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Claire – about the hardships of being a milk farmer in France

En Francais (original) // Auf Deutsch

Here comes the first interview of the WAF-Project! You can find a summarizing article of the interview, the podcast (in French) and the full transcript below. Enjoy!

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Article on the Interview
with Claire

Claire is a 45-year-old female farmer, co-owner of a milk farm and mum of three boys. All owners of the farm, her husband and brother-in-law, the accountant and the one employee are family members. There was a point at which Claire felt suffocated by always having family members around and would have wished to separate business and family. But Christmas a couple years ago, when the milk price was so low that they had no money left, the family support system jumped in and allowed the family to not give up the farm. When talking to her banker she said:

“I am 45 years old. I would like to make a living from my job. Not always have to say that I cannot make it”. Well, he said, “that’s funny, your husband said the same thing”. But that’s… You work ten, twelve hours a day and then you still can’t manage to pay – it’s not normal.

There came a new law that forced milk buyers to declare for how much they would purchase the milk in advance – opposite to before when the farmers would produce and later find out for how much it would be sold.

But we’re so tied up, hands and feet tied, that you can’t say, “Oh well, today I’m going to produce my milk for this cooperative and tomorrow I’ll go somewhere else”. We have a contract, full stop. (…) And then, in any case, we sell without asking the price.

It seems like the law has not changed much about the deadlocked situation of milk farmers in France. Many struggle to survive. And one French farmer a day puts an end to his life. Claire talked a lot about suicide and that she hears at least once a month of a suicide close by. She recommends the movie “Au nom de la Terre” (In the name of the earth) and the book “Tu m’as laissée en vie” (You left me alive) that both deal with the topic of suicide among French farmers. When it comes to her boys this makes her afraid. She values education very high and wants to give them the opportunity to leave the farm if they want to. Her youngest son is the most agricultural one… but will suicides rates go down in the near future? She expects more laws, standards and regulations to affect the farm – coming from the European Union or the French government. And as she says

there are a lot of big farmers who have been MEPs, but they’re cereal growers. So they had time to go, so they defended their farms. And I think that in livestock farming we have been forgotten a little bit.

They have been fined in the past and sometimes cannot afford to fulfil the current standards. When they received the fine:

My husband had gone to visit the police. They laughed. But for us, the image is as if we had robbed or hit someone.

Claire said that there is a paradox. On one hand everyone tells her how nice the agricultural world is and romanticises it. And on the other hand they are criticised for being the polluters, asked to stay on family farms and be organic and not grow big industrialised farms. And then again nobody seems to be ready to pay for it. Claire had been thinking about turning organic, but decided it wasn’t doable for her farm.

At one point Claire wanted to leave the work on the farm and find a job “outside”. But she is part of a collective farming group and legally not allowed to work over a certain amount of hours outside the farm. So she stayed. Due to the political position of her husband she got more in contact with the “external world” and realised that not everything is all rosy there either. Especially for the wives of politicians who go to Paris for several days and leave them home alone.

Claire believes that in the future female farmers will have more of a say, that they will be given more room and taken more seriously. Nevertheless she sees having kids as a responsibility that is borne by the women. Therefore she thinks that rather older women will lead projects on the farms because when they are mothers of young children they wouldn’t have the time.

I think we give up all our careers to raise children.

To diversify the farm and have her “own project” Claire wants to build a milk manufacturing workshop on her farm to produce yoghurt and sell it directly in the area. In her eyes transformation and innovation on farms is often led or initiated by women. Her husband and her brother-in-law were firstly rather reluctant to her idea. She had to prove to them through a governmentally funded project inciting to grow potatoes that a diversification of production works and is beneficial for the farm. Before building the workshop she had to attend a training course. She also talked about a course targeting female farmers. Claire explained how many women talked about themselves as the “farmer’s wife” and not as the farmer. She herself realised that she diminished herself next to her husband who recently engaged in politics and is therefore quite known. In the training organised by the commission of women farmers these women will learn to talk about themselves as business owners, as farmers and not as “the wife of” but as “I am”.

Full Transcript of the Interview

(Translated from French)

Naomi: Thank you very much that I can be here and ask my questions. So your farm is a family farm?

