Making cheese in La Drôme
My first project visits were in the valleys of La Drôme, quite a hilly region (as a cyclist one can tell!) and, at this time of year, still very green.
Young Belgians start farming
My first stay was at the farm of Lien and David, a young Belgian couple who started farming activities in 2008 and milking their cows in 2009. The project was already prepared some years before. Both David and Lien do not have an agricultural background. After thorough research and visiting others farms to learn from, David had not only carefully designed, but also built himself the stable, the cheese making area, the ‘fromagerie’ as they say in French, and the repair and tools workshop.
Why in France? Land is too expensive in Belgium and young farmers have difficulties starting a farm there. (Along my journey, I will meet more Belgian farmers). Then, the concept of Terre de Liens, renting the land, as well as additional French subsidies (through EU funding) for young farmers, made it possible for them to start this farm.
They have about 35 cows (milk and cheese) and 83 hectares of land (including forest). The main focus is on the milk production of the cows for cheese and yoghurt. They are the only cow farm in the region.
Not just overnight!
David and Lien explain that it takes years to build a project like this. Of course the cows need to be ready to produce milk, then there are several investments (both monetary and in time) to build the facilities (stable, etc), as well as the whole interior of the old farm house, where they live.
It takes at least 5 years to get a farm like this operational and then another 5 years or so to make it profitable. David and Lien are organised in a cooperative. The cheese they produce has a bio-label (the French AB), furthermore they share the agricultural machines with other farmers (and help each other out). The cows, when needed, are treated homeopathically, which gives good results according to David.
Good match between nursing and cheese making.
Lien is a nurse and works half time in an elderly home in the region. She also learned how to make cheese. She explains how this makes a good combination: “you know about bacteria and hygiene”. Cheese making is also about creativity: finding your own unique taste and texture for the different types of cheese you want to make. Nature is helped here while specific bacteria (these are purchased) are added to the process. Depending on the type of cheese or yoghurt (with and without fruits), the process entails several steps that each has its own strict time path. Still, this is not stress as Lien calls “the hour-stress” in Belgium, where life is split in hours and there is constant pressure. “Here, I know that one day I make this type of cheese and the next day the yoghurt and I organise myself around it. You can take it more as it comes, although here, you are more dependent on nature of course, which we cannot control”.
Sheep cheese and a way of life…
Nearby in the valley I also meet another small cheese making farm, in this case sheep cheese. The Meurot family lives already 37 years on the top of the mountain, which forms a small village, a so called ‘hameau’. They were among the first to enter the trust fund system of Terre the Liens, developed by Sjoerd Wartena. Danielle Meurot, originally Canadien, shares some interesting thoughts with me about responsible farming and connecting to earth. She and her husband are very active in the small holders movement in France and have also published a book with other authors on homeopathy with animals, and they are active in the movement against using electronic tagging of animals. Soon they will launch a film on this subject, called; “Mouton 2.0, la Puce à l’oreille”.
A statement of Danielle that struck me was, when she said that, young people who come to learn the cheese making craft at their small farm, think that this is a job (as any other) and that you can learn it while staying a few weeks at a farm. Danielle says: “This work is not about a job. This is about a way of life, about being connected to earth! You live with your animals, you take care of them, you learn by experience and from others, you use and develop multiple skills at a farm, and you are not having holidays.”
A final visit to the co-president and founder of Terre de Liens, Sjoerd Wartena, made this first week already a memorable one, and already so much learned about small holders and that farming is a lot more than just work!