PARIS — Farmers in France are leaving the land so fast that experts fear that some corners of the picturesque rural landscape will become a "green desert."
The French have a great affection for the countryside, and each city dweller is said to have some link with it--an old uncle who has a small herd of goats or a grandmother who makes delicious cheese.
But this may soon change.
Squeezed by rising costs and tough competition, many farmers are leaving the field and pasture. Others march to Paris to demand government help, sometimes spilling imported farm products on roadsides or bringing their herds to the Arc de Triomphe to underscore their complaints.
8.2% in Agriculture
"The word 'desertification' covers not just the abandonment of agricultural land but the whole rural environment," Anne-Marie Stasiak, director of an environmental education program, said in an interview.
Land taxes paid by farmers finance local amenities such as roads and schools, and without this revenue whole villages have disappeared from the map. Cafes, general stores and gas stations have closed because customers have moved away.
In the Loire Valley, for example, the number of farmers fell from 185,000 in 1955 to 92,300 in 1985.
France still has an unusually high percentage of people on the land for an industrialized country: 8.2% of its work force was in agriculture in 1985, contrasted with 2.4% in Britain and 5.2% in West Germany, according to the latest European Economic Community statistics.
15 Million Fewer Acres
But the French Agriculture Ministry expects that about a fifth of the nation's farmland--15 million acres--will have been taken out of production in the 1980s.
A study published in the newspaper Le Monde of Paris reported that farm prices have fallen 43% in the last 14 years, and rural land prices are falling with them.
While good-quality land for growing grain in the Beauce region southwest of Paris still fetches an average of $2,200 an acre, grassland in less-favored regions is worth only about $730 an acre.
Not all French farmers are deserting their land. But regions such as the Massif Central, southern Normandy, the Ardennes in northeastern France and the Landes in southwestern France have been hit by la friche-- the French term for abandonment of land.
"The land is being abandoned in regions that already have problems, and the desertification only accentuates the problems," said Sylvain Cazes, assistant director of the National Federation of Farmers' Unions.
"The forest fires along the Mediterranean coast last year were directly connected with la friche, because once farmers grazed animals on the land and this kept the vegetation down," he said. "Now there is a thick covering of dry brush which catches fire easily."
When one or two fields lie fallow, they become breeding grounds for pests, which contaminate crops in neighboring fields. Country pathways and access routes often maintained by farmers disappear when they leave the land.
This rural exodus also is linked to the aging of the rural population. Half of France's farmers are more than 55 years old and likely to retire in the next 10 years. Half of them are not expected to be replaced.
Difficulty With Grants
"The young want a life style that is not so difficult," Stasiak said. "They are not prepared to live as their fathers did."
If a farmer's son or daughter is willing to take over the farm, he or she may find it difficult to get government grants intended to help young farmers buy equipment such as tractors.
But the grants rarely help the small farmer.
"If you want to buy large machinery, you'll need at least 80 hectares (nearly 200 acres)," Stasiak said. "But the average French farm has only 30 hectares (74 acres)."
Farm overhead is high and returns low.
'Milk Lake' Problem
"Taxes, insurance, fuel, everything goes up but agricultural prices don't," said Auguste Bergere, who has retired as a farmer in the Berry region in central France.
Although the European Economic Community's agricultural policies protect farmers in many ways and keep some prices high, some policies have added to the farm problems.
EEC milk quotas, designed to cut down milk production and reduce the size of the surplus "milk lake," has hit the smaller dairy farmers hardest and may hasten the abandonment of some of the marginal farming land, officials said.
"On the mountain grasslands there are few alternatives to dairy farming, and the quota policy is having a devastating effect," said Eric Forget, a specialist in mountain farming at the Agriculture Ministry.
Need for Alternatives
If France's countryside is not to become the green desert that some fear, then experts say that farmers must look for alternatives--diversifying production and upgrading quality, rather than aiming simply for maximum production.
The EEC has proposed setting aside, paying farmers to keep part of their holdings fallow, and thus maintain prices by cutting production. Not everyone is keen on the idea.
"It's completely idiotic, because we couldn't live like that. We already have to fight for our living," Bergere said.
"The farmer is made for producing," Forget said. "The idea of freezing land put forward by (the EEC) is an affront to the dignity of man."
Cazes said that farmers could help expand rural tourism. The idea of a camping at a farm, with a fresh supply of milk and eggs from the farmer's wife, is not new. But most French people still tend to rush to the seashore for their vacations.
"We should follow the example set by Ireland and cater for a tourism of quality, not of mass," Cazes said.
Stasiak said the Sancerre region in western France has seen a revival in goat-raising to meet a rising demand from Paris' restaurants for chavignol cheese.