In an age of globalized agriculture, suicides have spiked among small farmers who are drowning in debt. Survivors speak out about what’s pushing so many to the brink.
Louis Ganay sits on his knees, alone in a massive farm building, holding a noose in one hand and looking up toward the high beam above him. It is late afternoon in February 2015 and Ganay, 35 years old, is holed up in the small cattle farm he runs near the village of Languidic in northwestern France. He is crying, wondering how things could have gone so wrong that he is ready to end his life. Already heavily in debt, just a few hours earlier the bank denied him another loan that could have kept his forty-cow operation afloat. Ganay thinks about his wife, who he called just a while ago to tell her what he is about to do. He thinks about the cows that he lovingly tends to each day. He considers the nation he feels has abandoned him. He places the noose around his neck and tightens it, ready to leave all of that behind.
A few seconds pass. Then, “an angel saved my life at the crucial moment,” Ganay explains. “As I was on my knees and ready to kill myself…I suddenly just stood up like a robot and started walking to where my cows were.” His wife ran up to the farm just a short time later and found him milking his beloved cows.
Ganay’s experience represents an increasingly familiar story across France. As farmers all over Europe struggle to make a living in the age of the industrialized factory farm, Jacques Jeffredo, a former farmer and activist, estimates that over 600 French farmers commit suicide each year. While that figure is higher than any official reports have demonstrated, the French Institute for Public Health Surveillance has found that male farmers were twenty percent more likely to take their own lives than the rest of the population – a finding that increases with age, climbing to 47 percent above the national average for male farmers aged 55 to 64. Similar waves of farmer suicides have been reported in India and elsewhere in recent years.
Farmers have been cultivating France’s rich soils for fifteen centuries, explaining the wide varieties of food found from region to region. Under Charles de Gaulle in the 1960s, the country pursued policies that saw farmers’ profits increase and investments prosper. Yet in recent decades an array of trade treaties has left small French farmers at a loss to compete with global companies flooding cheap food into the country’s markets. French consumers can buy oranges from Spain, meat from New Zealand, apples from Peru, milk from Germany, pork from Romania. As in many other EU countries, the local farmer has often become dispensable to the local economy. Desperate farmers have repeatedly turned to protest as falling prices and increased competition have made earning a decent living more and more difficult to achieve. For Ganay and hundreds of others, suicide at times seems the only solution.
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Noel Roze, born in the Brittany region in 1967, decided early on in life that he would work the land, as his parents had before him. In 2007 he and his German wife bought a new farm, borrowing a large sum of money to do so. The milk crisis that developed in 2009, when prices plummeted across Europe while production boomed, drove him further into debt. During that same time period, Roze was diagnosed with cancer. He says his doctor told him the cause was likely heavy exposure to pesticides without wearing proper protective gear.
Over the past few years Roze has often thought of suicide, but says his family and two daughters have kept him going. Other relatives were not so strong. This November, Roze’s first cousin, who Roze says had often complained about the incessant presence of officials sent by either Paris or Brussels to ensure regulations were followed, killed himself using his hunting rifle. Roze found him in his garage, shot point blank in the chest, the rifle still warm. “The expression on his dead face was very strange. His eyes were wide open as well as his mouth,” Roze recalls with a tear in his eye. “I will have that image in my mind until the day I die.”
Two years later, the wife of another first cousin doused her body in petrol and lit herself on fire, taking her entire house, and her life. Roze says she was very unhappy with the harsh economic conditions and could not take it anymore.
“Her remains could be placed inside two envelopes,” he says somberly.
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Claude Raffray, a native of Rennes, also in Brittany, tried to take his own life with pills while watching TV in the living room one afternoon. He had just received the new fixed prices of milk for the year 2009. His wife and daughter were upstairs when they heard a heavy sound; it was Claude’s body hitting the ground after going into a coma. They saved his life by calling the fire department; responders quickly revived him.
Asked why he took such desperate measure, Raffray, born in 1962, says, “We are not respected. People think of us as polluters and destroyers. Many people think that we do not respect our animals’ rights. This is simply not true.”
Raffray felt betrayed by his own people, that his country’s traditions were being swept aside.
“It is our families that allow us to continue to move forward,” he adds.
“Otherwise, even more would kill themselves.”
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The Metenier family moved to a four-hundred-year-old farm in the Bourbonnais region of central France back in 1956, during the heyday of the French agricultural system. That long-gone era is often described with a sense of nostalgia on the farm here.
“We used to earn less back in the ’50s and ’60s,” explains 83-year-old Marguerite Metenier, who tends to the ducks and hunting dogs here. “But we lived better. We never complained.”
Two years ago, Marguerite’s 84-year-old husband shot himself in the face. The neighbor, a sheep farmer, found him in the courtyard. By the time the emergency responders came, he had died. Soon after, the Meteniers’ middle son also killed himself.
“How can anyone want to be a farmer today?” bemoans Dominique Metenier, the youngest of Marguerite’s three sons. “What is the point to being in debt all the time, and toiling for no reason? We are sacrificed so the consumer is always happy with low prices.”
Dominique’s own son left the farm early on for a well-paying job in the hotel industry. “I understand his choice,” Dominique says. Here on the farm, “we are at the end of our ropes.”
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Jonathan Alpeyrie has worked in 25 countries and covered twelve conflict zones, from the Middle East and North Africa to the South Caucasus and Central Asia. He has freelanced for the Sunday Times, Le Figaro magazine, ELLE and BBC, and is now a photographer for Polaris Images. His forthcoming book about WWII veterans will be published by Verve Editions.