The slow change from French family farm to trendy tourist spot

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The feast began at 1 p.m. At the Roulet farm, 80 guests sat down at one long table under the shade of cypress trees.

The meal opened with a mixed salad. Next, the guests attacked the mutton, finishing off every last bit of the two lambs that had been roasted for the occasion, adding good helpings of beans on the side.

Then came the obligatory cheese platter and the melons, and by the time everyone stepped away from the table to play the French game boules, the clock read 5:30 p.m.

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``It's like this every big holiday,'' explains hostess Giselle Roulet. ``It's always been like that, too.''

Well, not quite. Unlike in the past, few farmers crowded around the huge table. Instead, there were Parisians, Belgians, even an American, all enjoying a reposing vacation chez Roulet.

When this was pointed out during one of her few breaks from work, the short, stocky, Mrs. Roulet said in her singsong, heavy Provenal accent, ``Why, yes, many things have changed.''

Many things, indeed. The poor subsistence farmer of one generation ago in this area of southern France has been replaced by a modern businessman-farmer. Like Mrs. Roulet's husband, Andr'e, the French farmer may still dress in a white undershirt. He may grow a traditional thin, black mustache. And he may boast a rotund figure. But while pockets of poverty remain, most farmers echo Mr. Roulet's proud statement: ``I am no longer a peasant.''

The changes came quickly. After World War II, the small village of St. Maximin, just outside Uz`es, about 60 miles from Marseille, looked like a backwater. During the war, the village's economic mainstay -- a phosphate mine -- closed down, never to reopen. From a prewar figure of almost 600, the population fell at the end of the war to a low of 190.

The remaining farmers struggled. As journalist John Ardagh explains in his book, ``France in the 1980s,'' they ``eked out a living from a useless polyculture: a patch of vines for the family's own vinegary wine, a cow or two and some mangy chickens, cabbages struggling to grow on a chalky hillside.''

What to do? Despite looming poverty, the Roulets refused to move to a city and work in a factory. Although many of their fellow villagers were forced to move away, the French don't relocate as easily as Americans.

So the young couple dug their hoe into the ground and hung on. When the common market was established in the late 1950s, they suddenly found prosperity. Its common agricultural policy assured farmers generous prices for whatever they could grow.

The Roulets also helped themselves. Mr. Roulet read in an agricultural journal about the potential profits in asparagus. He planted 10 acres of the vegetable. Soon he brought more land, raising his original stake of 20 acres to 50. He planted more cherry and pear trees. Marketed by a cooperative he and his fellow farmers set up in the area during the 1950s, all the produce sold well in Paris.

Lately, however, the market for farm products has been dropping off. Europe's farmers simply grow too much produce, and today the European Community has begun to reduce the lucrative subsidies that helped the farmers like the Roulets so much.

Roulet also won't plant more pear or cherry trees: The market price for these fruits is dropping and will drop further when Spain enters the EC in January. Talk of these cheap imports turns Roulet's normally warm disposition into an angry one.

Several years ago, Roulet began looking for new sources of income. His attention focused on St. Maximin's social transformation. During the last 30 years, the number of residents has doubled to 560. The newcomers don't farm: They come to vacation.

In a nation that only industrialized on a wide scale during the past generation, simple, back-to-nature holidays are in vogue even with French sophisticates. The value of old farmhouses started soaring, and once-poor farmers sold out at great profits.

``Today there are no bargains left,'' explains a real-estate agent in Uz`es. ``Those peasants aren't stupid anymore.''

``Here the land retains mystical connotations,'' explains sociologist Jean-Michel Roux. ``Frenchmen dream of owning a house in a small village.''

Roulet decided to cater to this dream -- without selling his farm. Installing the plumbing and electricity himself, he renovated his building. Under the shade out front, he set up wooden tables. In the yard, he put in a swimming pool. In 1977, the work was finished and he opened for business.

The result is what the French call a gite, a rustic farm-hotel. Such simple accommodations are fast becoming one of the most popular ways to vacation in France. Robert Maurieu of the French Federation of Gites says that, after only 30 years of existence, there now are some 32,000 gites throughout the France. ``There are 1,000 new ones every year,'' he adds.

The Roulets' is typical. They rent two five-room apartments to families. They also offer six simple double bedrooms. And at the far end of their field, they have opened a registered campground.

Their twin 25-year-old daughters, Corrine and Sylvie, rise early to prepare pots of coffee and plates of baguettes and fresh farm jam. In addition to the special holiday feasts, Mrs. Roulet prepares huge meals every night. A double room runs $10 a night, including breakfast. Dinner costs $5 extra.

The Roulets only take guests during July and August. They explain that not enough tourists want to stay for them to remain open during the other months. But they hope that will change.

``I'd like to do this four months a year, and just farm a bit on the side,'' says Monsieur Roulet. ``Tourism is a better business.''

He reflects for a moment. He enjoys tourism. He says it permits him to meet people he would never have met otherwise, and he loves people.

But he also knows that his farming life is fading away. Economics are slowly killing the family farm. Roulet's sons, Alain and Maurice, have become farmers, but Roulet does not recommend the career to his four daughters.

During the winter months, they work in the nearest big town, N^imes. Without the extra income from his gite, Roulet knows he might not be able to stay on the land.

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