Margarite says times have changed, people have moved away from the valley because it’s difficult to be a farmer. But then I asked if she thinks times will change again and people will return and she answered, “Yes,” without hesitation nor explanation. I didn’t press for details but suspected maybe I’d phrased the question wrong.
When the family arrived I asked the same question to Lucien and Michel – will times change again, will people migrate back to the countryside? They both answered, “Yes,” without hesitation, and this time I pressed for details. Lucien actually will be moving back to the farm from the city in May. He’s about 55 and has never worked on a farm but he’s moving here with his wife – Claude’s sister – to keep bees and harvest olives. I asked why he’d leave the city where he raised his kids and started a business and he said that the quality of life is much better here than in the city… and he’s not the only person who’s noticing. He said there’s a shift in French society right now as people discover the long hours aren’t worth the money. They used to value status, which was attached to their jobs, but in the last ten years people have started to accept less money for a better quality of life. Obviously that status-seeking will endure, but at the margins it’s changing.
Michel, Claude’s cousin, drives up from Nice to mill olives on the weekends. He described oil-making as a passion so I asked if he, too, would come back to work here permanently. Not enough money in it. He has a family of six and he couldn’t support them. It’s good for single people or students, but not families.
Even in the 1950s Margarite’s husband was working another job to supplement their income, they couldn’t make enough from the farm alone. Lucien admitted it’s easy for him to start a new life on a farm because this property is established and owned by his wife’s family. If he had to build this from scratch he wouldn’t change jobs and homes.
When they suggested that this shift was a society-wide change of values, I wondered about the logistics – if I were a young person who wanted a simple way of life in Western Washington, I don’t know if I’d be able to just buy a piece of land and raise crops or livestock. In fact, I doubt I could. Not only do I lack knowledge about crops and livestock, but the land would be so expensive that I’d have to work another job to pay the mortgage. I also wonder how many pieces of land are available that fit the needs of an organic farm when much of agriculture has gone industrial. And we have nowhere to move back to for this way of life, we children of the suburbs. At what point did our families stop farming for food? At what point did they swap tools for pens and seasons for office buildings?
I was curious what he meant, though, so I asked Lucien, “A good quality of life – what does that mean for you?”
He said, “Living at your own rhythm.”