An interesting story:
Yesterday afternoon, as the sun was shining down on our backs, Jean-Yves, Albon, Alex (a neighbor), Bastien (a friend of Albon), and I stood at the edge of a wheat field, enjoying the golden glow of the straw resting on the ground. Our task was the hay harvest and we were going to do it the old-fashioned way. Working together as an efficient five-man team, we began in earnest. Alex drove the old tractor and the hay trailer, while Albon and I speared the straw bales and lifted them onto the trailer bed. Once there, Jean-Yves and Bastien organized them into neat piles. Advancing slowly through the field, we collected all fifty bales at a leisurely pace.
When the task was finished, Bastien and I stood chatting when I noticed that there was another farmer in a distant field harvesting his own straw. The difference, however, was that he was using a new, more powerful tractor, and an auto-charger that rolled the straw stalks into large, round bales much larger than our traditionally square bales. In passing, I remarked that the image, of two tractors from different eras doing the same work, was a veritable juxtaposition of the old and new, of the organic and the industrial. Building on this conclusion we even ventured to say that the contemporary farmer is probably heavily in debt and working to pay off bank loans…
As it turns out, the conclusion was not that far off the mark. Later in the afternoon, Albon, Jean-Yves, and I went to the other farmer’s home to give him a hand moving a herd of sheep. When they were successfully situated in a new field, we sat down for an aperitif that extended into a two hour chat. The basis of the conversation was the difference between organic farming and industrial farming, each represented by one of the farmers. Many topics were addressed with Jean-Yves arguing that organic farming is better for the environment and uses less fossil fuels while the other man countered that organic agriculture is too expensive and cannot feed the world’s population. Needless to say, neither gentleman changed his perspective.
The interesting part of the exchange, however, came just as we were about to leave. Moving on from the topic of agricultural subsidies and their common battle to make end’s meet, Jean-Yves posed the taboo question of “How much money do you actually make at the end of the month?” Before the response came, he admitted that his average income is about 1200 euros per month. After a bit of hesitation, the other farmer admitted that his monthly income is only 500 euros even though his flocks are significantly larger, his land is his own, and his equipment is “better.” How does that happen? Though the neighboring farmer is more visibly well-off, the great part of his monthly income is devoted to paying debts. Money borrowed to purchase animals, chemicals, and machinery was loaned by a bank, and with time, accumulated into a large debt that the man tries to escape by producing more. The result is that he works incredibly hard, applying all the newest industrial technologies, and just barely pays the bills.
Driving away from the conversation, I asked what Jean-Yves thought about the conversation. He said simply, “He is a slave to the bank.”‘ His comment, though painfully direct, brings to light one of the major problems that we see in the United States today: as agriculture becomes more and more industrialized, those who work the land suffer under incredible debts and must either “get big or get out,” in the words of the former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz.
The issue is a complicated one and though it cannot be solved by one clear solution, Jean-Yves’ business model is a good start. For the past twenty years, he has resisted the pressure to modernize. Each year, he spends about ten months making a small quantity of goat cheese (about 300 a week) to stay in the lowest regulatory bracket and to keep his herd size manageable. In October and November, he hires four workers, presses, heats, and bottles the juice of local apples, resulting in about 4000 liters of artisinal product. Finally, he uses his own barley in December to make a small batch of beer that he sells throughout the year. All the while, he rents his land and borrows no money to stay financially free.
Considering the contrast between the neighbor who increases herd sizes to pay off an increasing debt and Jean-Yves who has no debt, I am beginning to conclude that the small, diversifed farmer model is, in fact, an economically viable alternative that I have been searching for all summer. Yes, I understand that the solution is not simple because such a farmer must produce enough to feed a growing population, must have a solid consumer base that values localized production, and must be content with a rural lifestyle. At the same time, however, the glaring fact is that Jean-Yves and Mark (the Blancart’s neighbor) are two small farmers that produce a large quantity of food, that successfully navigate the modern economy, and that are content with their lives. They are not solely an economically-viable alternative, the are an economically successful alternative to massive industrial farms whether agribusiness wants us to believe it or not.