Claire: Yes, so we are a GAEC. It’s “ Groupement Agricole d’Exploitation en Commun” (English: collective farming group) so we are three people owning the farms. There is my husband, my brother-in-law and myself. I will give the ages: my husband is 49, I am 45 and my brother-in-law is 43, we are all the same age. First it was my husband who moved here. It’s not a farm that we took over from our parents. It’s third parties. My husband started somewhere else and my brother-in-law and I took over here. My husband and I bought the house here about 20 years ago. We have 250 hectares for the three of us, we have 110 dairy cows and we do a bit of fattening, that is to say we fatten all the small male calves and we buy some on the side. And we have a small breeding of milk cows, that’s about 450 teats. Furthermore we have an employee to help us.

Naomi: Since the beginning?

Claire: We hired him a year ago, he is my brother-in-law’s son-in-law. It’s always a family affair. For now, it’s still rooted in the family spirit. It can have advantages and disadvantages. For a moment, as a woman, I felt suffocated by this pressure all the time to have someone. I would have liked to dissociate exploitation and family life. There was a moment there. It can be stifling… too much family. I have the accountant who is my brother-in-law. Everything is sealed.

Naomi: Do you have children?

Claire: I have three boys.

Naomi: Do they work with you?

Claire: The first two don’t. They don’t like it. Only the last one who is 12 years old. The first one, he’s 19 years old, he’s in language school. The second is 15 years old and he’s in second grade. For the moment they are not at all destined for the agricultural world. On the contrary, we tell them to do what they want. We don’t want to prevent them from going elsewhere. The youngest one, who is very agricultural… I went to see the main teacher one day to see if everything is ok and my boy says he wants to go to Germany for an internship. The image of farms in Germany is one of big farms where no attention is paid to biodiversity. So that’s not…

Naomi: So for you biodiversity is important?

Claire: Yeah, well, we are a conventional farm, we are not organic. We use treatment products. We are in a sector here where there are a lot of standards. We have a lot of trenches, so we have small plots of 250 hectares, we can have 250 plots. The largest area we cultivate must be 2 hectares. It’s not the big isles. We have a lot of small open trenches. So here, we can’t do large-scale farming because we have so many tasks next to it. But then again, we are careful, we are obliged to be careful anyway.

Naomi: Your parents were farmers?

Claire: We are all sons and daughters of farmers. Three of us have taken the agricultural baccalaureate and the BTS (French diploma 2 years after high school graduation). Studies are also important in everything we do. The three sons of my brother in-law were pushed to do the BTS. Studies are important. We tell them you have to have a logic. Before, we used to say “if you can’t read, if you can’t write you can go to the cows’ asses”. Today, this is no longer true. We’ve just bought a wheat seed drill, it’s GPS. You have to have a logic. You never know. Four to five years ago, we almost… It was a very hard year because the milk had no price anymore. We said to each other that one day we might have to go and look for work outside.

Naomi : Have you thought about it?

Claire: Oh yes, I have. I have.

Naomi: And why did you decide to stay?

Claire: Because it’s not easy, because I am a company director and in a GAEC you can’t go looking for work. We have an obligation to work on the farm and legally we have the right to work just a couple hours per year outside. You can’t go there full time, but frankly, I’ve thought about it. When it was Christmas time. Not a single salary. There are two of us on the farm and we didn’t get any pay. And yet we only retrieve 800 euros a month. It’s been hard. Well, there are the in-laws, there’s my mother. When we were stuck they came to help us. They are an anchor.

Naomi: Do you own the land here?

Claire: No, from the 250 hectares, about thirty hectares. But the more we advance, the more people want to sell it. We try to buy. If you want a price, we are at 3000 euros per hectare, so it’s not expensive. It’s thanks to the configuration, because we have small plots, it has never increased too much. If we go to the next town, we can get up to 15,000.

Naomi : And what about your parents’ land?

Claire: My brother is on the farm. I didn’t take over and anyway it wasn’t the goal, there were only 50 hectares. I let him settle on the farm.

Naomi: Oh yes, 50 hectares! Here you got much more.

