Friday, 29 August 2014

A Snapshot of our Hamlet in the Charente and Jerome's farm

In our tiny hamlet in the Charente region of France we have five neighbours.

In the first small house live Eloise and her partner Amaund, a young working couple. They have a new puppy, not a house dog but destined to grow up as a great hunter. So he lives and whines in a dog house in a pen in the back yard. He loves company and would love to be molly coddled but this is not the French way for the serious business of raising a hunter!!

Opposite we have Vincent, a young single teacher with a lovely throaty sports car which he loves to drive with proper French élan. From time to time he has extended company, a lovely young lady, or is it a series of lovely young ladies. Ah… such proper French élan!  

Down the road a bit resides Monsieur et Madame M, who keep a beautiful house set in a beautiful garden. M et Mde keep the village looking spruce all year with trimmed green lawns and gorgeous seasonal flowers. “Mon Dieu” said Val on our arrival so many months ago…. “we simply can’t let the side down”.  So Val matches seasonal flower with seasonal flower and I drudge with the mower. Our reward: gracious nods and a few words of approval, en passant!
A view of Monsuier and Madame's garden

Where the hamlet lane peters out to a rough farm track we find Sally and Colin, absentee English landlords (for the time being). They are rebuilding a tumble down barn into a lovely farm home, mezzanine floor, gorgeous open plan living area and stunning bathrooms and kitchen with beautiful timbers, new and old.  Everything one reads about the “joys” of renovating in rural France is absolutely true, they say.

Jerome, the farmer, lives between us and Sally and Colin.

In my naïve way, I had envisaged Jerome as being the latest incarnation of a long line of farmers tilling the same village patch, century after century.  Well, his grandfather owned a small farm near the village of Pillac, just outside our commune of Juignac. Claude, his father, was also a farmer who in 1972 purchased a different patch in the Juignac area. Twelve years ago, Claude retired from active farming and Jerome bought his 60 hectares. He has since built this up to 100 hectare and would buy more if it was available.

My ignorance knows no bounds! I assumed that 100ha must be a fairly small farm. (Now, dear reader, be honest: did you too think this was small?) Amazingly, a whopping 96% of the 490,000 French farms are less than 200ha in area, with 40% less than 20ha! Jerome is up there in the top 20% of farms that are of 100ha or more.

Before you start to think the Australia has it all over the Frenchies in farm size consider these facts. There are 135,000 farms in Oz, 36% are less than 50 hectares in area and a further 36% have between 50 and 500 hectares. Not only that, but 55% have a turnover of less than $100,000.
Val, Jerome and Jerome's dog with some of his tractors

 Now anyone that has driven in rural France will allow that an awful lot of French tractors roar around on French roads. I can now reveal why this is so!

Jerome has an astonishing 32 separate land titles making up his 100 hectares, spread over six major but quite separate concentrations which are kilometres apart.  His smallest field is just 0.25ha, the biggest 13ha with an average of 3ha. Apparently, this is quite a common structure for farms. So he has to tool around the country lanes on one of his four tractors just getting to the different sections of his farm. All the other farmers are busy doing the same thing. And of course there is the traditional 2 hour French lunch break. Just think, come 1200 noon, 490,000 farmers jump on their tractors and head off home for an apero and four course lunch!  

Except for livestock paddocks, the farming fields in this area usually irregular in shape and are completely unfenced with just a rough post or bit of iron rod to mark the various corners.  Ancient walkways cut through farms and even in places proceed between a farm’s buildings 

Claude’s retirement interest is in wood. He supplies split fire wood, however, I suspect his greatest pride is his 85 year old farmyard saw mill. It’s a beauty, a two meter high bandsaw arrangement complete with baling
Claude and dog pose with his 80 year old bandsaw
wire repairs and chocked with wood blocks where necessary. With this he produces oak planks and beams to order. In fact Claude supplied the new oak beams, 8inchx8inch, for Sally and Colin’s rebirth of the old barn. Delivery would not have been difficult as the old barn is only 10 meters from the old saw mill.  

All you old farmers out there already suspect that the French farmers are handsomely subsidised.  Last year the European Community gave France 11 Billion euros as the farm subsidy payment. 490,000 farms means an average subsidy of E22,000 per farm. But, of course, averages can be highly misleading as clearly the 40% of farms with less than 20 hectares must get less cash each than, say, the 20% with more than 100 ha.
The upper wheel of the bandsaw!! 

Jerome points out that the subsidy is compensation for the low controlled price that he gets for his wheat, maize and sunflower. The price is set at the going world rate for the various commodities. He must also abide by a contract with the agricultural department enforcing such things as the maintenance of ancient walkways, riparian zones and the use of pesticides. That can’t be bad.

As France is the second biggest European economy much of that 11 billion euro package would come from France itself. So France gives the EU heaps of money, the EU then gives France heaps of money back.  Then 490,000 French farmers have multipage agreements with the French Agricultural department. All that lovely paperwork for all those lovely bureaucrats!  It’s a lovely system! It’s French!

A bientot, off to Prague tomorrow for a few days

Cheers to all

Bryan and Val

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