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Auvergne and Brittany regions, France

 

Gilbert Bros talks with local farmer

Gilbert Bros talks with
local farmer

PROFILE:

Gilbert Bros, farmer, union leader


Gilbert Bros is a sheep farmer; his roots also reach deep into the rugged soil of Auvergne. But, unlike his neighbor, Gilbert no longer spends most of his time working the land. He is second in command of France's largest farmers' union. His job is to keep in touch with the farmers of Auvergne. He hears their stories and tries to solve their problems. When he's heard enough he puts on a tie and tries diplomacy.

And if that fails, he is forced to resort to more aggressive tactics that often make the evening news. With Gilbert leading the way, 10,000 angry protesters recently dumped thousands of gallons of milk to dramatize their fierce resistance to free trade. They also demanded higher subsidies to supplement their incomes.

"We use demonstrations to make our voice and our opinions heard. Demonstrating usually gets us results because often public opinion is on the side of the farmer," says Bros.

"All we want is a decent wage and still be able to produce good quality products. But most important, if we can afford to stay small, more people will stay on the land and our region will prosper."

This act of desperation by local farmers was their response to an invasion of low-cost imports that placed them at a competitive disadvantage. Often Gilbert is torn between his belief in a bright future and what he sees when he brings his sheep to market. Each week farmers gather at the local sheep auction. Today the prices are high. Business is brisk. But these are the faces of the past; the faces of yesterday, not the faces of tomorrow's farmers.

Many of the villages that Gilbert Bros holds so dear are becoming ghost towns; a testament to rural flight. A century ago, twice as many people lived in this remote part of France. Not very long ago this high school was home to over a hundred students. Today there are only fifteen. When a school closes a village dies.


Medieval fortresses and long dormant volcanoes dominate the landscape of the Auvergne region of central France. This is a world of memories and picture postcards, of ancient stone villages surrounded by gently rolling hills. But those that work this land live on a very thin edge.

Auvergne region, France

Auvergne region, France


Farmer Alain Fialip is not very optimistic about the future. For over two hundred years his ninety-acre farm has supported generations of his ancestors. Today, it can barely support a family of five.

Alain's major problem is that cattle and sheep ranching in Auvergne are too expensive. A declining local population means there is less demand for his goods, and a costly transportation system makes it very difficult to compete against European market prices. This, coupled with a harsh climate, is at times overwhelming.

In just one generation almost two million French citizens have abandoned their homesteads.

But Alain continues to explore ways to cut costs while still maintaining the high quality of his products — anything to keep from being driven off the land. Despite all his efforts, deep down he knows he can't compete against large highly mechanized corporate farms. In just one generation almost two million French citizens have abandoned their homesteads. Alain struggles on. He has little desire to expand, only the fervent wish to prolong a time honored agricultural tradition. But in Auvergne, a way of life, developed over centuries, is collapsing.

The relentless movement off the family farms of Auvergne is hardly unique — it's happening all over the world. This shift in population not only strains the livelihoods of those staying, but affects the places where many of the people have fled, like the Northwest corner of France, where farmers have their own set of problems.

To understand these issues, its important to first understand Brittany's connection to the sea. This is a region of strong ocean currents and tidal changes. Sometimes at low tide the sea almost disappears from view, only to come back hours later joined by the returning fishing fleets.

In nearly every fishing village there are chapels to honor the men who lost at sea.

Instead of farmers, Brittany has always spawned men of the sea. Not very long ago they left behind a generation of widows when their frail sailing boats ranged as far as Iceland. The perils of the sea have made the Bretons a deeply religious people. In nearly every fishing village there are chapels to honor the men who lost at sea.

Along their walls are slabs of stone and wood, and on each is a name, and they all have one thing in common. This is the "wall of the disappeared" and the names are of the men who sailed away and never came back.

Video Excerpt: In the picturesque region of Auvergne in central France, farmers try to prolong a time-honored agricultural tradition, but a harsh climate, rising costs and dwindling population pose a threat.
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In the past decade, Brittany's fishing community has dwindled from 60,000 to about 20,000. In a sense their names are also candidates for the wall of the disappeared. Over-fishing and pollution have devastated the local waters. Like the farmers of Auvergne, inexpensive imports have forced down prices, driving many into bankruptcy. As a result, most of the region's young people have started new lives, as farmers.

The inland villages of Brittany are astonishingly beautiful. Twenty years ago, forests and wetlands teeming with wildlife bordered them. Today they are surrounded by cultivated farmland. This is the nation's most intensive agricultural area. Almost every available acre is under cultivation. Unlike the farmers of Auvergne, Bretons use an extraordinary amount of chemicals. The result is a significant increase in yields which has helped France become Europe's leading exporter of agricultural products.

A plaque commemorating lost fisherman in Brittany

A plaque commemorating lost fisherman in Brittany

In an effort to exploit every inch of arable ground, the land is farmed to the water's edge. Ironically, agricultural run-off has so polluted Brittany's rivers and coastal waters that it is partially responsible for the collapse of the local fisheries. Compounding the problem is the amount of waste produced by animal farming.

State-of-the-art farm houses make Brittany France's largest producer of pork. Poultry is also big business in Brittany. Unfortunately, concentrations of chicken and pig farms produce enormous amounts of toxic waste, which too often spill into already contaminated aquifers and streams.

No one questions that livelihoods in Brittany depend on agricultural production. The real question is, how to strike a balance between preserving the environment and safeguarding the region's economy? The farmers of Brittany are beginning to realize that they must resolve a fundamental issue: the conflict between those that want to increase production and those who want to protect the environment.

RELATED CONTENT:

Read the Country Profile for France

Read more about agricultural ecosystems and coastal ecosystems

Read other Stories of Hope

 

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