French Farming: Small is beautiful

Would you rather sleep under a patchwork quilt made by your grandma and her friends or a synthetic bedspread from K-mart? It’s not a tough decision, right? So why do we accept what’s happened to our landscape more readily than our beds? (Maybe we don’t and you’re all sleeping under synthetic doonas, in which case my apologies.)

Driving through the French countryside over the past two weeks, I was constantly struck by the smallness of the farms. Having driven plenty of rural routes in Australia and America, I’ve seen what monolithic monocultures look like, and it’s a very different vista from the French farmlands we passed.

Where in America or some parts of Australia there might be hundreds or thousands of acres of the same crop blanketing the land (less a blanket than sheets of pesticide-laden plastic wrap robbing the very soil of its breath), in France each paddock is defined well before the next horizon. Patchworks of corn, sweetbeets and cheery sunflowers roll diversely amongst copses of forests old and new.


The patchworks are seamed together with kilometres of byways that run through countless small villages, the charming life-story embroidery of generations that warm the countryside.

Even the dairy herds are small – we regularly saw paddocks with 20-40 cattle in them attached to what we would consider a micro-dairy in Australia. Given the very different regulations around raw milk, it’s perhaps unsurprising how many of these small dairies are able to maintain control of their supply chains and sales.

The dairy paddocks are typically dotted with compost piles around the boundaries, as the most environmentally and economically sustainable means of fertilizing the paddocks is to collect the cattle’s manure and compost it on the farm. Happily I’ve seen some resurgence in these practices in Australia, with examples like Camperdown Compost helping dairy farms close the loop and reduce synthetic inputs.

The countryside is also dotted with pigeon towers (or dovecotes…), where pigeons were once grown for both their meat and their excellent fertilizer. While I don’t think many are still in operation, they tell a tale of a time before exploitation of the world’s finite phosphate supplies led to our current system of externalizing environmental costs.


A great example of working in agro-ecological ways is the Chapolards’ farm near Nèrac – they call it short circuit, or full circle farming. We spent time with the wonderful Dominique & Christiane Chapolard, where along with Dom’s brothers and their families they run a ‘seed to sausage’ pig farm. They grow nearly all their own feed for the pigs on their 100 acres, where they have 30 sows. Effluence is stored in an on-farm lagoon before being applied to the fields growing maize, fava beans and grains in rotation. They do all their own butchering and charcuterie making on the farm and sell directly through their local farmers’ markets – and the enterprise supports five families.

Dom & Chris

We were fortunate enough to host the Chapolards at Jonai Farms & Meatsmiths along with Kate Hill of Kitchen-at-Camont just a few months ago. I’ll write in more detail about their farm in a further post…

The next generation of Chapolards is also involved in the business, and one of Dom’s nephews Roman Chapolard has added another enterprise on the farm – a full-circle dairy. He runs 40 head of dairy cattle and packages his milk on farm as well as doing some simple further processing such as yoghurt and crème fraiche to sell at the local markets.

Roman Chapolard's raw milk

The capacity to value add and sell directly obviously enables farmers to remain much smaller than if they’re forced into long supply chains where everyone gets a smaller cut of the dollar. I understand this not just from a fair food advocate’s perspective, but also from a successful small producer’s view.

And while France may have millennia on which to have grown these communities and sewn them together, a key point is that they still maintain them and enjoy the benefits of thriving rural communities as a result.

Dom and Christiane shared their concerns with us that the next generation is losing interest in manual labour, and leaving the land for white-collar professions, following a trend seen the world over. We all agreed that if people like them keep up their political work within and beyond their cooperative, and spreading the word at the markets, there is hope that the fair food revolution will gain strength in France just as it is growing in Australia, which started off skiing along in the wake of America’s food revolution (though I think we’re set to drive our own boat now).

When you lose family farms from the land, you lose families from communities. Australia’s farming statistics on the decline of the family farm mirror the decline of our rural communities. We should be very worried about this loss and its ramifications for not just the quality of life of rural Australians, but also the quality of food produced in large, intensive agriculture.

We need to value the many environmental and social benefits of families growing food for families, rather than corporations growing food for supermarkets where families happen to shop.

It’s time for a Local Food Act!