Friday, August 28, 2009

Local farmers

I love agricultural fairs and farm animals. Is it my particular rural childhood in South Grafton that is resurfacing? Or is this some kind of universal human sentiment? No doubt a bit of both.

I took these photos on a hot afternoon at the annual fair in the nearby village of Saint Just-de-Claix.

There weren't many animals, and not many visitors. I think this is a consequence of the simple fact that most of us, living in this Royans district, are in constant contact with farms and animals. So, we don't really need to visit a fair to see them.

I find that the faces and expressions of farmers are no less fascinating than those of their non-human friends. Often, you can read the feelings of farmers on their faces, through their physical forms, just easily as you can judge the weather by gazing up into the sky. They have a psychological and moral heritage of being direct and honest, and this renders them friendly. They can be complex individuals, capable of selling a five-legged sheep to somebody who's prepared to purchase it, but they are ruthlessly authentic human beings, who never call a spade anything other than a spade.

At an agricultural fair, though, I remain fascinated, first and foremost, by the beasts. When I look at such a litter, I have a terrible physical desire to grab hold of one or other of the squealing piglets and hold its writhing little mass in my bare hands. I recall experiencing this same muscular sensation of touch when I used to caress newly-born lambs at Gamone. (Psychologists such as Corina might detect, in my words, some terrifying sex-oriented affliction.)

Choranche lies just beyond the mountainous slopes that you can glimpse in the background. So, it was normal that the livestock of our commune should be present at the fair at Saint Just-de-Claix. In the above photo, my wild neighbor Frédéric Bourne (son of the present mayor of Choranche) is parading their prize horses.

Nice creatures... including a local cowgirl.

This is a portrait of my neighbor Bernard Bourne, mayor of Choranche, descendant of folk who have inhabited Choranche for centuries. Bernard has always maintained a courteous and timidly friendly behavior with me... even though he probably sees me as some kind of alien invader from outer space. To my mind, Choranche remains pure Wild West cowboy territory.

Visitors might get a kick out of agricultural fairs, but I'm convinced that many of the otherwise calm animals are greatly annoyed by all this silly fuss. After all, a cow couldn't give a shit about being awarded a prize. Many of them are unhappy at agricultural fairs. All they desire is to be left in peace, back on the farm.

Here, on the other hand, is a happy human creature, proud of his new-fangled metallic machine.

The above photo shows a cow emerging from his contraption. But what exactly is this device? What has been going on behind the jail-like metal bars?

That's a closeup view of the hardware. Can you guess what it's all about?

I myself had no idea what it was all about until I asked this fellow a lot of silly questions. He's a specialist in the chiropody of bovine hooves. Does that mean he's like a blacksmith, who cleans up the hooves of horses and donkeys? No, not at all, because the latter animals have a single "toe", whereas cows have two. The general idea, if I understand correctly, is that dairy cows often have hoof problems, which can influence adversely the animal's general state of welfare and productivity. So, the purpose of this giant steel contraption is to hold the beast safely in place while the hoof specialist gets into action with his various tools. Apparently, bovine chiropody is a new and lucrative professional specialty in the farmyard domain.

Talking about lucrative professions, I've been impressed during the last few weeks—while on my way to my regular Internet rendezvous at McDonald's on the outskirts of Saint-Marcellin (in fact, in Chatte)—by the intense activity in the two or three remaining fields of tobacco.

The harvesting takes place rapidly in August, with an armada of agricultural machines, and teams of hired hands to hang the precious leaves on racks. (I avoided taking photos of workers, because they might imagine me as an employment inspector.)

In case you still imagine that French farmers are miserable, with hardly enough money to buy shoes for their kids, here's a photo of a local tobacco farmer:

Driving past his place, I've often wondered about the role of all the vast hangars alongside his modern home. Today, I discovered that half of them house his impressive array of tractors, trailers and specialized farming machines, while the others are drying sheds for his tobacco production.

Tobacco is a sideline activity, because he also runs a prosperous dairy farm, and his house is surrounded by endless fields of corn. The problem with tobacco is that the market prices vary constantly, from one year to the next, and you have to be solidly settled—with cash in the bank, and not too many outstanding debts on your investments in machinery—in order to play the game safely. Outsiders might imagine that, with the drop in smoking, growing tobacco for a living would be a risky professional choice. Not at all. All the old-fashioned tobacco farmers have disappeared, and the demand for high-quality tobacco leaves exceeds greatly the supply. The three remaining farms at Chatte are run by young fellows (like the guy in the photo) who operate in a high-tech style, with computers, etc.

My question: "When growing tobacco, does your crop encounter risks of an agricultural kind throughout the year, such as diseases or other possibilities of degradation?"

Tobacco farmer: "No, not really."

My question: "Does growing tobacco involve a lot of manual work throughout the year?"

Tobacco farmer: "No, there's not much to do while it's growing."

My question: "So, what are your major problems?"

Tobacco farmer: "Finding and hiring seasonal personnel. Besides, these workers are becoming more and more demanding, more and more expensive."

He might have added that this management task lasts for no more than a week or so every year. What he was trying to say, I think, was that old-fashioned farmers (such as his ancestors) carried out the harvesting by calling upon family members, and then helping one another, working first in their own field, and then in their neighbors' fields. Today, on the other hand, you have to run your farm like a business. The fellow actually gave me a figure (which I've forgotten) indicating the precise number of hours of required labor, and its cost, for a hectare of tobacco. And I'm sure he uses the Internet to keep track of the evolution of the price of tobacco in the planet's markets and stock exchanges.

The leaves dry for a year in the farmer's hangars, and then the blending process takes another year. So, customers won't be smoking this stuff before two years' time. Naturally, it is a highly-controlled activity, because the authorities don't want farmers to be setting aside leaves for home consumption, or maybe with a view to setting up a business in home-made cigars.

With all these agricultural images in mind, I can imagine a dialogue between a teacher and her juvenile pupils Penelope and Pierre in a rural primary school:

Teacher: "Penelope, what do you want to do when you grow up?"

Penelope: "My dream, Miss, when I grow up, is to become a bovine chiropodist."

Teacher: "And you, Pierre?"

Pierre: "I want to make a fortune growing tobacco, Miss... so I can buy a McDonald's restaurant for me and my friends."

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