FRENCH CONNECTION

societe

Ferme de la Treille:
Connecting tradition, heritage and tribulations of a COO/PGS goat dairy

Photo of student with French milking goats




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by Taylor Crane

Sam Houston State University

Ferme de la Treille: Connecting tradition, heritage and tribulations of a COO/PGS goat dairy

Abstract:

Small-scale, “peasant farmers” in France have been framed as the fighters against globalization (and modernization) in their efforts to protect traditional heritage and culture. In this paper, I combine a case study methodology with a sociology of agrifood conceptual framework to and inform discussions regarding country of origin (COO) and protected geographical status (PGS) initiatives in alternative agrifood movements. Data was gathered through participant observations and interviews at a small goat dairy in rural France in the summer of 2011. Through this research I suggest that COO and PGS initiatives are valuable alternatives to the negative social, economic and environmental externalities of the conventional agrifood system. This case also attempts to illustrate that while protecting “traditional heritage” and practicing sustainability are beneficial aspects of COO and PGS labeling, the complexity of tradition and time-honored practices can lead to problematic issues such as animal welfare, market threats, and issues of farm succession.

Key Words: France, agriculture, tradition, heritage, sustainability, value-added agriculture, cheese goats.

Social and Geographic Context:

The Ferme de la Treille is a small goat-cheese production facility situated in the village of Ferrières-Poussarou, located about 43 kilometers (27 miles) from Béziers, France. The farm owns around 80 goats (sixty does) and various other farm animals. The farm has been in the same family since 1640, the stables having been built in 1778, and the house where the family still lives built in 1823. Stables, cages and various fenced areas occupy the surrounding area along with the house. The fromagerie and milking parlor are connected with the stables overlooking a picturesque mountainous landscape and a view of a nearby town. The greenery from the mountains is ceaseless and an awe-inspiring countryside view for many who visit. The farm’s main production is about 1000 goat cheese rounds per week, with five or six different types depending on the age and fermentation of the goat cheese. The farm also sells a variety of other artisanal products and hosts tourists throughout the year (especially in the summer months.)

Ferrières-Poussarou has a population of 59-65 people (see Figure One). Population increases during the winter months when many Northerners come for vacation as tourism is a fairly large industry and can manifest itself in multiple ways from gîtes to chambre d’hôtes (holiday fully-furnished homes and a bed and breakfast, respectively). The majority of the population (34.1%) is employed although statistics on the employment industry are missing. 29.5% of the population is retired as highlighted by Figure Two which shows a majority of the population is between ages 45-74. The village being primarily a vacation spot is also shown in Figure Four with 34 (out of 70) residence homes as “second homes or occasional homes.” The evolution of the latter figure shows that even though numbers of permanent residences have increased, the “second homes or occasional homes” have remained higher since 1975.

The farm rests on 15 hectares (about 37 acres) in the mountainous country-side that is popular for its mild weather. The land is dry, rocky, and has a rough terrain that lends itself to goat and sheep herders who inhabit the area and receive various protected geographical indicators (PGI). The tasks on the farm are primarily shared between the wife of the farmer and her brother. The children of the farmers are in their 30s and are now working in blue-collar jobs outside of the farm. Originally the Ferme de la Treille raised both sheep and goats (among other animals) and tried a variety of sales such as raw goat’s milk before settling on cheese fabrication. Before marriage, the wife was working on her own family’s farm producing sheep’s cheese. Although the “farmer” in this case is implied to be the patriarchal figure and heir of the farm, his wife is actually the primary source of labor and “face” of the farm operations. She is in her late 60’s and has been working on the Ferme de la Treille for 35 years. Her brother who is in his late 40’s is the affineur or the master cheese maker and is also responsible for selling at the market place.

Entrepreneurial Activity:

The Ferme de la Treille has four employees, although in this case the term is used lightly because three out of four were the family members who owned/operated the farm. As mentioned, the wife of the farmer is the “face” of the farm and primarily assisted in caring for, feeding, watering, and milking the goats. She also helps with the cheese-making process but mostly her brother is in charge of this task. He is responsible for the market place sales as well, selling multiple products at 4-5 scattered markets throughout the area. The farmer himself helps with hay baling and the financial aspect of the farm. The family also employs a goat herder who eats meals with the family and may have been paid a small amount. He is not a member of the family but has been living in the area for years before he joined the farm. Six to eight hours a day he is in-charge of taking the goats to multiple, particular pastures where they graze.

