French Farmers Lament Reforms, But See the Aid Cuts as Inevitable
WHEAT AND A WAY OF LIFE IN EUROPE
ISABELLE LEBALLEUR looks out over the green pastures and drying crop fields that make up her corner of rural France, and with one sentence renders a harsh verdict on the European Community's plan for reducing EC farm subsidies and costly overproduction.
"It's not going to work," says the farmer and mother of two in La Sarthe, France's second-ranking agriculture production region about 100 miles southwest of Paris.
"They think they will be solving overproduction with this plan for cutting guaranteed prices and requiring a freeze on tillable land," she says.
"Instead, many people are just going to leave the land, while others will take advantage to enlarge their farms and make economies of scale," says the former president of La Sarthe's young farmers' organization. "We're going to end up with American-style farming, fewer people running larger farms, but it won't mean a drop in production."
While not every farmer in France - the EC's largest farm producer and exporter - may agree fully with Mrs. Leballeur, reaction to this year's reform of the Community's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is universally negative.
The new CAP is complex, but its fundamental shift is simple.
For years Europe's farmers have been kept in business by price supports and export subsidies costing the Community tens of billions of dollars annually.
But the system worked too well: Production skyrocketed. Stories were legion of the EC's "butter mountain" (although exaggerated, farmers insist). France alone produces 25 percent more wheat than its domestic needs.
Now the Community, facing a strained budget and international pressure, wants to pay its farmers to pull land out of production and produce less. Farmers must either leave 15 percent of their land fallow or lose income subsidies. Price supports will be reduced.
The new system comes as a shock to France's 800,000 farmers. In their eyes it breaks the farmer's traditional opportunity to progress financially by producing more, and instead places the agricultural community on welfare.
"The effect of this reform is to break the farmer's sense of initiative, and that is a psychological blow that is hitting people hard," says Andre Denis, another Sarthe farmer specializing in feed grains and free-range chickens. "Take that away and the human aspect - the attachment to serving the world by feeding it - and the farmer doesn't have much left."
At the same time, farmers in La Sarthe generally agree that some reform was needed. "Our eyes are open wide enough to see that the Community couldn't keep paying as it was," says Alain Le Roi, a dairy farmer. "One look at world market prices and you realize that European agriculture will never be able to survive without subsidies."
A world without agriculture subsidies is something the United States has advocated as a long-term goal. But European farmers say that position reflects a fundamentally different vision of agriculture: Farming is viewed in the US as just another business, they say, while in Europe it is still a way of life - and the central factor in keeping rural society alive.
Leballeur predicts the average farmer will try to produce more on the 85 percent of his land he'll have to work with. "We're sure the Community is already preparing to increase the fallow land percentage to 20 percent when they see no fall in production," she adds.
As it cuts grain acreage, the reform is pushing French farmers to diversify into poultry and pork. But farmers fear that surpluses will simply shift to include these new areas of production.
"Right now pork is paying attractive prices because we [in France] don't produce to meet demand, but prices will tumble if everybody talking about going to pork actually does it," says Leballeur. "The same happened with turkeys," she adds. "Just in our region we had 150 turkey sheds go up in the last six months, but there's no way the market can support that."
A French shift to produce more pork, for example, would also strike a blow to Eastern Europe's farmers, who are hoping to make it through their difficult economic adjustment by exporting more to the West.
Europe's 9 million to 10 million farmers, mostly operating small family farms and living in the Continent's high-cost environment, will not become competitive free-market farmers overnight, if ever. Some of the EC's most productive large farms, in Britain or parts of France, for example, could compete unaided in the world, but their numbers are few.
"For Europe it's a choice between subsidies and an empty, unproductive countryside," Mr. Le Roi says. "I don't think the latter is what Europe wants."