‘We no longer expect anything from politicians,’ say French farmers at agriculture fair
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French farmers criticised politicians for failing to do enough to resolve the country’s ongoing milk crisis at the opening of the 2017 International Agriculture Fair this weekend in Paris.
Thousands of visitors wandered the narrow allies of the fairgrounds on Saturday, gaping at cows, pigs, goats and other livestock on display, and sampling an array of regional products.
Yet behind the scenes, farmers struggled to hide the strain caused by two years of falling dairy prices, after the European Union decided in 2015 to eliminate milk quotas, which helped keep the market stable by preventing overproduction.
“It’s very hard to live off my farm,” Simon (who did not give his last name), a 32-year-old dairy and grain farmer from the eastern Rhône region, told FRANCE 24.
Simon, who began working in agriculture in 2012, said he is determined to keep his farm of 70 cattle afloat, despite the ongoing milk crisis and a miserable grain harvest last year.
“I continue because the cows are there,” he explained.
To keep his farm running, Simon works an average of 80 hours per week without pay. He and his wife manage to get by living off her salary as a teacher.
“I’m saddled with loans and I can’t afford to pay all of my suppliers,” he said. “We’ll see how long I can keep going.”
Living on €350 a month
Ludovic (who did not give a last name), a livestock farmer from the western region of Brittany, also voiced fears he may soon have to shut down, claiming he hasn’t earned a cent in three years.
Ludovic and Simon are not the only farmers struggling to make ends meet in France. An estimated 50 percent of producers earn a meagre €350 per month, according to official figures. In 2014, only 20 percent of farmers were earning so little.
Michel Portier, founding director of the agricultural consulting firm Agritel, partly blamed the situation on the EU’s controversial decision to end milk quotas after more than 35 years, at a time when international demand was high.
“China, Russia, India and Brazil all used to be big importers,” he said. “But the playing field has changed since then: these major powers have closed in on themselves.”
In August 2014, Russia imposed an embargo on European produce in retaliation to EU sanctions over its role in the Ukraine crisis, costing the bloc’s farmers nearly €200 million. China, meanwhile, has become increasingly independent after buying up a number of farms in Australia.
With agricultural exports on the decline, French farmers have struggled to absorb production costs, especially in the dairy industry, which no longer has the ability to fix prices.
According to Simon, he makes €0.30 on the euro for every litre of milk sold. “We’re the only industry where the producer doesn’t set his own wage. It’s decided by the buyer, by giant conglomerates,” he said.
Simon said he wished small producers had more negotiating power, like in Canada, where: “There’s one strong union, which is able to take on major distribution companies."
‘Politicians come just to pet a cow’s ass’
Faced with a growing sense of their own powerlessness, farmers at the agricultural fair expressed disappointment that elected officials and politicians have failed to fully grasp the devastating impact of the crisis.
“I’m resigned. I’m not angry like I was last year. We saw that protesting didn’t get us anything. I don’t believe in it anymore, I don’t count on them anymore,” said Simon.
Barbara (who did not give her last name), a 25-year-old dairy farmer from the northern Normandy region, worried the week-long fair would be transformed into a “circus” by candidates campaigning for the country’s presidential election in May.
“The candidates are going to parade around, but they’re not going to propose anything,” she said.
The young farmer’s comments echoed those of Bruno Parmentier, an agriculture specialist and former director of the prestigious École supérieure d'agriculture in the western city of Angers, who criticised politicians at the fair “just to pat a cow’s ass” for their lack of involvement.
“If farmers are in dire straits, it’s because Europe’s not interested in agriculture, and successive governments have done nothing for them,” he said.
In a video posted on Facebook over the weekend, conservative presidential candidate François Fillon promised to introduce a number of new measures to ease the crisis, including lower payroll taxes and the creation of a wholesale label that would allow consumers to see what percentage of the price goes to producers.
Far-right candidate and National Front leader Marine Le Pen, meanwhile, has campaigned for buying locally, encouraging supporters to purchase products that are certified “Made in France”. But Agritel’s Portier argued that her platform was unrealistic. “The CAP is Europe’s first pillar,” he said, referring to the EU’s farming policy.
Whoever wins the presidential election in May will be responsible for negotiating the CAP's 2020-2025 programme with other European governments. France faces an uphill battle against the United Kingdom and Germany, which have prioritised industrialised agriculture.
One reason may be because of different cultural attitudes towards food. According to a 2012 study by the United States Department of Agriculture, French consumers spend 14 percent of their household budget on food, in comparison with 11 percent in Germany and 9 percent in the UK.
“Our high quality products can’t compete with inexpensive sandwiches with their square cuts of ham,” said Parmentier.
This article was translated from the original in French.