Goat cheese is the farm’s value-added agriculture as they originally only sold goat milk until it became more feasible and profitable to sell cheese. The cheese has been certified by Pèlardon, an appellation d’origine contrôlée (controlled designation of origin, AOC) and an appellation d’origine protégée (protected geographical indication, AOP) (since 2000 and 2001, respectively) for ten years. There are 49 AOC designated milk products in France as of 2010–47 are cheeses, fourteen which are made with goat’s milk (According to Institut National des Appellations d’Origine (INAO)). The most recent statistics for the number of farmers who are certified under Pèlardon is 31 dairy farmers as of 2008 (Pelrdon-aop.fr). In 2010 alone, 221 tons of goat cheese was sold; making Pèlardon a mid-sized producer/seller in the spectrum of the other AOC cheeses (Statistics from INAO).

Pèlardon specifically is a French geographical protection label that indicates goat cheese from the Cévennes (mountain range in the Languedoc-Roussillon). The cheese must be a minimum of eleven days old and hold to traditional cheese-making practices and pastoral practices such as maintaining a small herd of goats, (70 on average) that must be on a pasture for at least 210 days per year. According to the farmer, Pèlardon has benefited the Ferme de la Treille and was not difficult to attain (because of their location) and although the standards can be strict to adhere to, it ultimately provides better market appeal. Through Pèlardon, the farm also has the ability to be on the forefront of a network of other producers so that they can be involved in events such as taste-test soirees.

Along with cheese, the farm also sells local honey, wine, soap, eggs, peacock feathers and woven baskets. The selling of these products fluctuates depending on the market place (some market places already have a honey/wine/ect. vendor so the Ferme de la Treille will not sell those items out of respect for other sellers). The family owns around 80 goats, including the kids (around 20-22 baby goats), does (around 60-65 adult females) and bucks (2 adult males). They also own various other farm animals including roughly 2 peacocks, 100-150 chickens/hens, 35 rabbits, 7 sheep, 40 ducks, 15 turkeys, 40 pigeons, and a couple of dogs. Most of the animals are for the family’s personal use (for meat and goods) but they also sell the various products that the animals provide. They have basic equipment to care for and slaughter the animals (chickens, rabbits, ducks, turkeys and pigeons are slaughtered by the family.) In the fromagerie and milking parlor, the equipment is modernized with automated milking machines, doe restraining systems, and purification vats. These modernized systems have been in use for about ten years when the family expanded their goat herd and could no longer milk them by hand and keep up with demands in the marketplace. The farm also maintains a garden with various produce such as lettuce, potatoes, tomatoes, strawberries, green beans, squash, and a few fruit trees. This provides the farm with personal produce and has an attractive quality for their small tourism sector. The Ferme de la Treille also operates a “chamber d’hôtes” (a fully furnished bedroom and bed and breakfast) and offers an evening meal to guests. Other farms in surrounding villages may operate school tours or farm-stays for tourists that want to specifically see a certain type of farm location. However, Ferme de la Treille is working in collaboration with a tourist business in Berlou, France (about 15 minutes away) that provides the farm with economic profits. The business in Berlou, Aux Petits Sabots, rents donkeys to tourists for the purpose of hiking/camping in the nearby areas. Included with the rental, the tourists are given a map that that gives them various places (sites) to see and stay. The Ferme de la Treille began working with Aux Petits Sabots in 2008 because they have stables in which donkeys could rest (and eat) and to provide the farm with extra profits as the tourists pay for the room and evening meal. Usually, the family receives tourists once or twice a week and they stay overnight. As a part of the stay, the tourists are fed the farm’s products such as cheese, duck (or some other meat), and potatoes for dinner, and a breakfast that includes their homemade jams. The farmer’s wife is mostly responsible for attending to the guests when they stay on the farm and they are offered a chance to tour the farm and see the goats being milked. Their system of tourism, although not a primary focus, further adds value to their products and includes an advantageous outreach to possible costumers and connections.

