Next month, I am going to France to participate in a conference called Journées Paysannes (Peasant Days), a national gathering of Catholic small farmers and agrarians. They have invited me to talk about the Benedict Option (in French, le Pari Bénédictin). The theme of this year’s conference is, How to be a Christian peasant in a world of globalized agriculture? (“Peasant” — paysan — doesn’t have the negative connotation in French as in English. It simply means “country person”.) One of the conference organizers sent me this message distributed today by the leader of a regional farmer’s union to its membership. He wants me to understand the incredible pressure that small family farmers are under in France. It was shocking to me, because I have always considered France to be one country that values its farmers.
I ran the text through Google Translate. Here’s what it says (with a little polishing from me):
French agriculture is going very badly, prices paid to producers are at their lowest, and successive food scandals are making the profession less credible.
For the general public, the farmer is considered to be a welfare recipient (he receives money in the form of various aids), a polluter, a poisoner (he uses weed killers, insecticides, chemical fertilizers, he pollutes the earth and the environment), a rich man (he owns animals, equipment, buildings and land), a schemer (he is complicit in sales of products unfit for consumption), etc.
The figures published by the Mutualité Sociale Agricole, the mandatory social organization of farmers, are frightening: 30% of farmers fail to generate a monthly income of 350 euros [$435], 70% fail to withdraw a monthly SMIC [France’s minimum wage], 50% of farms are in deficit. And this, despite working time among the highest in France: 57 hours per week on average for farmers, while the average French works for 37 hours weekly! Two farmers commit suicide every day in France.
French agriculture, like all European agriculture, is supported by the CAP (Common Agricultural Policy) and has been for decades. The CAP budget is the largest of the European budgets, with more than 40% of the general budget.
This European agricultural budget of 408.3 billion euros for the period 2014-2020 is very envied! Until now, and thanks to permanent fights, the European agricultural budget is being protected! But as you can read in the article in the attachment, published January 12 in France Agricole, “France would be ready to tap into the agricultural budget to finance a new European defense policy.” This suggests that the agricultural budget will become the reserve used for new policies or to plug budget holes, and this to the detriment of European and French agriculture in particular. France has one of the largest agricultural budgets, given the size of our country and the number of farms. The agricultural budget will therefore be cut regularly to meet the needs of the community, which are constantly increasing!
We are seeing the beginning of the end of the CAP. After coal and steel it is now the turn of agriculture! It is true that we can buy our food cheaper in countries that have a more favorable climate, larger parcels, richer land, no or few environmental standards, very low social and fiscal costs!
Wheat, meat, vegetables, imported fruit will look similar to what we eat each day and will cost less. Household food budgets will decline and allow them to spend more on their hobbies. These new expenditures will generate employment and wealth, especially for the state, through VAT and other taxes.
And the 450,000 French farmers in all this?
According to the age pyramid, some of them will naturally retire, others will stop for economic reasons and will point to unemployment, some will continue by expanding their farms with those of their neighbors, some will reduce their farming operation and specialize in local direct production.
For abandoned areas, jobs will be created by government gardeners who will maintain the space mechanically, or with sheep and goats, for the joy of hunters, walkers and others. Finally a virgin nature! [Note: his tone is sarcastic here — RD]
This is the largest social plan ever conducted in France, and especially the cheapest!
We say no to this rotten plan of European officials, and certainly French, who want to kill French agriculture, which was the richest in the world!
We want a reasonable, efficient, low-pollution agriculture that responds to consumer demand and is able to pay farmers in our country properly. To achieve this, we need lucidity and common sense. Our region will be one of the most impacted by these developments.
Think about it! Excuse me for having occupied you so long, but I thought it necessary to inform you.
Jean Philippe Rives
Notice how Politico covered a recent announcement that the French president is considering cutting agricultural subsidies:
Is France finally willing to take its farmers’ snouts out of the European Union trough and let the bloc spend more of its budget on new priorities such as defense, border security, integrating refugees and promoting education and innovation?
Recent hints by Emmanuel Macron suggest he may be the first French president prepared to take the considerable political risk of accepting a diminution of EU farm subsidies, of which his country’s farmers are the biggest recipients.
Pigs at the trough! More:
If Macron gives the impression of sacrificing French farmers, his conservative and far-right opponents will exploit the issue in next year’s European Parliament election campaign. Already facing accusations that he is a “president of the rich” who cares only for the globalized elites and not “la France profonde” of small towns and rural areas, Macron will need to be able to show his move is helping to forge a stronger, more protective Europe in partnership with Germany.
