I’m not exactly sure what I was expecting of France but I do know that it exceeded anything I’d hoped for. A beautiful and subtle sense of style permeates all that the French do, including agriculture.
Perhaps I expected grossly inefficient farming practices given the subsidies enjoyed by EU farmers over the years, perhaps I thought that because of their small scale they could not be viable, but in reality I just didn’t know a damn thing because France surprised me on all fronts, particularly when I realised just how easily I could stay and sink into this culture.
It was difficult to remove my mindset from the focus on growth that is the basis of our way of life and business in Australia, but essentially, that’s what I needed to do to understand agriculture in France today. Coming from the “Get big or get out,” frontier philosophy of Australia and after having spent a week in mid-west USA, I had to re-arrange my thinking in order to appreciate how farmers in France remained viable in a business where land is basically an untraded commodity. Their focus was on searching out the high value crops to maximise outputs and co-operating within their families and communities in order to minimise inputs, this resulted in a simple, relaxed and sustainable efficiency that I was a bit envious of.
We flew into Paris and drove north to the battlefields of the Somme where we met Phillippe, French Nuffield scholar and host extraordinaire. We visited the war memorial at Villers-Bretonneux, the Australian museum and a small school rebuilt after the war with donations from Australia. The walls of the museum were lined with photographs of young Aussie men, larrikins with grins on their faces despite the horrors of the battles they’d seen. They were embraced by the French as their own, a sign above the playground at the school we visited read; “Remember the Australians.” Our accommodation that night was next to the Notre de Amiens, the largest cathedral in France; 145 metres long and 42 metres high, built between 1220 and 1700. The sheer beauty of that place was spine tingling with the late afternoon light filtering through stained glass windows, statues of saints, ancient paintings and lighted candles, it was a moving experience for all of us and we were unusually quiet as we sipped our beers that evening in the shadow of the most magnificent man made structure I have ever seen. We had dinner that evening with a young local farmer who invited us back to his home next to the cathedral. We drank champagne on his balcony and watched the moon rise over the roof of the cathedral before walking the streets of Amiens at night. Thank you Nuffield!
From Amiens we drove south to Chartres and met another French Nuffield scholar who took us on a tour of a sugar beet factory then out to dinner next to another magnificent cathedral and so began our steeple grading tour of France.
The following day we drove further south to the small village of Gaujacq. We were having a few problems finding the home of the Nuffield scholar we were supposed to meet and rang for directions and I quote, “go to the castle on the hill and knock on the big door on the right.” OK… and there it was. The home of Jean and Frederique Thoby and their Plantarium. Jean took us on a tour of the castle built in the 13th century and their garden containing a million different species of camellias (or something like that.) It was a soak up the beauty and atmosphere and be grateful for the experience moment as we wandered through gates built to hold back the Romans into magnificent gardens overlooking the rolling hills of southern France into Spain’s Pyrenees Mountains. We were staying that night in a beautiful house not far from the castle, the room was a little cramped with all 6 of us bunking together so I took a hit for the boys and stayed back at the castle sharing a room with Jean’s daughter. I took to the princess role easily, perhaps that’s what happens when your in the South of France. Jean and Frederique introduced me to French hospitality and we enjoyed some more of those fantastic “Nuffield kitchen conversations” over crepes for breakfast. We visited kiwi fruit plantations, crops, a ‘pick your own’ farm and a winery before making a very Australian bee line for the beach.
Leaving Gaujacq at 4am we drove to Paris, met up with Philippe, parked in the middle of the road and spent 80 euros on cheese and wine which we ate on an upturned wine barrel sheltering from the rain under an awning in the markets. That’s when we knew we were really in Paris. Philippe took us on a whirlwind tour of the sites and introduced Don to PIP (Parking in Paris.) The following day we met with the OECD and tried to understand European agricultural policy before walking across the River Seine and admiring the Eiffel Tower in the last light of day.
Another early start the next day and we were on our way to the Ukraine (south-eastern Europe,) where we were met by Australian Nuffield scholar from 2006 David Fulwood and our Ukrainian adventure began. The stark contrast between the genteel style of France and the harsh ambience of a country emerging from Soviet rule was in out faces from the moment we arrived, but that’s another story, stay tuned…
Back on the messy home front there have been some good outcomes that have allowed me to relax and enjoy this trip even more than I was already doing, very proud of Matilda who is shining through it all.