Assessment:

As mentioned, the Ferme de la Treille owns multiple types of animals that inhabit various areas of the farm. These animals are kept in separate pens or cages that were put together with limited supplies such as boards, chicken wire and string. Although the animals are in relatively good health and do not experience utmost-cases of abuse, the care for these animals is based in a hierarchal system. The animal that could provide the greatest profit for the family were the goats (specifically the lactating does) so in turn, the goats are well-fed, watered, given long hours of pasture time and generally accounted for in basic needs. However, within the context of goats being well-taken care of, the bucks and kids are towards the bottom of the hierarchy. The bucks are kept in a separate stable where they are chained (give or take a slack of 2-3 feet) and given attention once a day. They are feed grain and hay in the morning only and water is not always available. The questioning of this practice to the farmers only produced an answer of, “That’s the way we do it. It’s the way it’s always been done. Bucks will knock over their water if we leave it which makes it a waste” (Author interviews, 2011). Some goats will indeed upturn watering buckets if left unattended; however, the possibility of new technology (containers that cannot be inverted) was not considered a possibility for the farm. For the kids, they are kept in stables separate from the does and are fed and watered twice a day. Unlike the does, all other goats are given water only at certain times. In regards to the other animals, chickens and ducks are taken care of secondly, although often their water was unclean and there are some cases of pecking order in regards to the chickens. The farm does provide safe places for hens and other layers to lay eggs and nest. The pigeons were kept in a medium-sized room that is not cleaned often but does have some food. The bottom of the hierarchy concerning animals is the rabbits. Used only for food, they are in cages that were not cleaned often and do not have water. Many are in one cage (5-7 rabbits) and are fed pellets sporadically (sometimes every other day) and no hay. The cages do not have roughage or bedding. The pyramid below shows the hierarchy of animal welfare at the Ferme de la Treille with goats/sheep having the best welfare/care and rabbits/pigeons having the least welfare/care.

For the Ferme de la Treille, animal welfare is not a priority, if the animals were alive and not sickly, then the animals were acceptable. Their practices of animal welfare and treatment were not necessarily out of spite or cruelty, but instead out of tradition and practice. The farm had been adhering to practices that generations before had used, even if it meant that it was lacking set welfare standards for farm animals (as set by the European Union in 1998. )Those standards state that:
1. Freedom from hunger and thirst – access to fresh water and a diet for full health and vigor,
2. Freedom from discomfort – an appropriate environment with shelter and comfortable rest area,
3. Freedom from pain, injury and disease – prevention or rapid treatment,
4. Freedom to express normal behaviour – adequate space and facilities, company of the animal’s own kind,
5. Freedom from fear and distress – conditions and treatment which avoid mental sufferings.

(European Union, 1998).

There were instances in which tourists would question the farmers on some practices (such as the multiple rabbits in one cage) and they would say that it was because “that’s the way it’s always been done,” or that they just didn’t have time to look after the animals in the most rudimentary ways. This example demonstrates the tradition and practices of the farm which leads both to the overall theme of this case and a problematic aspect of the farm. Although the animals are advantageous for the farm as they provide both economic growth and consumer connections, they also highlight the system of animal welfare as hierarchical and a source of discomfort for tourists who view the practices negatively. The tradition that the farm preserves concerning animal welfare and practices may prove to be negative in the long run for both the animals and the business itself. Despite the modernization in cheese-making supplies and automated milk machines, much of the farm remains traditional in practices and ideas. The very heritage that makes the farm unique and appealing could also be a force that prevents them from advancing in changing markets and creating lasting relationships with possible consumers.

The fact that the farm specializes in goat cheese could be viewed as both beneficial (as they were considered artisanal), and harmful as they have a lack of diversity in economical profits. If the goats were to become sickly with diseases such as mastitis (an infection of the udder that can cause swelling, reduced milk yield, and blood in the milk) the farm would essentially fail since the profits were disproportionally in the production of cheese. Mastitis plagued a few of the goats on the farm and proved to be difficult because of the modern automated milking machines. The machines would milk multiple goats at once and instances of blood in the milk went unnoticed until it had tainted the entire day’s batch of milk. This oversight caused both a danger to the doe’s health and a loss in the farm profits considering that a day or two days worth of milk could be ruined and result in less cheese production. Although the farmer had methods to “treat” the mastitis which involved “milking it out,” the bacteria that caused the disease originally were not addressed and the problem was reoccurring. Although this can be a concern for the livelihood of the farm, the uniqueness and specialty makes the Ferme de la Treille more appealing to consumers and helps preserve antique heritage.

Another obvious disadvantage worth noting for the case of the Ferme de la Treille is the potential risk of losing the farm when the family is no longer able to care for it. As mentioned, the children of the farmers are now working in blue-collar jobs outside of the homestead and seem to have little or no reason to return to the rural area. The brother of the wife does provide some hope in being a successor but the future of the farm remains uncertain due to internal factors such as older farmers and a lack of labor.

