Farming, Markets and nice people – 2 weeks in Ariege
For two weeks we traded in our office desks for mountains, sunshine and many wonderful interactions with farmers and experts in the French Pyrenees. Our first destination was Moulis, where we had a nice little place with a beautiful garden called “La petite maison” (not to be confounded with the restaurant of the same name in Lorp), our home base for the first 10 days. La petite maison came with a garden in which discussions where stimulated by the great (and very green) view.
Our first two days were filled with expert interviews in Tarbes and Toulouse. For us it was surprising how much we got to know in these discussions and also how much time the experts were willing to spend for the interview with us. We learned a lot about pastoralism, the interaction between social and ecological drivers of development and somewhat of the history of the Pyrenees in general, and the Ariège in particular. In each interview, we got new contacts that we could turn to and ask for yet more information on farming practices, got more to know about the mentality and motivation of farmers, most of them doing the job with their heart and their sole. After these days we had our first day without interviews to digest all we have heard and learned. So, while Claudine caught up with writing notes on the first interviews and explored the area around Moulis while running, Andi – a passionate cyclist – had his own task: cycle as much as he could, tracking and mapping livestock on pastures in the surrounding areas, combining fun and work.
To get in touch with interview partners we also tried a different approach: we went to the market in St. Girons (Ariege) and got in touch with farmers there. This market is the local event of the week and there are lots of booths and stands ranging from cheese from brebis (sheep), meat and vegetables to soaps, garments and international food from all around the world. The busy market morning with a lot of people speaking various different languages was then contrasted by our interview with a German emigrant, a farmer who lives on a more remote farm in the mountains – as remote, that it took us a while and the help of two of his friends to find the place. If we learned anything in our time in the Ariège, then that road signs are very unclear (while running Claudine got lost several times). However, we also learned that there are always nice people willing to help you find the right direction. When we finally arrived at the farm, we could give him greetings of his friends and tell a nice story. Seeing how his farm operates solely based on man power – there are on average 8 people (woofers and permanent workers from several different countries) working on the farm – and managing 80 goats and several vegetable plantations. The community has also manually built several houses and the goat stable and in their little free time, they learn and collect the arts of traditional handcrafting (leather tanning, shoe and cloth making) to keep up the old traditions. It was a very interesting afternoon talking about hard farming labour in the mountains and seeing how farming used to look like bevor the machines took over to increase productivity and to squeeze every ounce of energy out of the soil.
The next day we had our next expert interview in Toulouse, where we learned about expected climate-change impacts in the Region Occitanie to which Ariege belongs to. Followed by another expert interview with the Féderation Pastorales where we learned details about the function of pastoralism in the Ariège in the past and today and also how the forest and more importantly the management of the Estives - the summer pastures - in the mountains works.
Then, after we got an idea on how land use in the Ariège has developed, it was time to focus on the farmers and to hear their perspectives. The farmer interviews were my most favourite part. So many nice people invited us into their homes, walked us around their farms and took time to talk with us and we had broad conversations and got to hear different opinions on various topics around farming. Especially future regional development and wild predators – bears and boars – where hot discussion topics.
On our second weekend we moved to a charming B&B in Castillon en Couserans. We then also had the chance to watch the spectacle of Autrefrois le Couserans, a two-day festival in St. Girons, which on the second day shows a parade with old tractors, animal drawn wagons, old tools and costumes. There, we got a first-hand impression on how much working in agriculture was transformed during the last century. In the afternoon we had an interview with a farmer, who is the last permanent inhabitant of his village high up in the mountains.
Then our journey was almost over already, one last interview with another German expat, who told us a lot about the history of his valley and the story of his family. We even got a film and a book about their farm – very interesting watching and reading material for our way back and when back in civilization.
Before leaving on our last day, we decided to stroll over yet another farmer’s market for the last time. At least on Andi, time in France has left its mark, as he had evolved into a French man. Then it was finally time to drive to the airport, but instead of saying good-bye we said “à bientôt Ariège”, see you soon again.