Claire: For him it’s the same, he’s also in the GAEC program, so together they own more. In any case, everyone is trying to join forces, even if it is not easy. It’s for… well, at the moment we’ve never done it, but my brother does – they have someone every other Sunday to milk the cows. We haven’t done it yet… but maybe this winter. I would like to, because there was a time when… I like my cows, I like to milk them, but Sunday evening is the worst.

Naomi: That’s twice a day, right?

Claire: Yes. But it’s a job of passion. Even when it’s hard. In the years without pay, I always got up to go and milk my cows. As long as we do that, it’s still going on, the machine is still running. Even if morally… But there is an obligation to work, to feed our animals, to maintain them. That’s why the house is not always… It’s not the first cry, it’s not always all that, but the main thing is that the farm is running. Then remains… For me, for the moment, it’s like that.

Naomi : And the arrival of your children…

Claire: It scares me. It’s a job where sometimes I say to myself, “Good, they’ll go and see…”. Then again, I don’t say that other jobs are easier, it’s not true. But it’s still scary. Last year there was a film in France which came out “In the Name of the Earth”, which talked about suicide. So on my last boy it made a strong impression on him because, in addition, we had someone we knew very well, who committed suicide at 30, who left his wife a widow at 24. That made a deep impression on us. We have problems with suicides. We hear once a month from someone… That’s a burden.

Naomi: And what do you think could make it easier for peasants? What is missing to make the work easier?

Claire: What is happening is the prices – we are never paid enough. We are the first link in the chain. When we sell our milk we never know what price we are selling it for. A few years ago, what happened was that I produced my milk for one month and we were paid the 15th of the following month. We didn’t know at what price. So if it went down you didn’t know if it went down. You can never know. So now with the new law they’ve been obliged to give us the price before we produce. But we’re so tied up, hands and feet tied, that you can’t say, “Oh well, today I’m going to produce my milk for this cooperative and tomorrow I’ll go somewhere else”. We have a contract, full stop. You always have the impression that you are the last link in the chain. And then, in any case, we sell without asking the price. So now, the price of milk has been good for a few years, because there are fewer and fewer breeders. At some point, we won’t have enough milk. For me, that’s it. But for now, things are fine.

— Unfortunately the recording device stopped working here for a while —-

Claire: To have “farm products”, the workshop has to be on the farm.

Naomi: And the direct sales?

Claire: We’re going to try it around here. Well, I have friends who started four or five years ago, they are overwhelmed with work. That’s what’s scary too. It takes a lot of work.

Naomi: Your husband and brother-in-law are in favour of this idea?

Claire: Yes. I come from a family where my mother sold a lot of poultry on the farm. And my husband and brother-in-law not at all. When I started talking about this project, I was laughed at and four or five years ago, we started making primary potatoes because it was a project of the Chamber of Agriculture. When they saw that what we were producing on 60 acres – we managed to live properly, and that triggered some change. Especially my husband. My brother-in-law is much more… he says “As long as you don’t bother me with your customers, I don’t care”. But it took him longer to decide than my husband. My husband was much more supportive with potatoes and all that. We provided potatoes to a lot of supermarkets and restaurants, so he saw that there was a demand. My brother-in-law is more centred. He’s going to produce, he’s going to go, he’s going to let us do it.

Naomi : And all the innovations are yours…

Claire: Yes and then, the manufacturing workshop they let me do it because at some point I needed something. I needed someone to tell me, “Well, here, this is yours”. Well, we’ll see in a little while if the bank wants to let us…

Naomi : And you think that with the high milk price for the last years it will work out?

Claire: There is a demand – a phenomenal demand. There are a million visitors a year here in the surrounding area. That’s not negligible either.

Naomi: And you said that you’ve been attending training courses for manufacturing?

Claire: Yes, to manufacture. We are obliged to do training to manufacture our milk.

Naomi: Is there any training that is targeted at women so that more women will take up farming?

Claire: There is a women’s section in the union. Soon there will be a training session so that we can introduce ourselves – to talk about ourselves. Not about Mister… Where we have to be able to introduce ourselves. That’s like me, I’m always told “never say you’re the wife of…”. say, “I am”. It’s true that this is hard, especially since my husband is in politics, so I always put myself down in relation to him. So there are training courses for all that.

