors and modern machines that roll bales, he and his five brothers cut the cereal by hand, tied it into sheafs, and used horses to haul the load. The story, he said, illustrates how drastically the agricultural system has changed in so little time (about fifty years), considering most modern, industrial farms extend beyond the horizon and need an army of tractors just to harvest one crop.
Later on, I asked Alain and Marie about Mark’s farming practices and discovered that he leads a lifestyle quite similar to the Blancarts. While most farmers in France and the United States strive to increase their output, buying new tractors and taking out bank loans, Mark avoids all financial obligations. He drives an old tractor he fixes himself, is content with a small herd of dairy cows, and never puts money in the bank. He even goes as far as exchanging goods for services because the straw that he delivered here today is a “payment” for Alain’s mechanical help from time to time. The point is that he stays small, keeps expenses to a minimum, and ultimately, earns a good living as a farmer.
Pondering Mark’s financial philosophy, Alain and I extended our thoughts beyond the neighborhood to industrialized agriculture’s problems and concluded that, like the general public, many farmers today overconsume in the form of new tractors, genetically modified “wonder seeds,” and bigger harvesting equipment. By constantly wanting the new best machine just as we want a new outfit or car, industrial farmers are just another consumer fueling an economy out of our control. The Blancarts’ anti-consumerism philosophy, therefore, applies quite directly to agriculture itself because farmers represent another major consumer buying more for the wealth of a few.
Ironically, it is Mark, with his torn shirt-sleeves, old tractor, and reliable cows, who keeps most of what he earns, smiling all along.