Now that I have taken some time to reflect on my summer, I would like to take this last opportunity to think about what the experience taught us all. In retrospect, I am struck by how the goal of the internship evolved from the search for an agricultural alternative to the pursuit of a healthier consumer lifestyle. Let’s look at the experience chronologically to see how the change occurred.
Before ever stepping foot on a farm, a lot of thought and energy went into designing the project. For all CPGC internships, the goal is to connect a social problem to an innovative internship that engages with the issue. For me, the interest was agriculture and how the current industrial system creates great social problems (polluting the rivers with synthetic fertilizers, decreasing biodiversity, creating health epidemics, etc.). With these challenges in mind, the natural progression was a project that evaluated organic agriculture as an alternative, with the catch that it had to be economically-viable. Leaving the country then grew out of the search for new perspectives because I believed another culture could provide an interesting contrast to our own. Thus, I set off to France in June hoping to find a culture intimately connected to a food system that produced food naturally and efficiently.
As soon as I arrived at the Moulin Ruel to spend my first two weeks with Alain and Christine Blancart, I began to see that my goals were not fully realistic. Two key realizations occurred; first, France has an agricultural system that is as industrialized as our own, and second, the Blancarts own a non-lucrative farm that produces goods only for personal consumption. With each of these conclusions challenging my original goals, I soon began to realize that Christine and Alain’s motivations for keeping a small farm provide a different and equally important approach to solving the problems of industrial agriculture.
In their own words, Christine and Alain are “décroissant,” an adjective used to describe a group of individuals who believe excessive consumption is the primary cause of most social problems. Applied to agriculture, the ideology argues that the industrialization of the food supply and the problems that follow are caused not by the industrial farmers who produce the food but rather by the consumers who demand the produce out of season. The idea contrasted my original assumption that agribusiness firms were responsible for the consolidation of the food system. Instead, the couple helped me see that we, the consumers, are just as responsible because it is our money and desire for fresh produce year-round that support industrial farms. It was at that point when the goal of my internship began to change. Each successive farm became a lesson for why our consumption choices are critically important instead of the “economically-viable alternative” I originally hoped to find.
In the third and fourth weeks of my internship, I witnessed the devastating effects of industrialization on small farmers when I visited the Petit Ane Bleu. Applying the Blancart’s décroissant theory, I began to see that Denis and Hind Bigliardi’s difficult history was partially the result of consumers valuing the lower prices of supermarket produce. About a decade ago, the couple settled down on a farm and began producing organic vegetables for sale in a local farmers’ market. A few years back, however, they experienced a difficult season that ruined their crops and forced them to change their lifestyle. They simply did not have a large enough consumer base to compete with industrial firms so they added a small tourist resort, hoping to make more money. Unfortunately, the decision has led to a life of great hardship. Each morning, the couple rises early to send hikers off, continues to manage the farm throughout the afternoon, and already exhausted, cooks for paying customers at night. With time, I began to see that the difficulty of their lives was caused by the lack of consideration paid by local consumers to their purchases. Though Hind and Denis were growing healthier products, the consumers preferred the lower prices of industrial foods and helped the couple sink into near poverty. Thus, their story represents another way industrialized agriculture hurts the population and also emphasizes the importance of good consumer choices.
In the fifth and sixth weeks, I unexpectedly returned to the home of Alain and Christine and developed a better understanding of their own consumer habits. In the most obvious way, Alain and Christine are tremendous examples of consumers who understand the effect of their purchases and who live differently as a result. Instead of spending their retirement golfing and playing tennis, the couple has carefully constructed a farm that provides many of the goods they once purchased. Vegetables and fruit are grown in the garden; honey bees provide a sugar alternative; goats produce milk for cheese and yogurt; trees are cut into firewood that heats the house; and horses occasionally pull lumber from the woods. What cannot be produced at the house is bought locally as seen in the cow’s milk from a neighbor, the flour from a mill dating to the reign of Louis the Fourteenth, and the straw traded with a friend. Fiscally, each example saves the couple money, but more importantly, it reduces their impact eon the world by decreasing transport and societal costs. Thus, their farm is the physical realization of their economic philosophy. It supplies them with a huge portion of their needs and saves enough money to let them make smart, locally-focused purchases when necessary.
As I entered the seventh and eighth weeks of my internship, I had forgotten about an agricultural alternative and was wholly focused on changing consumption patterns. Surprisingly, however, my final host Jean-Yves Martinal proved that a small, organic farmer who subscribes to the décroissant theory is actually a viable and competitive alternative to massive industrial farms.
In the words of a family friend, “Jean-Yves is a true ‘paysanne’ (peasant), the last of a dying breed.” While most of us have stepped away from the land and specialized in a profession, Monsieur Martinal has fiercely retained his connection to the earth, has humbly maintained a diverse skill set, and has successfully driven his consumption to practically zero. With his land, he produces the household vegetables, the grain for his animals, and the apples and barley used to make apple juice and beer. Ninety-five percent of his family’s food is produced at home, and with the income from his organic products, he easily purchases whatever else he needs. Thus, he succeeds at living the décroissant lifestyle to a much greater extent than even the Blancarts themselves.
Though his minimalistic consumption habits provide are respectable, possibly the most important realization I drew from my stay in his home was that his lack of financial obligations allows him to remain competitive in the face of industrial agriculture. As a farmer, he has resisted the temptation to specialize and augment production. While his colleagues were taking out bank loans, buying new tractors, and ramping up production, he remained small and debt free. In combination with his few expenses, the result is that he lives comfortably while producing food naturally. In short, he is the ideal consumer and economically-viable alternative in one.
Now, if you are asking yourself “How does this apply to me?,” the answer is quite simple; the summer’s experiences indicate that the continuation or decline of the industrial food system is actually our choice. This conclusion is rooted in the internship’s two crucial lessons. First, if industrial agriculture is going to give way to healthier, organic practices, it is the consumer, not the farmer, who is going to force the change. Second, as we see in Jean-Yves Martinal’s case, an economically-viable alternative to industrial farms really exists.
Considering both lessons, the overriding conclusion we must all draw is that our own decisions about what to buy have a direct impact on what gets produced. Though this indicates we are responsible for letting the industrialization of the food supply occur, it also reveals our power to make a difference. Just like we learn in Intro Micro-Econ, supply is derived from the quantity demanded by a population. In other words, what we want (manifested in our purchases) ultimately decides what gets produced. Applied to industrial agriculture, we can conclude that we, as consumers, have the power to make change happen. By demonstrating our support for local and organic products and by carefully choosing what we buy, we can sponsor farmers like Jean-Yves Martinal and watch as industrial agriculture evolves into a new, sustainable form…
Thank you all for your extended interest and support,