Another flattish day on Wall Street. Another coldish day here.
France is beautiful in the summer, though. Sunflowers or lavender blooming in the fields. Rolls of hay dotting the pastures. Flowers in every pot and garden. Squint…and you see a painting by Monet or Van Gogh.
But it’s not all idyllic.
‘Farming is a catastrophe here,’ said a neighbour yesterday.
‘The whole area is changing,’ added another. ‘These family-owned farms are practically a relic of an earlier age.’
One of the things that attracted us to the region 22 years ago was the farms.
Each one was its own community, with people who had lived on the land for generations.
Each had its workshops and barns, too, where you could fix a tractor or build a door.
And the community had a stable social structure, built around agriculture.
Each farm had its large, stone house — often a chateau — where the owner lived.
There were smaller houses, too — for the farm workers — less imposing, but more charming than the owner’s place. We have one apartment over the stable…and another, where refugees lived during the Second World War, over the workshop.
And in the local towns lived the mechanics, merchants, butchers, bakers, plasterers, painters, doctors, and lawyers needed to make a farming community work.
Each family knew its place. Each had its work to do. And all expected it to continue almost indefinitely.
One morning, soon after we arrived, a short, round man with blond hair and a smile like a retriever showed up at the door and explained the system to us.
‘Bonjour,’ he introduced himself, ‘I’m your plasterer.’
This came as news to us. We knew we had plaster work to do. But we didn’t know we already had someone to do it.
‘How comes that to be,’ we asked…or words to that effect.
‘My father was the plasterer here. And my grandfather. We’ve always done the plaster work on this house.’
Fine with us. Without realising it, we already had a corps of plumbers, carpenters, masons, and painters. Each one knew his role.
Only one let us down — the painter, who let his drinking get in the way of doing a good job.
A dying town
We did much of the work ourselves. But there was a lot to learn.
Our team of professionals didn’t make it easy. And they weren’t cheap. But they helped us avoid a disaster.
Mr Goupil, for example, worked by the hour and was agonisingly slow. He set floor tile as though he were assembling a bomb. Every tile had to be in exactly the right place — with no help from plastic spacers or grids.
We had pulled up the old, handmade terracotta tiles and were reusing them. The tiles were irregular. Some had the prints of a cat that had walked across the clay before it had set.
They had been set directly onto a mud floor. We pried them up, then poured a light concrete subfloor and set the tile back on top in a lime paste.
The tiles were probably 150 years old. Mr Goupil laid them down carefully, as though he expected them to last another 150 years.
Mr Goupil retired a few years ago. No one took his place. ‘People don’t want real plasterwork anymore. Or they can’t afford it,’ he explained.
‘They use wallboard. They buy cheap things from the do-it-yourself store.’
Then, the carpenter, Mr Lardeaux, retired. Same story.
Then it was the metal worker.
‘People don’t have windows made anymore,’ explained Mr. Lardeaux. ‘They just go out and buy them readymade.’
Little by little, the town is dying.
And now, it’s the farms, too. But it’s not just a matter of money.
End of an era
Another neighbour explained:
‘I have two daughters.
‘One moved to Paris. The other lives with her boyfriend on the coast. Neither of them are interested in taking over the farm. I will have to sell it when I retire.
‘But it’s that way everywhere. The next generation isn’t interested. Mr Delacroix’s son works in some kind of computer design firm in Toulouse. Mr Pickard has two boys. One of them is in Paris selling cars, I think. The other tried to take over the farm, but he found it too hard.
‘That’s been a real local tragedy. Because it tore the family apart. The son and his wife don’t even talk to the parents.
‘That’s another thing. Running a farm requires a couple. You can’t do it on your own. You need a real farm wife…just to do the paperwork. It’s unbelievable how much paperwork there is, with all these regulations.
‘Young Jean wanted to run the farm, but his wife had a full-time job in the city. Doing all the paperwork himself and still taking care of the cattle and everything else. It was just too much for him.’
Farmers complain. About the weather. About the banks. About the regulators and the environmentalists.
‘Yea…farmers always complain,’ continued our neighbour, ‘but this time it’s more than that. It’s the end of an era.’
Springtime in France was particularly wet this year. Fields were flooded. Plants rotted. Crop yields, in our area, are only about a half of normal. To the north, they are said to be even worse.
Bad harvests used to mean higher prices, which salved the pain a bit. But today, prices for grains depend on a world market — including Canada, the US, Ukraine, Australia, and Argentina.
These other countries produced so much grain that prices were weak, making the French farmers’ complaints even more bitter.
‘It’s almost impossible to earn a living on these small farms. The costs are too high. Prices are too low. And if you have a bad year, the bank puts you out of business. Half the farms in this area are either for sale now…or will be in the next couple of years.’
For Markets and Money, Australia