I am writing these words from my house in Burgundy. If I look over my shoulder out of the window I can see the house of my neighbour, a cereal farmer. If I look out to my right, across the fields, I can see the buildings of a cattle farmer. There is a third farm in my village where they produce cereal and vegetables.
Patricia, the wife of this third farmer, dropped by last night with a crate of potatoes. Her husband has been on the front line of the growing agricultural protest movement that began a fortnight ago in Toulouse. It has spread across the country. From the Mediterranean to Normandy, farmers of cattle, sheep, chickens and crops are demonstrating outside prefectures and dumping hay in fast-food restaurants. On Monday they used tractors and bales of hay to blockade motorways accessing Paris. Patricia told me their resolve is unshakeable: ‘We’ll go to the bitter end.’
Her fury is directed at Brussels more than Paris. EU regulations are making farmers’ lives a misery, although they also blame bureaucrats in Paris for applying the rules so zealously. Their land is under surveillance from drones. ‘We can’t even trim our hedgerows without permission,’ Patricia says. What grates more than anything is that they have been farming organically for many years. And for what? They make less money than they used to, but they’re still bullied and harassed on a weekly basis.
Every two days in France a farmer commits suicide. Others walk away from the industry. In my département, there were 1,058 cattle farmers in 2014 and now there are 772. In the past two years 54 farms have ceased to operate.
My immediate neighbour, the cereal farmer, went organic a year ago.