The women changing the face of French agriculture

The women changing the face of French agriculture
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In the vineyards, the fields or on the goat farms, more and more women are questioning family and local practices and choosing to work according to their own values. “I admire the peasant woman of the young generation very much,” admits Babeth, a farmer who took over and managed her family farm in Gan, near Pau in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques, until her retirement. For her, there is no doubt that the women of today are making ambitious choices. This observation is shared by institutions in their official reports. In 2017, the World Bank stated that: “All over the world, whether they are working in the fields or in a laboratory, women are transforming agriculture to make it more resilient and more sustainable”.

In France, according to the Ministry of Agriculture and Food, “women are the driving force behind the development of new activities”. Their ethical influence seems all the more important in the current context of climate change. Agriculture is responsible for 23 per cent of greenhouse gases according to an IPCC report published in 2019, having become a heavy consumer of phytosanitary products and increasingly production driven, and is regularly singled out for its environmental impact. The stakes for change are high. However, there are still too few women at the head of agricultural estates. In France, only a quarter of farms are managed by women farmers.

In south-west France, there is a region that did not wait for feminist movements to allow the inheritance of land by female descendants. In Béarn, women have been able to inherit family land since the 11th century.

In June 2020, Equal Times sent journalist Tiana Salles and photojournalist Victorine Alisse, both the granddaughters of farmers, to meet the women who produce our food. Along the way, they spoke with women of several generations, active promotors of ethical agriculture, and observed their daily lives.

 

Babeth poses in the kitchen of the family farm, near Pau. A peasant farmer’s daughter, she took over a farm on her own before her husband joined her. Her goal is first to continue the work of her parents, selling directly to local customers. “We were making progress as best we could. You cannot put a price on the recognition of our produce that we get from our customers and the sense of pride it gives us,” she says.

Photo: Victorine Alisse

When she took over the family farm in 1980, Babeth already had a professional life as an educator behind her and did not have an agricultural diploma. She could not, therefore, claim any start-up aid. Furthermore, the wide range of activities on her farm (breeding, growing daffodils, berries) did not fall within the framework covered by the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) of the European Union. But no matter. This farmer has made her originality an asset: not joining a system that does not suit her.

This committed farmer did not hesitate to defend her vision of agriculture by getting involved in an agricultural union. Babeth joined Confédération paysanne (the Confederation of Peasant Farmers) in which she continues to participate from time to time, when they organise ‘solidarity soups’ or one-off protests or awareness-raising actions in supermarkets. She campaigns for the preservation of farming practices and selling locally. When it comes to agriculture, she says with pride: “I was behind the creation and development of the Béarn Corn Bean Association.” A bean planted next to an old variety of corn, in order to create complementarity between species, following the principles of permaculture and thereby avoiding the use of phytosanitary products.

 

Nathalie chose to pose with her dog who accompanies her whatever she is doing on the farm. She took over the farm, in Rébénacq, at the foot of the Pyrenees National Park, in 2005, and has chosen to develop organic goat breeding and the sale of cheeses.

Photo: Victorine Alisse

Nathalie took over her farm from her parents who, when they reached retirement age, considered leasing the land. “It was out of the question that I could no longer come to the farm.” So she did not hesitate for a second. Feeling unfulfilled in her professional life as an employee in a duck cannery, she decided to take over the family land and settle there. Despite learning from her parents, because she had no agricultural diploma, she could not receive any start-up aid for young farmers (DJA). She then set about getting the necessary qualifications. The experience has marked her: “You learn to use chemicals, to process everything. Me, I refused to take that course”. It is out of the question for her to practice methods that go against her convictions. Her farm therefore went on to acquire the AB - Organic Agriculture label. Today, however, Nathalie wants to go further.

 

On her farm, Nathalie raises goats, a few cows and chickens. Here, Nathalie feeds her animals in the early morning. She wants to give them attention: “An animal really has a conscious mind and you can know everything about them”.

Photo: Victorine Alisse

Over the years Nathalie has become more sensitive to the needs of her animals. “When I started I wasn’t like that. But when you become a mother, there are parts of the breeding process that no longer feel possible. For example, to separate the kids from the mother at birth and send them to the truck [Editor’s note: to be fattened elsewhere]”. It is a necessary measure to obtain enough goat’s milk to cover consumer demand, because the kid takes too much milk and kid meat is not really sold in France, because it is not part of consumer habits.

Another aspect that she doesn’t like is having to spend a lot of time off the farm. Nathalie sells directly to markets. “The cooperative buys our cheeses at low prices, direct sales are more profitable. And they give you a direct link with the consumer”. But this system has its limits: we must take care of everything. In addition to looking after the animals, farm maintenance, processing the product, we also have to take care of administration and sales. “Marketing is a full-time job. Basically, if I am in a short network, I have to be away from the farm some of the time.” The farm works, but without the unpaid help of her parents, she wouldn’t be able to do it. Given their advancing years, Nathalie wants to evolve and has been working on a project for several months.

 

Nathalie puts the fresh goat cheese in a pot where it will turn into tome. She is considering whether to reorganise her sales system, to develop the breeding of more rustic breeds of goats and to diversify production on her farm.

