All things cheese in France

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Gardeners or slaves of France - The life of French milk farmers today

The reporter extraordinaire Harry Roselmack from TF1 (French TV), provided a look into the dire status of the independant French milk farmers with his show on January 25th - Harry Roselmack avec les résistants du monde paysan (Harry Roselmack with the Peasant Resistance). He spent several weeks with a group of diary farmers from the region of Ille-et-Vilaine in Brittany to better understand their life, the hardships they face and the little publicized fact that suicide amongst them are soaring, with more than 400 dead per year and many giving up their ancestral farms because they can not continue to pay to work on them.

The gist of the program was the paradox that while these farmers, once respected as 'les jardiniers (gardeners) de la France' providing food for the country,  they frequently can barely provide for their families.  They now believe they have become nothing more than 'les esclaves (slaves) de la France'. These people work 12 - 18 hour days, 7 days a week with rarely any time off and no benefits.  Prices for their production fell more than 30% in one year, all while operating expenses tripled. To wake up every day knowing you will once again be in the red, can not be easy, and yet being a farmer is not a job, it is a way of life, so difficult to give up.

This life is a far cry from the cushy one, as one of these farmers called it, enjoyed by those workers who populate the ranks of France's syndicats (unions). To hear one farmer say he would be 'thrilled if he could at least earned the SMIC (minimum wage)' was pretty heartbreaking.  It was worst to know that a huge percentage of them are and have not been profitable for years and borrow money just to keep their animals feed.  And with the price of milk not keeping pace with the cost of operation, large numbers of these farmers are being forced to give up their farms, many having been past down for generations; the statistics were pretty grim. In 2000, there were 120,000 milk farmers in France, today there are only 85,000.

This year, the drought has created yet more difficulties for them and even with the recent augmentation in the cost per litre, they will continue to live well below the poverty line. To be sure, it is a complicated situation, one that is similar, I am sure in other industrialized countries. The milk producers are at the bottom of the pile, with the cooperatives or processors and then the distributors above them. But the large cooperatives, who produce the milk products made five times what the average farmer made last year, so it begs the question of fairness.

The frustration of these proud people was palpable. A group of them have decided to revolt against this system of pricing that does not take into account the reality of their work production.  Four of them went on a hunger strike late last year with the hope of calling attention to their plight.  Try and find a link to have news of their status...good luck. The press largely ignores them, until of course they decide to dump their milk in the streets in front of a ministry. No wonder they feel no one is either listening nor cares, least of all the consumer or politicans.

An equitable resolution of what is fair for the producer all the way up to the consumer is the question. But as one farmer said, those who govern need to understand that the old adage of 'Le paysan ne cri pas quand il y en mal, il meurt en silence parce qu’il a la dignité (the peasant doesn't cry out when they hurt, they die in silence because they have dignity) was no longer going to be the case. The slaves of France were going to rise up and demand their respected place in the country and be paid fairly for their labours.  On verra...

Note Bene:  The look on Harry's beautiful face while two farmers at 1 in the morning were trying to pull a new calf out of the womb of it's mother, with great difficulty, was priceless.

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