Swans Commentary » swans.com May 18, 2009  



La Vie d'autrefois
Animal Traction, French Food Culture, Bio-Agriculture, and a Return to Bygone Days


by Graham Lea





(Swans - May 18, 2009)   With around 80% of the farmers in the world using their hands to work the land rather than machines, an intermediate technology using animals should be of fundamental value. Of course, animals have been used since the earliest times, particularly for the transport of produce, and for pulling a variety of machines such as ploughs (you may think of them as plows, but English is my language...). Much greater efficiency can be achieved with better engineered devices pulled by animals across the land or between rows of crops. It turns out that France is a pioneer in the development and implementation of such technology, possibly the world leader in promoting animal traction, with devices that can be pulled by donkeys, mules, oxen, or horses. (It is worth recalling that the Amish never stopped using animal traction.) PROMMATA is a very small organisation situated in la France profonde in the foothills of the Pyrenées. Its sigle signifies the PROmotion d'un Machinisme Moderne Agricole à Traction Animale, (1) which was founded by Jean Nolle and others in 1991. Nolle, a specialist in the use of animal traction in agriculture using modern mechanisation, started la promotion de la traction animale in Senegal in the 1950s with the objective to libérer la petite paysannerie (ease the burden on small farmers). (2) Last month PROMMATA, which has around 500 supporting members, had its first journées portes et fenêtres ouvertes (open days -- literally, open door and windows), with impressive animal traction demonstrations. The motto was Attelons-nous à l'agriculture de demain -- hitch-up to the agriculture of tomorrow. It therefore comes as a considerable surprise to find that the use of animal traction has not proved popular in Europe and the African countries where it has been tried, with perhaps more than half the machines not being used at all.

Most French people have a serious interest in food, but curiously few know much about wine. There are two diverging food cultures. The first is embraced by hypermarché shoppers who purchase a great deal of manufactured and processed food. The second culture is found amongst those who have greater passion for food quality: they choose to shop as far as possible in the marchés alimentaires, which may be open air or covered, and are usually held weekly in the smaller towns and daily in the grandes villes. Throughout France, many grandes villes have magnificent daily marchés couverts alimentaires (covered food markets) for meat, fish, fruit, vegetables, and wine, with produce being sourced locally where possible. Many have good but simple counter-style restaurants. Frequently, the buildings are themselves attractive and of considerable architectural interest: that in Narbonne is worth the journey, to use a phrase favoured by the green Michelin guides. Jerez, in Spain, is another -- France does not have a monopoly. There is a need for more covered markets in the smaller villes since if it is raining or cold, stall holders in our open market are likely to lose at least half of their income. Markets are places where people meet and adjourn for coffee, often with a delicious pain à raisin that you can buy from a baker and eat in the café. This is not latte-land: only the foreigners have a café au lait UHT. Hypermarchés tend to be very large in France, selling not just food but all manner of household goods and clothing, alongside mostly disgusting fast-food restaurant chains that are best avoided. Not all European countries have these out-of-town large shopping centres -- the Netherlands is a particular exception. To supply the hypermarché shoppers, France has vast tracts of monoculture, particularly in the north. Spain also sends large quantities of vegetables and fruit on account of its southerly geographical position rather than the quality of its produce. An increasing proportion of Spanish produce is OGM (organisme génétiquement modifié). (3) Buying organic food in supermarkets is absurd: the original producers, like all supermarket suppliers, get an absolute minimum, so much is imported from cheap-labour countries, and arrives tasteless and in poor condition. People seeking agriculture biologique (AB, organic) produce mostly want locally-grown, good quality products as directly as possible from the producer, without the involvement of middlemen. Only in some open-air markets is there likely to be a significant offering of AB produce, since most small producers could not afford to rent, supply, and manage a daily stall in a covered market. It is encouraging that the number of farmers markets in the United States has doubled in the last ten years. (At least these are proper markets, unlike the rigged financial markets where prices are manipulated, rather than determined by supply and demand.) Bonds are increasingly developing between producers who care about quality and consumers who prefer better agricultural products, with taste and aroma but without the chemicals. Failure to use fertiliser and pesticides is praiseworthy (and normal) in our region. France has its bio-coops -- health food stores -- but they are somehow off-message, with their vitamin pills, dietary supplements and corporal unguents.