Naomi: In general, do you have the impression that the ideas, for example for manufacturing workshops, it’s rather the women or the men who have them?

Claire: Women. It’s in the culture. Many women have stopped their work and they want to return to exploitation in order to have a value. Nevertheless, we had men. There were a few young people who arrived.

Women are very much in charge of the livestock. There are many women who do goats. There are a lot of women in livestock. For me, that’s the impression I get. In any case, they recruit a lot of girls for all the BTS in animal production. Finally, there are a lot of sectors where women… how can I put it? Cooking is still attributed to women, whereas the starred chefs are many men. After all, it’s the same thing, a woman in this milieu… When there are children, when there are all these things… I always wonder about female ministers. How do they raise their children? We know members of parliament. When they’ve been in Paris for four days, I say to myself “How do you raise your children?”. All of that comes into play too. I think we give up all our careers to raise children.

Naomi : Did your work on the farm change when you started having children?

Claire: Yes, well when I settled down, I already had the first one. After that the three. I would never have done my manufacturing workshop when my children were small. We wouldn’t have been able to… I have the image of a friend of mine who started in September 2016 and I saw her again in March 2017 and it took such a big step, it was so fast, that they let themselves be overtaken by the production of yoghurt. She told me – she was in tears – “you can’t imagine I forgot that my kid was leaving for England the day before. I didn’t even buy a snack, nothing at all”. He had to organise everything by himself and you could see that it saddened her. And then she has a little girl of four years old. She said “I don’t even have time to look after her anymore”. And it’s true that we can’t deal with this extra working time.

Naomi : Children are a lot of work…

Claire: Yes and the work on the farm! Sometimes my kids tell me “you’re starting to annoy us. It’s always the farm. We never go on holidays”. So we explain to them that we prefer to stay at home and have something on our plate. Well, they’ve grown up now, but when they were little, then all of a sudden we were told “yes, we never go on holiday”. Now they are growing up. They understand.

Naomi : Were there other important events that changed the way you worked or the time you spent on certain tasks?

Claire: No. Well, after my husband went into politics, we reorganised. Even if we don’t go on holiday, we do go to restaurants more, we move around a bit more. We are more open to the outside world. So we realised that things weren’t all rosy there either. There are advantages as well as disadvantages. As we were saying earlier: it looks good from the outside a member of parliament who has been in Paris for three or four days, but I know that his wife has suffered a lot. Even worse, that year he left and her two boys went off studying. She found herself all alone. Sometimes I say to myself, “What the hell do you do when there’s no one left at home?”. We open up, try to move around a bit. That’s important. (Door opens) My husband.

Husband: Hello!

Naomi: Hello, we’ve already met in the car.


About the changing laws… Does the European agricultural policy affect your farm a lot?

Claire: It’s mainly the amount of the CAP payment.

Husband: The CAP payment with unfortunately all the conditions that go with it.

Claire: We have the European standards and we have the French standards. They always add a little more to us. Well, it’s glyphosate. It is… One time I was audited on animal welfare. I have small kennels; it’s like little igloos in which we put the calves inside. So, the inspector comes to my kennels… and I say, “Oh, I’m going to have a fine because I must have a small yard in front of this kennel, but given the prices I didn’t do it”. But she herself says, “I’m not here for that check. On the other hand, tomorrow, if I come for that check, you’re not good. But,” she says, “today, all is good.” We have arrived in a world… A year ago, we had our spray control, which was not done. We got a fine. My husband had gone to visit the police. They laughed. But for us, the image is as if we had robbed or hit someone.

Husband: In the end we got 3,000 euros in penalties for a sprayer that hadn’t been checked and it was checked and it was in line with the standards.

