Unemployment in France recently passed the symbolic two million mark. With the global economic crisis biting hard, firms across the spectrum are trying to cut costs and shed workers - except in one domain: agriculture.
Despite the soaring unemployment, 21 percent of farmers say they have difficulty finding enough staff. The number rises to 37 percent if you’re talking about qualified staff – but farming is one sector where there are still plenty of unskilled jobs. Four thousand five hundred positions need to be filled each year, that’s without taking into account the estimated 900,000 seasonable jobs the sector offers – or all the opportunities in auxiliary fields, such as the sale and maintenance of farm machinery.
So now government and trade unions alike are trying to do something about it. To coincide with the Paris Agriculture Fair, there’s an advertising campaign entitled “Farming: fashionable work” (“L’agriculture: des métiers à la mode”). It features such appealing images as a hip-hop cow, a rocking sheep, and a shopaholic pig. To many, it’s ridiculous. But the FNSEA farming union believes this is just what is needed to help farming shake off its image as being old-fashioned, hard work for dunces.
The problem is, says Michel Marquet of ANEFA, the agency for employment and training in agriculture, that farming is hard work. He says recruiting people for seasonable jobs in his orchard is particularly hard. “Picking an apple is always going to be picking an apple”, he concedes, “and when they arrive in early September, sometimes it’s pouring with rain and at other times it’s scorching.” This was a welcome concession – at the recruitment stands at the fair, the standard line is that farming is now a highly skilled, modern profession. Not for everyone! Marquet says the solution, though, is to make sure seasonal work can be a springboard to better things.
At the employer end, there’s also a lack of personnel. When French farmers retire or sell up, only half of them manage to pass their farm on as a going, independent concern. The figures are improving though, says Agriculture Minister Michel Barnier, thanks in part to state aid for farming start-ups. We met him at the Young Farmers union stand, under a huge banner saying “Demain je serai paysan!” One is tempted to translate that as “Tomorrow, I shall be a peasant!” though the term doesn’t have negative connotations in French, as it does in English.
All the same, it was amusing to see Barnier and then Prime Minister François Fillon trying on the “Tomorrow I shall be a peasant”. I can imagine the pictures will resurface in some satirical journal someday.