Much of southern France is geologically and physiographically very varied, which results in considerable agricultural diversity, and mercifully does not favour monoculture at all. Then there are the property inheritance laws, which have resulted in the land being subdivided between children to such an extent that the units have become uneconomic for a conventional farming approach (the original reason for the European common agricultural policy was to subsidise such farming in France). Many of the old industries like paper making have closed down, giving rise to considerable unemployment. New activities that create employment are needed.

Fortunately, there is a strongly established local bio-agriculture tradition in our département -- it is the norm here rather than the exception. Most of our local cheese is made with lait cru (unpasteurised milk), and very good it is too. Even the local supermarkets stock it (as well as the terrible-tasting UHT milk, which is consumed by 96% of the French and Belges, but curiously only 8% of the British -- although they mostly seem to choose some form of skimmed milk). Many French people develop a potager (kitchen garden), which provides much of their requirement throughout the year, with the added help of congélateurs (freezers) and bottling to extend the seasons. The agriculture biologique producers work very hard indeed and with admirable dedication, but on a very small scale. Very few use animals as a means of increasing their production. They have considerable knowledge and skill, but have yet to seize the opportunities available to use the greater efficiency of new-technology machines drawn by animals. There is also a need to develop better technologies for the small-scale, economic preservation of food for out-of-season use: freeze drying, for example, needs more research. It is for organisations like PROMMATA to lead the way, and to tackle the seemingly intractable psychological and sociological barriers to the wider adoption of animal traction. PROMMATA notes that les ânes sont cependant généralement préférés aux chevaux (donkeys and asses [not the vulgar type, which are properly called arses anyway] are preferred to horses) as they are stronger, have more endurance, are more sure-footed -- and eat less. Mules are of course very important as well. George Washington was keen on animal traction: he had 58 mules working for him at Mount Vernon at one stage, as well 316 slaves. Political issues concerned with the encouragement animal traction should be resolvable locally, since the investment required is small. We cannot hope for much help from the European Union, which, since it was invented, has been highly corrupt, particularly in the agriculture sector. The EU is supposed to work for its citizens, but of course it does not. An interesting sidenote is that our small village of just over 500 people and 28 square kilometres, is discussing the introduction of a district heating system using wood as the fuel, and having a pipe system some 1.8 km in length. We have a sustainable forest. In a move to more animal traction, some industries would get smaller or disappear, and we would not miss them. Logic suggests the replacements would employ many more people, be more sustainable, be less damaging to mankind, animalkind, the soil and the crops, leading to a much greater degree of human fulfilment, health, and happiness. The use of animals results in a useful manure byproduct, which when returned to the land does a much better job than sewage sludge or fertiliser. These thoughts are neither new nor revolutionary. It is a way to return, with less drudgery, to many aspects of what the French term la vie d'autrefois -- life in bygone days (which sounds much better than back to the future). Nor should such a philosophy require clothes to be washed in the river or at a lavoir (many villages still have a special building where this is still sometimes done). Machines can do a great job, quickly. Tractors still have a role in ground breaking, but can be shared. The French psyche is closely linked to their terroir and their patrimoine -- complex notions with emotional aspects that do not readily translate, and to which we shall return. These form the true basis of French civilisation. Animal traction is part of this -- alongside slow food.




1.  prommata.org.  (back)

2.  Jean Nolle: Machines modernes à traction animale : Itinéraire d'un inventeur au service des petits paysans, AFDI/L'Harmattan, GRET, 1986.  (back)

3.  In Western Europe, only Spain has gone GM, although there are experiments in France, the UK, Germany and Italy. Protestors seem to be having an impact on public consciousness, if not on politicians.  (back)


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About the Author

Graham Lea is a British writer and journalist, inter alia for the BBC and The Register, where he covered the Microsoft antitrust case. For many years he was a geologist. Apart from London, he has lived in Canada, the USA, and the Netherlands before settling in la France profonde with his Dutch wife. Lea's work for Swans brings another bit of international flair to the coin français.



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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published May 18, 2009