Claire: We always have to justify ourselves. When we have the L214 which says “ah yes but wait, you have many cows so you don’t breed your cows well”. It’s not true. Well, we don’t see it like that. We take a cow to the slaughterhouse. It’s not out of joy of heart. It’s because it’s like that. And I would never go and see a cow being slaughtered in a slaughterhouse. I can’t see that. I think we’re all like that. We’ve been trained to breed, but once the animals are loaded onto the truck, that’s it, it’s over. We have to live somehow, and there’s a machine that makes that… So when they start tickling us about our job because we don’t do well or… When we use treatment products, it’s because we need to, but then again we don’t do… I want to explain in simple words that we do not… We try to talk about our job as something that is not a burden. You can see that an animal that is not raised well will not give what is needed.

Naomi: Do you expect it to get better or worse?

Claire: We are going to have more and more regulations, I think. As in everything, in any business, that’s what’s going to happen. We’ll have to learn to communicate our profession, to talk, not let ourselves be dismayed by associations like L214. Because there’s a paradox, it’s that when we’re told we’re farmers, we’re told “yes, it’s a nice job, and so on”. But then, we are told, “Oh yes, but you’re the ones polluting”.

Speaking of my son, when we went to see his main teacher, my son told her “I want to go to Germany to see the big farms” and immediately she raised up, she said “yes, but no, but you have to stay on the family farms, the organic farms”. I said “but wait, madam, there are big farms that do their work properly”. She saw that I didn’t agree with… we cut off right there because that wasn’t the point. But I say “shit”, we fight every day to get a quality product. We don’t want to sell shit either, and anyway there are standards that mean we don’t sell a litre of milk with antibiotics and all that. Two or three years ago, we thought about organic farming. We realised that it wasn’t possible. We were already thinking about it because… My husband is not too keen on treatment products. He is the first… If there’s a dirty field, maybe it’s ours. But the image is not good because there is a neighbour who says, “ah you see he hasn’t done his job yet”. Then, it’s a question of profitability too, we look at the margins and then there are moments when we prefer to do nothing around the field. Sometimes we don’t know if we’re doing right or wrong. The people who make organic food, I admire them because there’s a huge amount of work and we won’t be able to feed everyone with organic food. And for the CAP payments, what people also forget to say is that the CAP payment was made so that the consumer doesn’t pay more for the food at the end. What also happened is that the farmer doesn’t have time to go to meetings and all that. And there are a lot of big farmers who have been MEPs, but they’re cereal growers. So they had time to go, so they defended their farms. And I think that in livestock farming we have been forgotten a little bit.

The problem is the financial problems. For me that’s the worst. What I said to my banker the other day: “I am 45 years old. I would like to make a living from my job. Not always have to say that I cannot make it”. Well, he said, “that’s funny, your husband said the same thing”. But that’s… You work ten, twelve hours a day and then you still can’t manage to pay – it’s not normal.

At seven o’clock I’m with the cows until nine o’clock. It’s milking time. I give the calves something to drink. Then I go home, but I still have the papers. There’s always paperwork to do. And then you have to go chase the cows and all that. But yes, it’s always like that. But the paperwork is enormous. For one hour a day, I’m there.

Naomi: And you’re in charge of that?

Claire: Yes, bank and stuff, that’s me. There have been times when I didn’t even tell them about the wrecked account anymore, because you accumulate everything and then, nothing comes out anymore and one day your body feels like it’s not going too much anymore. And then, one day your body feels that it’s not going too well anymore… It has to come out because… we try to protect them, and then everything we do… It’s the administration and then there is a lot of milking.

Naomi: In the future, what do you think of women farmers?

Claire: There will be more and more of them. They will leave us a little more space. Maybe they will listen to us a little more. That’s because it’s in the air of time. We will be given a little more space, but when it comes to responsibilities… it will always be the thing with the children. For me, there’s this thing – in terms of responsibility, it won’t always be young people. I don’t think so. I think there will be a return to the farm. There are young people who are motivated whether it’s organic or vegetables. A lot of people are returning to the land. It’s not always easy. It’s not always the best job. In the end, we also have an idyllic view of the agricultural world. Everything is beautiful. It’s not always like that. Camille, she talks about it, when she arrived here, she wasn’t at all from this background. For me, I lived in it, so it’s not the same. Then those who come from the outside, sometimes it’s good. They have a different view on the things. We had a young woman who was a farm worker. A little Parisian girl, in fact, she showed us a lot on raising the cows, it was great.