Up until today, the single biggest disappointment I've had in all my travels has been New Zealand. I'd heard all this hoopla about how great New Zealand agriculture was, how pristine the islands, how beautiful the pastures.
On each of my visits there, however, I've been grossly disappointed. The deforestation on big hills steeper than you can climb (just about) causes massive soil avalanches. As you drive along the highway, these sloughs dot the hillsides like big scabs of abusive exploitation. The overgrazed pastures scream for relief. New Zealand is an ecological nightmare.
So when I landed in Toulouse, France yesterday, all these assumptions about wonderful almost mystical French farmers ran through my head and I couldn't wait to get out into the countryside. You see, when I travel I don't go to tourist sites; I go to the farms and countryside. Everywhere.
I don't know whether I'm more disappointed than New Zealand, but I'd hate to have to pick my disappointment between the two. I'm in the foothills of the Pyrenees, about an hour and a half away from Toulouse, and I can assure you that the farmland is in a death spiral. Much of the soil is actually white, which is worse than subsoil.
The topsoil is long gone, giving way to lighter subsoil. Square miles of vineyard are clean plowed, with no soil cover. On these hills, my hosts tell me that in any rain, every stream runs heavy with silt eroding off the hillsides. Since France is an old agricultural country, my first question was how this could have been happening for a long time and still maintain a modicum of productivity,.
Turns out this is all an extremely modern thing, literally in the last 30 years. Until then, these were small landholdings with lots of crop and management diversity. But in the last 30 years farmers are aging out of the business and the remaining ones consolidate, creating much larger farms. Bigger farms, bigger machines, and astronomical amounts of chemicals have radically altered the soil. Those vineyards growing out of bare, exposed soil normally are treated with Roundup herbicide to keep down any competing vegetation.
I'm not sure I've seen such soil abuse and such poor soils anywhere in the world. To be sure, I haven't been everywhere, but it is shocking. It is shocking to see this level of soil poverty in a place like France. My hosts assure me that not all of France is this way, and I'm sure it's not. At least I hope it's not. Land here is cheap: $2,500 an acre.
The cheap food policy is gripping France. Interestingly, France led the climate change conversation by hosting the Paris climate accord, but according to the locals here, all the targets and promises France made as a leader in those talks have resulted in zero changes. Talk is cheap; walk is expensive.
I have seen some good things, though, and will report on them tomorrow. I hate being negative, but I know what healthy soils look like, and these are off the charts in poverty. So whatever you think of France, realize that its farmland is some of the worst stewarded in Europe if not the world. They've got work to do, like the rest of us.
Interestingly, when I was in Bulgaria a couple of years ago, their vineyards had ground cover for the most part and I did not have this impression. The vintners in Bulgaria said French wine was junk, and I thought they were just practicing Bulgarian pride. But now I'm not so sure.
Are you still going to buy French wines?