26 July 2015

Pessimism, and some kisses

A lot of French farmers are feeling pretty pessimistic these days. They say they can't make a decent living in the current economic situation. They say also that intermediaries ("middle men") and those who own and run what's known as la grande distribution — the major supermarket chains, basically — are the ones making all the money. And they refuse to pay farmers enough for their products so that the farmers can stay in business.

This hot dry summer hasn't helped any, apparently. Big demonstrations by farmers have been all the news for a week or two, especially up in Normandy and Brittany, but also in the Loire Valley. I know just one farmer — he's a man who works out in the vineyard. I talk to periodically — he's very talkative, and fairly interesting. Sometimes his wife is out there working with him. They trim the vines, repair the vineyard support posts and wires, and do whatever it takes. Their main business is céréales — grains, including corn, they've told me. The vineyard work must be just a way to make ends meet.

Yesterday morning when I went out walking with Callie, somebody on a tractor/trimmer was working in a plot of vines up near the top of the vineyard, clipping off the tall top vines that don't bear any grapes. I couldn't see who was in the cab of the little tractor, and Callie gets nervous around farm machinery. We were just walking on by, but I waved my hand toward the tractor, in case the driver was somebody I knew and who knows me.

Well, it was the moonlighting grain farmer. As the tractor got closer to me and the dog, I recognized him and his big smile. At the end of a row of vines that he was trimming, he turned off the motor and got out to come shake hands with me and say bonjour. I suspect he wanted to greet Callie as much as me, because he used to have a border collie, he's told me, and since that dog passed on he's always missed him. Callie, who's not always the boldest dog, does love this man.

The conversation turned serious. The man told me the grapes this year are far smaller than they should be at the end of July. There won't be much wine, and the grape-growers won't have much to sell in 2016. At the same time, I should report I saw a recent report about the Bordeaux vineyards on the national news saying that even if the harvest is small, the quality of the wine produced will probably be exceptionally good. That's often the way it works. What it means is that wine prices will go up — again.

The man — I believe his name is Thierry — told me too that his cereal crops are suffering mightily. He said two large fields of corn he has, which he can't irrigate for some technical reason, have failed completely. He wnt on to say that he has recently handed off part of his land to one of his sons, who's pretty discouraged about being able to make a living as a farmer. Meanwhile, Thierry squatted down to pet Callie, smiled, talked easily about all this bad news, and enjoyed getting a lot of cheek and ear kisses.

By the way, it's supposed to rain today. I hope it helps. In France, grape-growers are not allowed to irrigate their vines.


  1. I wonder if weather conditions, which are so important and critical for farmers and agriculture at large, have any impact on dividends paid to the investors of grande distribution.

    1. I should have added I didn't think the Waltons got rich en léchant les murs.

  2. As a cereal farmer he's actually better off in terms of subsidies than if he were a livestock farmer. This weather has caused problems with the summer crop, but the winter crop (wheat and barley at any rate) should be fantastic. In France the big problem farmers are experiencing is that mostly they are small scale peasant operations. They are competing against industrial farming even within the EU (Germany is getting a lot of criticism because of their laws which allow the most industrial type of modern farming and their labour laws which mean that until recently farm workers didn't even get a minimum wage, much less all the other ways they can be exploited.) It's not just the supermarkets raking it in, there are all sorts of intermediaries now between the farm and the consumer and they all need their cut. Again it's a product of industrial farming. One disadvantage cereal farmers have in the modern market is that it is more difficult for them to develop a local clientele. Livestock farmers can choose to stay small and bypass the intermediaries by selling local very often. Another problem the supermarkets cause is a consumer perception that food should be cheap and that buying outside the supermarket system is expensive. Consumer spending on food has dropped from 40% of household income to 15% in a few decades.

  3. UK farmers are also in a mess, not because of the weather but the stranglehold the supermarkets have on their business.
    When I see our motorways jammed with lorries taking cheap food from one distribution point to another I can't help thinking I preferred the old days, when you only got what was in season, available locally or grown at home.

    1. One of the worst food miles is Boots sandwiches...
      a bread factory in Scotland trucks the sliced loaves to the place in Kent or Surrey...
      forget exactly which... that has the sandwich making contract...
      and all the packed sandwiches are then taken to Boots grand distribution centre in the Midlands.
      I'm sure that they can do much better on a local contract basis...
      but they'd probably have to employ more people to oversee the logistics!!

  4. i loved hearing about how he wanted to see Callie and how she likes him. but i swear i read this as "persimmons" and i thought it was about fruit and kisses.

  5. Small farmers are having it tough everywhere. Between big agribusiness and the government, they really don't have much of chance here in the USA. Throw the weather in that mix such as the drought in California and we are really in trouble. I try to buy mainly organic and non-GMO food which will get much harder to do if H.R. 1599 slides through the Senate like it did the House. The bill is better know as the DARK Act. With Big Ag and Monsanto behind it, I know it is not good for me! One representative from NC voted against it. I've started looking into becoming an Expat myself!

  6. I wonder if the farmers can organize so they have some power against the big chains?

    I imagine Califronia grape growers are facing similar problems given the drought situation, which is state-wide.

    Here in LA we are lucky to have 3 farmers markets a week, within a couple blocks, where family farms bring in their produce. It's always the same families, so you get to know them...tomatoes that taste like tomatoes, etc. vs what you get at a supermarket. But farms will have to cut back water usage too according to reports.


  7. Cheek and ear kisses always help. How terrible for French wine growers to be having hard times and all those rules that control them.

  8. LOL ... grape growers .... they don't exactly grow wine , do they ? :)

  9. I always like the people my cat likes. Animals have an innate way of knowing the people who are animal lovers.
    I hope the farmer's life will improve somehow in France.


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