Small French farms become an endangered species

Thirty years ago, this rustic stone and red-roofed village in central France's mountainous Massif Central region could boast a population of nearly 1, 000 souls. Today there are barely 100 left.

Out of the commune's original 15 small-holding farmers with their small herds of cows, sheep, and goats, only three continue to eke out a frugal existence from its rocky, volcanic soil.

Whereas Prades used to have its own shops, including two butchers and a thriving paper factory, all that remains is a baker. There is also no longer any school.

"When I was a boy," remembers Rene Michel, a native of Prades and a retired public works engineer who now runs the friendly Abri du Rocher inn in the center of the village, "there were at least 80 children in two classes."

"The small farmer in France is rapidly disappearing," a Ministry of Agriculture official explained. "In 10 years or so, he will be gone. The future will then lie with medium and large farms."

Some 20,000 farmers retire every year --mainly in France's Auvergne, Dordogne , and Correze provinces, where similar conditions exist. As they retire their land is either abandoned or taken over by younger farmers seeking to increase their holdings.

Although the French government has introduced measures to encourage the young to stay on the land by offering attractive financial incentives with higher premiums for mountainous areas where life can be extremely lonely, the "desertification" of the country's rural interior remains a serious problem.

What has happened to Prades is very much the same as what this reporter saw while driving south along country roads through villages and towns that dot this verdant region replete in its 14th-century chateaux, clean air, and trout-filled streams.

"The young have gone.There is nothing to keep them," a shopkeeper told me as I stopped off in Cosme-d'Allier, a small town of 2,400 north of Prades. "The countryside is crumbling. The large farms need few hands and the towns have no work."

In 1954, roughly 242,000 men and women, many of them using antiquated 19 th-century agricultural methods on small 20- to 30-acre holdings, still worked the land in the Auvergne, one of France's poorest regions. In 1975, there were only 91,000. By 1982, officials expect the figure to drop to 65,000.

"Life here is hard. Much too hard," said Denise Plantin, a stocky Prades farmwoman wearing a shapeless red woolen cap and dressed in a dark blue smock. Mme. Plantin keeps an impeccably clean farmstead. Well-kept rabbit hutches line the courtyard and the family's dozen cows are stabled in a barn attached to the house.

The Plantins have put much time and heavy financial investment into the modernization of their small farm. They bought two tractors, a milking machine, and an automatic dung extractor. But their efforts may have been in vain. Neither of their two sons wants to continue in agriculture.The Plantins, in their 50s, wonder what will happen when their sons leave for good.

"It is too expensive to hire outside help," Mme. Plantin says. "We'll have to stop in five or 10 years when Roger [her husband] retires."

Even in the more prosperous parts of the northern Auvergne, such as the Bourbonais, the population is rapidly dwindling as the young migrate to the cities hunting for jobs that they will not necessarily find.

Apart from seeking to introduce small job-producing industries to the provinces, the authorities are trying to encourage tourism as a source of income to go hand-in-hand with agriculture. Some farmers augment their incomes by renting rooms and campsites to vacationers taking advantage of the Auvergne's forested mountains and quiet countryside.

With the presidential elections ahead, both the rural and urban inhabitants of the traditionally patriotic but left-leaning Auvergne are determined to make their voices heard.But as with other parts of France, there is a general ennui with the lack of new faces among the candidates. Although many farmers profess themselves to be of the left and would vote Socialist if someone other than Franois Mitterrand were at the helm, Jacques Chirac, former prime minister and mayor of Paris, appears to be their choice.

"He is the only one who has ever done anything for us in the past," said one farmer. "He is also the only one who might do something in the future, although we aren't expecting much to change.

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