Back To The Land, And A Future

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Vincent Martin, right, made a living selling health club memberships in Paris until he left his job about five years ago. “Land is key,” he said. Credit Dmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times

We are going back to the land this year, in Belize, and can relate to the description and explanation these ex-urbanites give for their retreat to the rural, agricultural life of their forebears:

Life on the Farm Draws Some French Tired of Urban Rat Race

By

SAULX-LES-CHARTREUX, France — Two years ago, Elisabeth Lavarde decided to quit her office job in Paris and start a new life in Saulx-les-Chartreux, a small town with two butchers and one baker just south of the capital.

Ms. Lavarde, 39, is now an apprentice farmer at a 24-acre farm that grows organic vegetables, sold directly to local consumers. New farmers like Ms. Lavarde usually make what they see as a decent salary of about 1,500 euros, or about $1,600, a month, slightly above the French minimum wage.

“I wanted a job with more meaning,” she said. “I felt like I was tilting at windmills.”

Alongside the experienced farmer she has been paired with as part of a training program set up by an association that nurtures small-scale farmers, Ms. Lavarde grows around 40 kinds of organic produce, including tomatoes, potatoes, cauliflowers and carrots.

As the sun was about to set behind rows of cauliflower plants on a recent afternoon, Ms. Lavarde gazed over the land she cultivates. A few yards away, a large shelter of tarpaulins rippled in the wind. Ms. Lavarde and her farming tutor, Guilain Vergé, 31, use the shelter to do their bookkeeping and to keep track of their crops on a whiteboard as they wait for authorization from the local government to build a decent barn.

It’s all hard work, she acknowledges. But, she says, “Seeing the sky every day, be it blue or gray, it’s amazing.”

More younger people like Ms. Lavarde are making lives as small-scale farmers in France, drawn in some cases by idealistic notions of tilling the land and of getting away from the rat race of the cities. They often leave behind well-paid jobs, as well as relatively comfortable lives that they nonetheless find unfulfilling.

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Produce from the farm in Saulx-les-Chartreux. CreditDmitry Kostyukov for The New York Times

Standing near a frozen wheat field near Ms. Lavarde’s farm, Bruno Gilles, 47, a third-generation farmer who grows cauliflowers, tomatoes and other vegetables, was skeptical about Ms. Lavarde’s chances of success, citing narrow margins and competition from farms that produce vegetables year-round.

The first test for new entrants might be their hardest: finding land.

“I find myself to be extremely lucky,” Ms. Lavarde said. “When I see other people around me, access to land truly has been an obstacle for them.”

Since the 1960s, that access has been tightly regulated through regional agencies that act as intermediaries between land-seekers and those either selling or renting.

The agencies have traditionally favored established farmers over new entrants, many of whom grow alternative products based on small-scale organic farming and have modest farming experience.

Ms. Lavarde said that when a young farmer she worked with set out to find agrarian land in the area of Saulx-les-Chartreux, she discovered that a tract had been allocated to a conventional farmer without anyone informing her that it was available…

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