Forget your nostalgia for country life and clichés of church steeples. Our dying countryside is jeopardizing our future, not our past.
During my childhood, rural life still revolved around milking times. We lived simply, scanning the clouds to predict frost or drought, the economy was virtually autarkic, and yet, the young were already facing the fatality of exodus. But, kids still played in the school playground; there were shops around the village green and hens still pecked around the houses of old ladies dressed in black. We killed the pig at Christmas and in summer, we helped the neighbour on threshing day, who always returned the favour. The ancient ways of rural life just carried on, nobody foresaw that they would die out.
Pampered by officials because their votes still weighed in the polls, farmers cherished their land and were proud of their work cultivating it. City-dwellers might have looked down their nose at them, but they did so with affection. The French loved their country folk, it reassured them to know that there, on the land of their ancestors, something was being was maintained. Then, along came the “Trente Glorieuses” (the 30 year post war boom); tractors arrived in the fields and TVs at the hearth.
The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) funded a metamorphosis driven by de Gaulle to ensure food self-sufficiency in France and turn it into a food exporter. Duly acknowledged. The farmers of today do not recognize themselves in the sepia coloured clichés that have made the fortunes of “rural” novelists with their forced nostalgia. They are trained, mechanized, organized and they have invested. They have become entrepreneurs, expanding their farms, improving their productivity. They toil seven days a week, without holiday to achieve the crucial goal they have been set: to feed the world, because, and we forget this detail, a billion people do not have enough to eat. Reckless prices (often lower than cost price) and inconsistent policies (community or national) have forced them into performing demeaning stunts: told to plant one day and uproot the next, whilst still complying with absurd regulations. Mission accomplished: a historic feat, for which no one will thank them. I was recently in Japan, where they regard the French as “funny” (euphemism). Only French agriculture escapes Japanese sarcasm; they envy its power, they believe, and rightly so, that that food self-sufficiency is a major geopolitical asset.
The rural life I knew has certainly faltered. There are fewer farms, the population has declined and local priests bury more than they baptize. But today, villages are more outgoing and better equipped than before and the surrounding countryside, a bucolic feast for the soul: we owe this to the farmers of the new generation. Without them, France would be a scrub strewn desert, intersected by motorways and dotted with ruined steeples. Without them, we could no longer live in these villages, where our happiness wants for nothing. I see them working from dawn to dusk, they have embraced their epoch without denying their ancestral values, and although they are really not very rich, they are proud to do what they do. Or they would be, if they did not suffer the disdain, or even the animosity of city-dwellers.
They are accused of collecting subsidies. So be it. But how many people know that a weanling is sold for less than it was thirty years ago, while production costs are five fold, without including the investments required to meet the sometimes outrageous standards of Brussels? Farmers would rather do without these grants that subject them to bureaucratic tasks as cumbersome as they are sterile; handouts are not part of their culture. But this is impossible in a context of erratic markets, where the Americans rule, and which accumulate the defects of anarchic liberalism and unprincipled protectionism. Agriculture is not industry: until we have globally regulated prices, the CAP’s limits are the lesser evil. If this regulation takes too long, rural populations in poor countries will stagnate in their slums and the masses will die of hunger because their "claim" is not solvent. One can only imagine the ensuing migration as a result of this moral scandal.
As for the damage fertilizers cause to the environment, well, it’s a lot less than domestic or industrial pollution. Our farmers have been encouraged to deliver eco-trendy, certified, organic produce and the younger, new generation of farmers are doing so by conviction. But, given the urgent need to increase world agricultural production in the short-term, organic farming will remain marginal, save letting the world starve. And this is why anti-GMO activism is absurd; it plays into the hands of the Americans, particularly the Monsanto seed producers. Farmers around the world use GMOs and are backed by their governments, except here, where field research is prohibited by public authorities terrorized by the lobbies. The curious paradox is that the “red-green” anti-GMO ayatollahs are in fact zealous agents for Yankee imperialism. And the White House knows it.
The salutary role of farmers
The paganist worship of the goddess Nature by inconsistent bobos maintains a millenarianism for which our farmers are paying the price. As if they are not the best protectors of our environment. In all honesty, they are the only ones, whatever the “rurbans” think, whose housing estates are economically costly and environmentally damaging, to say nothing of aesthetics, and yet who are spared by the media. Farmers are asked to provide mankind with food and to landscape our scenery, they succeed in doing both, but to add hurt to injury, as recently suggested by an EC bureaucrat …. they should also get a second job to survive. At the rate of negotiations on CAPs future, it is those who are less well-off, who are also the majority, who risk earning less than the minimum wage. Eventually, France will pay very dearly for the programmed destruction in some circles of its agriculture.
Besides our memory being wiped clean forever and our national ambition diving to its end, we would be living in a precarious state of survival in an unspeakable fallow land. Farmers know this and they begrudge it. They understand the risks at stake and they feel like pawns in a sinister game. Nobody will defend them because they are now electorally insignificant, their isolation turns to distress, even despair. If only our “elite” could realize what an important role they play, it could be lifesaving! If only environmentalist could look elsewhere to play out their fantasies!