Photograph by Maryn McKenna
Photograph by Maryn McKenna

Closing the Gap Between Farm and Food

Regarde, maman,” the child’s voice said. “Une volaille habillée!”

I was standing in the poultry aisle of the Salon international de l’agriculture, a massive farm and food show that takes place in late winter in a giant exhibition space on the southern edge of Paris. I was surrounded by unfamiliar sights—unique sheep and goat breeds, draft horses and dairy cattle—and immersed in smells, with the tang of aged cheese and the funk of grilled fois gras competing against the fresh scent of hay and the winy reek of the manure trekked all over the carpets. There was a lot of noise—mooing, cackling, vendors shouting, politicians speechifying—but the child’s exclamation somehow cut through it all.

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The Salon gives some children their first-ever chance to see farm animals as living things instead of just meat. Photograph by Maryn McKenna

What she said was: “Look, Mom—A chicken’s that’s dressed!”

But what she meant was: Look: a chicken that has feathers on. Which, somehow, she had never seen before. “Chicken,” to her, meant a dead, naked, cut-up thing in a supermarket — not the fluffy, white-capped, crested black Polish that was eyeing her sideways through the bars of its display cage.

It’s no secret, of course, that most of us have no real experience with where our food comes from. In the United States, less than 2 percent of the population works in farming; raising food animals occurs sight-out-of-mind away from the major population centers where the consuming public clusters. Yet hearing someone express that unfamiliarity in France—the country that we fantasize, or fetishize, as the most food-connected of all—was remarkable. And more than a little sad.

The existence of the Salon isn’t much known in the U.S.—but in France, it is magnetically famous. The show has been running eight days every February since 1870. This year, it had more than 700,000 visitors, which is more than 1 percent of the country’s entire population. Families take their children out of school to come; the metro and trolley lines running toward the exhibition park are packed like rush hour, and bonne chance alors trying to cross the street against the crowds surging toward the gate.

I had heard of the Salon for years, but this February was my first visit. I thought it would be like the largest state fairs in the U.S.—maybe Wisconsin, where I’ve stood in line for hours for a cream puff, or Minneapolis, where I once interviewed a scientist who was lounging against the pen of Minnesota’s largest hog. But the Salon turned out to combine ferocious agricultural pride, and canny food-producer marketing, with an unmistakable undercurrent of fragility, a consciousness of something being almost lost.

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A visiting cow from Normandy was on display in the cow stalls. Photograph by Maryn McKenna

Most of the French population isn’t many generations removed from the farm, yet it wasn’t only children who were goggling with unfamiliarity at the live animals on display. At the giant stall of the fermiers de Loué, the largest poultry and egg cooperative in the country, kids and grown-ups alike jostled to watch eggs hatching. In the dairy pavilion, the delegation from Brittany poured doubtful visitors samples of lait ribot, a buttermilk-like drink with a 1,000-year-old history. “It’s very healthy,” one of them assured a wincing young woman. “It’s high-protein, very good for your skin.” Multi-generational families strolled between the cow stalls; without fail, only the grandfathers could identify the breeds without reading the placards. (“Jersiaise!” one kid yelped, spotting a heifer with a dun-colored coat. “Hein,” his grandfather corrected, “Charolaise“— which, in cow terms is something like mistaking a pug for a German Shepherd because they both have black noses.)

I ate dinner that night with my Paris landlady, hoping she could help me make sense of what I was seeing. I told her about the crowds, the ticket scalpers, the families lining up to take their child’s picture as a wheel of cheese. I told her I thought people would be attending to exult in sharing their farm heritage—but what it felt like was people encountering something foreign, not familiar.

She shrugged. (My landlady has a perfect French shrug.) “Paris is one planet,” she said, pouring more mineral water. “The countryside is another. At the Salon, the planets touch, for a moment. But neither changes the other.”

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Say “cheese!” A child pokes his head through a souvenir photo display of French cheeses. Photograph by Maryn McKenna

I went back the next day, wondering whether she was right; whether the connection between food and farm, so tenuous in the U.S., was wearing that thin in France as well. I wound my way between people grabbing nougat samples and buying sheep-portrait T-shirts, wondering whether I was being naïve.

Then I spotted something that gave me hope. At a less-populated end of the largest pavilion, a banner was hanging from the overhead pipes: Ferme pédagogique, teaching farm. Inside its railings, there was a mixture of all the species that were separated by pavilion in the rest of the show: a calf, a donkey, a coop of chickens, some piglets, a gaggle of geese. It was hard to see them, though, because so many young families were pressed up against the railings — and not for a brief look, either. They stood there for a long time, studying the animals, chatting to the staff.

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This handmade sign reads, in part, “Farms not factories.” Protesters gathered outside of the show to display the growing resentment toward large industrial farming in France. Photograph by Maryn McKenna

I turned around to leave, feeling better. Then I saw a sign on the other side of the alleyway. It was on a booth belonging to the Jeunes Agriculteurs, an organization that works to get a new generation into farming. It was hard to see the sign for a moment, because so many people were standing in front of it, waiting to talk to someone.

Demain je serai paysan,” the sign said. Tomorrow I will be a farmer.

OK, I thought. Maybe someone will.

This story is part of National Geographic’s special eight-month “Future of Food” series.