Busy, Chatty Farmers

Here in Southern France, the village’s weekly open-air markets are certainly busier during the summer season, when foreigners inhabit their second homes, but well-attended by locals year-round.

There’s a nice ap that allows you to search for markets near you by day of the week. It turns out that  every day of the week, there are at least two markets within 30 minutes of us.

Some of the markets are limited to direct producers, but most have a mix of resellers and producers.

Our little market has 4 young organic produce farmers, an elderly apple farmer, a vendor of fair trade tropical produce, 2 vendors of commercial French produce, and a reseller of a collection of produce and pantry goods (lentils, oil, rice, flour, canned duck) from the region. For cheese, there are three local producers, one very selective reseller, two vendors of Basque cheese and charcuterie, and a fancy truck selling cheese from all of France and a  few Italian cheeses. There’s one commercial bakery, a fancy bread bakery, and a tiny fine patisserie. There’s an elder farmer selling only eggs, a poultry seller, a butcher (beef and pork). For prepared food, there are two Asian offers, French “pizza”, rotisserie, 2 paella stands, and one Arabic food stand. There are now two local breweries on hand and one seller of rough farmer’s wine. There are two trucks offering household goods and someone who just sells tablecloths. The local orchardist sells heirloom fruit trees and roses. Sometimes there’s a shoe truck. Sometimes there are a couple of antique vendors, a knife-sharpener, a ceramicist, and a guy making wooden bowls with a pedal-powered lathe.

In the summer there are often lines, because the foreigners are inhabiting their second homes. But it’s not really much faster in the winter, because the locals spend a long time talking. And at least 1/3 of them are paying with hand-written checks on long, elegant papers. Impatience does you no good here. You have to learn to wait until everybody in front of you has discussed every possible point of business and local news, carefully packed up their wallets and shopping bags, and bid adieu.

This takes some getting used to.

Of course the impatient urban foreigner is the weirdo here. It’s my problem that I haven’t mastered enough French and made enough friends to have my own social circuit at the market. Furthermore, since not much happens in the countryside, especially in the winter, being in a hurry is itself absurd. So you need to hurry home because your computer is lonely?

I slowly adjusted to this new routine, planning manifestos to write while standing in line for raw milk and black radishes. I realized that the delay has a different character from the German one. In Germany it’s well known that folks are lonely, so when they arrive to cash register it’s their moment “on stage”. They leap from subject to subject just to stay in contact, while the cashier looks at the line and the floor and everywhere else uncomfortably.

The local producers here maintain eye contact with their customers. They finish each conversation, come around the table to help pack up the bag, before even casting an eye on the people waiting. They take their time with each customer.

Then I realized that the resellers are faster than the local farmers. They do 7 markets a week in different villages. The farmers and local producers have to do the work, so they usually go to only two or three markets a week. And have been doing so for years – perhaps generations. So their relationships with their clients are long-standing, multi-dimensional, and far more important than the trade with fitful foreigners.

Surely, in a rural area, people don’t have a lot of contact, so the market serves not only transactions but sociality. (For the farmers surely as well as their clients.) And even the commercial dimension is more complicated because people don’t just secure something today but also place seasonal orders and orders for special events. These are noted carefully by hand in the farmer’s notebook.

Eventually, the enforced meditation on transactions revealed that it’s not really the customers who are slowing things down. It’s the farmers. They are just as likely to be prolonging the conversation by telling a story, asking a question, or initiating a new topic.

And they move languidly, organizing their materials, tidying their offerings, taking a sip of coffee, sharing their scale with a neighboring producer, asking another to change a large denomination.

These farmers own their land, and most were born on their farms. They, unlike their brothers and sisters decided to stay, because they liked the work. They produce as much as they want to, no more. The new generation of farmers have also chosen this work, moved here to do it because it fulfills them.

The local producers sell out before the market ends. They have no need to charm their customers, or cater to them. Everyone waits patiently and gratefully to buy their incomparable products. This kind of quality is not something you can find.

These people are rich. They have chosen this quality of life. The earth. Plants. Animals. Taking care. Ferment. Seasons. A landscape. A village. They are not trying to get more so they can be that or go there. This is the cheese he makes. This is the place he puts the table. These are the people he sells it to. He does the math with a pencil on the paper of the cheese.

Here, everybody knows there is enough time for everything.




Originally posted on Artisan Modern