I’m sure farm subsidies look like so much wasteful spending on an economic balance sheet, but this story from The New York Times last year puts a human face on what’s happening. Excerpt:
A dairy farmer, Jean-Pierre Le Guelvout, once kept 66 cows at a thriving estate in southern Brittany. But falling milk prices, accumulating debts, depression and worries about his health in middle age became too much to bear.
Just 46, Mr. Le Guelvout shot himself in the heart in a grove behind his house one cold December day last year. “It was a place that he loved, near the fields that he loved,” explained his sister Marie, who said she was “very close” to him but did not see his suicide coming.
The death of Ms. Le Guelvout’s brother was part of a quiet epidemic of suicide among French farmers with which stoical rural families, the authorities, public health officials and researchers are trying to grapple.
Farmers are particularly at risk, they all say, because of the nature of their work, which can be isolating, financially precarious and physically demanding.
For farmers who do not have children to help with the work and eventually take over, the burden is that much greater. Falling prices for milk and meat have also added to debts and stress in recent years.
Pigs with their noses in the trough, says the big-city journalist of these suffering people. The arrogance is disgusting.
From the point of view of strict economic rationality, it might not make a lot of sense to subsidize a national farming industry. But if you lose small family farms — especially in France, where they have long been an important part of the national identity — you will be losing something the value of which cannot be measured by accountants and government planners eager to embrace globalism.
I don’t know if Wendell Berry has been translated into French, but I will be telling my French listeners about him. For example:
Disparagements of farmers, of small towns, of anything identifiable as “provincial” can be found everywhere: in comic strips, TV shows, newspaper editorials, literary magazines, and so on. A few years ago, The New Republic affirmed the necessity of the decline of family farms in a cover article entitled “The Idiocy of Rural Life.” And I remember a Kentucky high school basketball cheer that instructed the opposing team:
“Go back, go back, go back to the woods.
Your coach is a farmer and your team’s no good.”
I believe it is a fact, proven by their rapidly diminishing numbers and economic power, that the world’s small farmers and other “provincial” people have about the same status now as enemy civilians in wartime. They are the objects of small, “humane” consideration, but if they are damaged or destroyed “collaterally,” then “we very much regret it,” but they were in the way — and, by implication, not quite as human as “we” are.
The industrial and corporate powers, abetted and excused by their many dependents in government and the universities, are perpetrating a sort of economic genocide — less bloody than military genocide, to be sure, but just as arrogant, foolish, and ruthless, and perhaps more effective in ridding the world of a kind of human life. The small farmers and the people of small towns are understood as occupying the bottom step of the economic stairway and deservedly falling from it because they are rural, which is to say not metropolitan or cosmopolitan, which is to say socially, intellectually, and culturally inferior to “us.”
But the prejudice against rural people is not merely an offense against justice and common decency. It also obscures or distorts perception of issues and problems of the greatest practical urgency. The unacknowledged question beneath the dismissal of the agrarian small farmers is this: What is the best way to farm — not anywhere or everywhere, but in every one of the Earth’s fragile localities? What is the best way to farm this farm? In this ecosystem? For this farmer? For this community? For these consumers? For the next seven generations? In a time of terrorism? To answer those questions, we will have to go beyond our preconceptions about farmers and other “provincial” people.
And we will have to give up a significant amount of scientific objectivity, too. That is because the standards required to measure the qualities of farming are not just scientific or economic or social or cultural, but all of those, employed all together. This line of questioning finally must encounter such issues as preference, taste, and appearance. What kind of farming and what kind of food do you like? How should a good steak or tomato taste? What does a good farm or good crop look like? Is this farm landscape healthful enough? Is it beautiful enough? Are health and beauty, as applied to landscapes, synonymous?
With such questions, we leave objective science and all other specialized disciplines behind, and we come to something like an undepartmented criticism or connoisseurship that is at once communal and personal. Even though we obviously must answer our questions about farming with all the intellectual power we have, we must not fail to answer them also with affection. I mean the complex, never-completed affection for our land and our neighbors that is true patriotism.
If you live in France or elsewhere in Europe, and you would like to come to the event, meet the farmers, priests, and monks who will be there, you can get information and buy tickets here. The event will be on Saturday and Sunday, February 17-18, in the Auvergne town of Souvigny. I don’t know if tickets are still available; check the website. In any case, if you are interested in Catholic agrarianism and joining the fight to support and protect French family farming, please consider joining the Journées Paysannes organization — and please pray for them.