Photo: Victorine Alisse

Her plan is to create a system where the consumer becomes part of her farm, a bit like the Associations for the Maintenance of Peasant Agriculture (Associations pour le Maintien de l’Agriculture Paysanne, or AMAPs), but on a micro-scale. She would like to engage with families on an annual basis: they would buy the equivalent of one (or a half) goat. For a year, they would receive cheese, milk, yoghurts...and also kid meat. The little ones would no longer be separated from their mother from birth, the aim being to let them live three months with their mother. “This system humanises the farm because it allows people to be involved,” explains Nathalie. What she wants is to recreate a bond between the people of the city and the countryside and allow families to come to the farm one day a week.

Nathalie also hopes to become independent, to no longer depend on aid from the CAP, while ensuring a decent income and regaining the satisfaction of the link with the consumer. And she does not want to stop there. In the long term, she also plans to rear more rustic breeds of goats and diversify production on her farm.

 

In addition to selling honey, Hélène makes various types of gingerbread, cookies and honey in her workshop. She then sells her produce in local markets and in grocery shops in the region. “Local, direct sales, was part of our core values, it was so obvious.”

Photo: Victorine Alisse

This former social worker undertook vocational retraining to join her husband Damien, who was a shepherd before leaving his flock of sheep for bees. Together, they then created their business in Bedous, a small village in the Aspe Valley. For the moment, Hélène prefers to focus more on family life. Although she would eventually like to work more with the beehives, she is mainly involved in the manufacture of products from them and sales, which gives her more flexibility.

By settling in a small mountain village, they chose a region far from the large scale farms, which protects their beehives from the harmful effects of agro-chemistry. While the hives are mostly spared from phytosanitary products, they are not immune to the consequences of climate change: rainfall is becoming uncertain and temperatures regularly peak. “Bees are finding it hard to make honey,” says Hélène. It will therefore be difficult for their production to grow. In order to be able to develop their activity, the two farmers therefore plan instead to open an educational space around bees and honey.

 

Irène, an organic wine grower, was born on the Latapy estate, on the Gan Heights, in Béarn, which she inherited and which she continues to cultivate today.

Photo: Victorine Alisse

Irène has held the reins of this typical farm in the region for 25 years. While her parents raised dairy cows and sheep destined for the meat market there and grew some grapes for the cooperative cellar, she chose to make it a full-fledged wine estate. This descendant of “peasant labourers”, with her strong character, manages her farm in her own way. “I have a very family outlook on the business and I borrow very little.” She is not interested in having the latest generation of tractor.

This entrepreneurial woman with a thousand ideas has no hesitation in expanding her activities. Every year, she innovates to ensure an income without depending on anyone and to live as she sees fit, in a spirit of sharing. “I didn’t do anything to have this beautiful place. I want to keep it alive and share it with others”. Bed and breakfast, group visits, walking tours, wine presentations and soon an escape game, it never seems to stop. And if some people sometimes try to derail her efforts, she is not discouraged, “If people don’t like what I do, they can just fuck off.”

 

At the end of each day, Irene goes back down to her fields and trims the vines. The years go by, but her love of the vine remains intact. “Every year I feel like I’m giving birth. There is a close link between motherhood and a vineyard,” says Irene.

Photo: Victorine Alisse

Her 4.7 hectares of vines are like her children. A link that goes hand in hand with respect for the environment. The estate has been certified organic since 2012, but Irène has applied these methods since 2003. It’s a philosophy that seems to have come to her gradually, through emulation with other winegrowers in the region. “I couldn’t remember the names of the chemical molecules and the organic training was interesting. It suited us, full stop”. They tried for one year; the second, they adopted it and now they will never go back. It’s a choice, the effects of which she can clearly see: “In three years, we began to see the effects and in 25 years, it’s just wonderful to see the biodiversity that has developed”. Last year, she found an orchid at the foot of her vines. A flower then unknown on the estate. For her, even if it means losing a little of her harvest, she does not want to spoil these “treasures of nature”.

 

At around 6 p.m., Jessica does the evening milking. She is accompanied by her apprentice and an intern, a student at an agro-development college, to whom she is giving advice on her first day.

Photo: Victorine Alisse

Jessica raises a herd of Jersey cows. This rustic breed produces a small amount of high-quality milk, known for being rich in nutrients. She makes cheese, raw milk and butter from it, which she sells to gourmet restaurants on the Basque coast, and even to a Bordeaux clinic for skin treatments. The 28-year-old farmer began her unusual choice of breeding when she took over the family farm in 2012. At the time, her father owned a herd of Prim’Holstein cows, with an exclusive sales contract to a cooperative dairy. Production went well, until 2008, when the economic crisis caused a fall in milk prices. Debts piled up and in 2012, the family business, which had been in place for five generations, was on the verge of bankruptcy.

Jessica then decided to embark on fundamental change: a change of breed of cows, a change of animal feed, direct sales, cheese production. Her mother was quick to encourage this radical transformation, but it was more difficult to accept for her father who saw his life-long practice questioned. But, even if it had to take time, Jessica was determined, the change had to be a family affair. “We have completely changed the system. We changed the farm and we changed with it”. Today, the family has got rid of its debts and the farm is recognised for the quality of its production. Jessica’s success is a family victory.

This story has been translated from French.