Friday, 5 February 2010
ON THE DOWNWARD SLOPE
Last weekend we have been invited for dinner by a couple living in a nearby village. He is a farmer and his wife works as a medical secretary in the next town. Three children under ten.
I don't really remember what we were eating but what he told me left his mark. Pierre's wife is a city girl but his family were peasants in this area since the end of the 16th Century.
That's a huge span of time. In AD 1588 Queen Elisabeth I defeated the Spanish Armada and Pierre's ancestor was the first to make his mark in the local church at his wedding.
Pierre is a dairy farmer, meaning he has around 50 cows and he makes his living by selling the milk to the local processing plant at a price fixed by the Agricultural department of European Union.
The cows over here, Salers breed, look splendid. See this website in English
When Pierre's father retired his elder brother took over the farm, the cows and the fields. He told me "you must have the farming job in your blood, working with animals. Otherwise you do something else".
Pierre has the professional qualifications, he had been at a farmer's college, but this job needs a lot of land, some cows to start with, machinery, a barn. When he started "peasenting" in 1981 the price of milk was such that he considered to be able to make a decent living.
So he rented the land and bought some fields whenever he make some extra profit. There are no lazy farmers. They get up at dawn and come back from work after sunset. And in Summer they work frequently late at night, to make hay or cut the corn.
Sometimes, during glorious warm Summer evenings, I see the headlights of their tractors and hear the distant rumble of the machinery. Sometimes till 11 pm! A lazy farmer becomes a has-been in no time. And they always work alone, sometimes with their wife, but never, never, I have seen a peasant here employing a paid farm hand.
Over the years the price of milk decreased, slowly but steadily. For a year now he sells his milk for less money than he needs to produce it.
He is covered in debt, about 20,000 Euro (about 30,000 US Dollar). Last year, we had a splendid Spring and Summer but for him that meant not enough rain. The maize (corn) was withering on the stem and he had to buy additional food.
This year 2010 might be his last one as a farmer. The price of milk does not and will not go up, he can work 18 hours per day, this would not clean up his debt, only add to it. His wife has to work, it has become vital.
Quitting farming means the debts have to be serviced and he dreads that moment of truth. He fears that their house - not yet fully paid - might get lost, too.
It should be said Pierre's situation is in no way extraordinary. There are thousands of farmers in many UE countries facing the same situation. They work and work and it is not good enough. And they produce food, there is not enough of it worldwide, but they cannot meet ends and many of them will go under.
When the earth quake hit Haiti, hours after it the governments worldwide sent airplanes with all sorts of help. And hundreds of NGO's and other professional do-gooders were crowding the place. But in this case I am talking about, nobody seems to be concerned. They face silent death.