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A lost Alpine agriculture January 10th, 2021 by

As more youth move to cities, in Africa, but also in South Asia and Latin America, development experts worry about the future of rural communities. So, we can learn a lesson by taking a glimpse at a region where most youth left agriculture some three generations ago.

An American anthropologist, Brien Meilleur, studied farming in Les Allues, a village in the French Alps, in the mid-1980s. Meilleur was especially well-qualified for the topic, as decades earlier, his own father had left Les Allues for the USA.

Meilleur interviewed elderly farmers at length about the days of their youth, roughly back in the 1940s. Now retired, they painted a picture of an agriculture in balance with nature, where farm families worked in synchrony. They had large cereal fields, divided into many individual plots. Each year they agreed upon a time to plow, and each household would plow their own small plot, within the big field. By plowing and planting at the same time they avoided trampling each other’s grain crop.  The big fields were on a three-year rotation, beginning with rye, then barley and finally fallow-plus-pulses.

Folks made wine and hard apple cider from fruit they grew themselves. They wintered cows, sheep and goats in stables, moving them in the spring to montagnettes, cabins above the hamlets where the families made their own cheese. Then every year on 11 June, in a grand procession, the whole village would move their livestock to the high Alpine pastures, with cowbells ringing and dogs barking. The animals would graze communally, on named pastures, moving uphill as summer progressed to ever-higher grazing, until they were brought back down on 14 September. Outside specialists were hired to come turn the milk into cheese, mostly a fine gruyere, which they sold.

Barnyard manure provided all the fertilizer the farms needed. To save on firewood, neighbors baked their bread on the same day in ovens in the hamlet square. About 80 or 90% of what people ate came from Les Allues itself. The roots of this rural economy went back to at least the 1300s, if not earlier. But, as Meilleur explains, this farming system had collapsed about 1950, at least in Les Allues. He mourns the loss of this way of life, and as I read his moving account, I couldn’t help but share in his sadness.

The collapse came about in part because of emigration. Young people were leaving Les Allues for the cities as early as the 19th century. But there were other reasons for abandoning agriculture. After the World War II, the villagers sold much of their farmland to the Méribel Ski Resort, established just above the highest of the village’s hamlets. There were now lots of jobs for local people, on the ski slopes, and in the busy hotels, shops and restaurants. The vacationers even visited the beautiful village in the summer, for golf, tennis and mountain biking, so there was employment year-round. The youth of Les Allues no longer had to leave home to find work; the jobs had come to them.

The old agricultural landscape changed quickly, as the pastures became pistes de ski, and the fields grew wild with brush. The livestock were sold off and the apple trees were strangled by mistletoe, as people abandoned a way of living that (in today’s jargon) was sustainable and carbon neutral, and the bedrock of their community.

It is easy to romanticize a healthy rural lifestyle, but the good old days had some rough times, too. The farmers of Les Allues managed erosion in their cereal fields by hand-carrying the earth from the bottom furrow to the top of the field every year, the most back-breaking soil conservation method I’ve ever heard of. For six weeks in July and August, people cut hay for six days a week from 5 AM to 10 PM, to feed their animals over the winter. To save on fuel, the families would spend winter evenings sitting in the barn, where the cows gave off enough heat to keep everyone warm. People ate meat once a week, maybe twice.

Given the amount of hard work, and the low pay, it is understandable that the young people of Les Allues left farming. It happened all over Europe. In England during the Industrial Revolution, many farm workers took factory jobs. While some moved to the cities, others commuted on the train, and stayed in their village (The Common Stream). Northern Portuguese farm laborers, who described their lives as “misery,” did not have the options of working in industry or in tourism. So, after 1964 they left Portugal to take construction jobs in France. The farmers who remained bought tractors to replace their vanished workers.

Just as previous generations of rural Europeans sought paid work off farm, the youth in places like West Africa and South America are now moving to the cities, and quite quickly. Many development experts bemoan this mass migration, even though it is a pro-active way for young people to take their destiny into their own hands, especially if they attend university in the city, before looking for work.

If past experience is any guide, some of the young Africans and South Americans who are now moving to town would stay in their villages, if they could make a decent living, and if they had electricity and other amenities. Life in the countryside will have to provide people with opportunities, or many will simply pack up and leave.

Further reading

Meilleur, Brien A. 1986 Alluetain Ethnoecology and Traditional Economy: The Procurement and Production of Plant Resources in the Northern French Alps. Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Washington.

My own mentor, Bob Netting, wrote a classic ethnography of the Swiss Alps. Like Meilleur, Netting was also impressed with the ecological balance of traditional farming.

Netting, Robert McC. 1981 Balancing on an Alp: Ecological Change and Continuity in a Swiss Mountain Community. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

For the changes in Portuguese agriculture, see:

Bentley, Jeffery W. 1992 Today There Is No Misery: The Ethnography of Farming in Northwest Portugal. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

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Photo credits

Photos courtesy of Eric Boa.

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