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Silent suffering

April 23, 2011

Financial problems are thought to have been behind the suicides of more than 300 French farmers last year. Despite receiving the highest subsidies in the EU, many are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet.

A farmer toils to his fields
Farming is hard work at the best of timesImage: picture-alliance / Burkhard Juettner / vintage.de

For those on the outside, it may appear that French farmers have it good, living and working in the idyllic Gallic countryside that so many other Europeans travel many kilometers to enjoy while on vacation.

French farmers are also the greatest beneficiaries of European Union agricultural subsidies. But behind these persistent clichés lies a less-rosy reality. Many French farmers are suffering from depression and are taking their lives in great numbers. While no official figures are available, it is estimated that an average of one farmer committed suicide every single day last year.

While most don't resort to such desperate measures, there is no doubt that the French farmer's life of hard work has been getting harder in recent years.

François Vichard, 35, operates a 200-hectare (494-acre) farm in an area of Burgundy known as the Bourbonnais. He has about 300 head of cattle that he raises for meat, a few work horses and some sheep.

Sharp drop in income

He says doing things like staying up half the night to helping his Charolais and Limousin cattle deliver calves, as he recently did, is all part of the job he loves. But he says it's also getting a lot more difficult to keep going. When he took over from his parents 13 years ago, the farm was profitable, allowing him to pay himself a salary about 1,500 euros ($2,184) a month. But this has now dropped to 300 euros a month.

"Who would agree to work 70 hours a week, and sometimes more depending on the time of year, for such a miserable salary? No one," he said. "Farmers don't have access to social assistance, unemployment insurance or other types of social help. When you get to miserable wages like these, people feel like they can't go on."

Two cattle graze in a field
An idyllic scene - if you can afford to pay the billsImage: by/jerome_Munich

The only reason that Vichard has been able to scrape by is because his wife works as a nurse in town. But neighboring farms don't all have a second salary. And since December, five farmers in this area alone have committed suicide.

"One guy, who was 52. spent the afternoon talking with his neighbor about their respective financial difficulties. After his neighbor went home, he drowned himself in his pond," Vichard said. "Another guy needed to buy out his brother who was going into retirement. The bank refused to give him a loan. So he went home and shot himself."

Increasing costs

Vichard says the financial hardship has many causes. The price the farmers sell their cattle at has remained low at the same time as their overhead has increased. The price of cattle feed has almost doubled over the past five years, going jumping from 180 euros per ton five years ago, to about 350 euros per ton today.

At the same time, farmers are forced to ensure that their facilities keep up with constantly changing government regulations. Vichard keeps his sheep in the 19th century stone barn his family has been using for generations. But he has been forced to invest in open air metal barns to house his cattle. The modern buildings are considered more hygienic and allow the animals to be kept without the need for tying them up. Abattoir fees have increased to cover the cost of better meat tracing, instituted since the mad cow and foot-and-mouth epidemics.

Farmers' jobs have also become more complex. In addition to farming and accounting skills, they now need to have a good understanding of international commodity markets so that they can make difficult choices on which farming equipment to invest in.

Nowhere is this more evident than at the SIMA farm show, a biannual international event that shows the best in new farming equipment.

A proud culture

Among those who attended this year's show was Thierry Guilbert, a farmer who is also a member of the executive board of Coordination Rurale. This trade union has been working to publicize the issue of farm suicides for the past year, but the whole issue is a taboo topic in rural culture.

A farmer boards his tractor
Equipment costs take a bite out of a farmer's budgetImage: Justyna Bronska

"It remains a shameful act that families prefer to hide," Guilbert said. "I know a family that did that. They said the person died of a disease or an accident, whatever. Because the shame of the suicide rubs off on the entire family. Talking instead about an illness makes it easier for the family to face others, even though everyone in the community knows it's not true. There is still a lot of shame attached to suicide in rural culture."

Guilbert added that in traditional farm culture, people generally don't like to talk to outsiders about their problems. Often neighbors don't realize there is a problem until it's too late.

This is why his union is calling for the creation of a national suicide hotline. One that would allow farmers to call in anonymously and without charge to talk about their problems, before falling into a deep state of depression.

Quantifying the problem

This propensity to suicide is supported by more than anecdotal evidence. Last year, Christine Cohidon, an epidemiologist specialized in mental health from the French Institute for Public Health, the INVS, published a suicide study with staggering results.

"We looked at whether there were higher or lower rates of suicide based on peoples' professions. And the results, over a very broad period, showed that farmers are two or three times more likely to kill themselves than professionals," Cohidon said. "Two times more likely in the case of women and three times more likely in the case of men."

That study shocked the public. Since then, Cohidon's institute and the MSA, the farmer's social service group, have launched a more comprehensive study on suicide on French farms - one that should eventually provide reliable annual suicide figures.

The French government is also taking note. Two weeks ago, Agriculture Minister Bruno Lemaire announced a telephone hotline will be put into place by the end of this year and that social workers will actively seek out farmers who appear to be in distress.

But behind this rash of suicides lie complex financial realities, and so far it seems, this problem hasn't been adequately addressed.

Author: Genevieve Oger / pfd
Editor: Andreas Illmer