As mentioned, the farm is certified with Pèlardon, a geographical indicator (GI, COO, PGS) that preserves value in the market place. Pèlardon provides strength for the farm as it gives the cheese uniqueness and allows the farm to protect certain custom practices such as the actual cheese- making process. The method of making cheese is an illustration of tradition as a beneficial means into a consumer base and a tool in fighting the effects of globalization. The labeling system allows for the farm to continue traditional cheese making while encouraging a small operation, and it guarantees appeal for consumers as it creates exceptionality for the product. In a similar sense, the farm’s harvest through their garden is a quality that proves to be helpful for the farm. A time-honored practice, farming is a means to feed the household and tourists. The garden is set up on a couple of plots of land (about an acre overall) and grows a multitude of produce that they serve and sell to the local village. The farm uses sustainable measures such as composting, a watering system from a natural well, and crop diversity. Problems with pests (such as large bees that enjoyed eating various fruit crops) are handled in an organic manner that did not disrupt the land or species itself. Weeds are picked and certain types are given to the animals for roughage. The animal waste is used along with their composting in order to create a more fertile garden. Although the farm does utilize off-farm input in some cases–such as feed for the goats (grain), many of the materials, like fertilizer, are based in the farm output. They have no specific goal or even expansive knowledge of sustainability, but rather a custom and local culture that made them act in a sustainable manner. In the same sense that the animals were sometimes mistreated due to the mentality that “that’s the way it’s always been done,” the sustainable nature of the farm was also due to this same mentality. In a time in which seasons are non-existent in the urban grocery store, the tourists who stayed on the farm were pleased with the freshness of the food.

In regards to the marketplace, the farm sells its products with about 25-30 other vendors in a given town market. However, a compelling aspect of the markets was that the majority of vendors were selling some product that was value-added. From wine to cheese to pottery, the market place is ideal for specific products. Many of the sellers have external partnerships with other sellers in order to create relationships and trade-offs with products. For example, the farmer who makes homemade sausages was interested in the Ferme de la Treille’s cheese as a pairing with her various types of sausages. The two farmers exchanged products and discussed a possible partnership. The connections made in the market could be an opportunity for the farm to make a name for itself within a social group that could, in turn, make the farm known with outside contacts. However, the marketplace also held a possible threat to the Ferme de la Treille. Although there are mostly monopoly-like settings at markets (where a given seller was the only seller of some product), there are also peddlers who marketed products that were not artisanal or homemade. At multiple markets there are peddlers–cheese vendors who were selling multiple types of famous French cheese – goat cheese, sheep cheese and several Italian cheeses. When probed, the seller admitted that he of course didn’t make these cheeses but choose to sell them in an atmosphere that could give him a profit and give consumers a multitude of choices. Through observation, it seemed that this seller was legitimately successful. Although there are cheeses that are certified AOC or AOP in the market-place, many consumers came to the market and assumed that the peddler’s cheeses were homemade. In this case, he is using the market to mask his fabricated business. For the Ferme de la Treille, this sort of competition is threatening to business and an accurate picture of the looming modernization that was taking over the market – some consumers want diversity regardless of if it is genuine.

To review, the farm has multiple complexities regarding a few factors. The animals provide products that are popular with tourists and remain unique based in COO/PGS standards. However, the practices regarding animal welfare are timeworn and lack any modern progression such as updated watering containers or obtaining new cages for various animals. The lack of pasture time for many of the goats also provides concern for the quality of life of the animals that have begun to be seen as economic profits only. Secondly, the limited product diversity provides both uniqueness for the farm and a threat to other businesses that could provide diversity. However, the opportunity to make connections with other farmers created a social network that could carry the farm through the encroaching peddlers and modernization of other cheese sellers. The traditional practices concerning cheese making gained the farm a unique label (Pèlardon) that ultimately helps protect the heritage and appeal of the product. The practices of sustainability are also beneficial to the farm and carry a tradition that is important to their heritage and efforts against mass production and globalization.

Through each of these aspects, it is imperative to note that the traditional practices that were so enlaced in the culture of the Ferme de la Treille both helps and harms them. This is particularly important to recognize as it shows that tradition and heritage are not a “clear cut” answer or indicator in the fight (or fighters) against globalization in its many forms (in this case, the non-artisanal sellers were a part of this system). The complexities of French agriculture must be explored further in order to intertwine aspects of modernization and time-honored, protected practices. With the negative social, economic and environmental externalities of the modern agriculture industry, possible solutions such as COO/PGS initiatives need to be researched and examined for the United States “food movements” to gain safer, healthier, and overall better food.

Figures not shown here are included in the downloadable document posted at the top-left of the page.