PARIS — The title of best shepherd is taken seriously at the Paris agricultural fair, where the competition is international, and stiff.
Only the top 30 of about 500 French youths competed in the contest at this year’s 46th International Agricultural Show in Paris. The best French competitors then faced off against the best from all of Europe.
Laurie Lacombe, 19, from central France, was one of three young women competing for the French title and a chance to advance to the inaugural European competition. Past the hundreds of cows and sheep — and cheese and milk — on display, Lacombe stood outside a dirt ring, intensely surveying her competitor’s technique. Her rival was trying to clip a sheep’s hoofs, but the animal was slipping from the apparatus that kept it reclining upright on its back and partly suspended, with its legs in the air. The judges would deduct points because the animal was not attached properly, Lacombe said.
The sheep “don’t like it because it’s not their thing, but it doesn’t hurt them,” and is necessary to keep them healthy, she said.
The annual agricultural fair doesn’t just present the French with finished products — it shows them where the food comes from (in what might be too gory detail for some Americans to take).
“The Frenchman, he likes to eat; he’s interested in what he eats,” said Eric Dramet, a farmer and goat cheese producer from Drome, in southeastern France. “No one leaves disappointed.”
At the center of this gastronomic party is the farmer, and events such as the shepherd contest which aim to attract new blood to the profession. Nearly 20 percent of the more than 430,000 farmers in France are over age 55, according to statistics.
Lacombe grew up in a farming family and is comfortable caring for animals. Her challenges in becoming a farmer likely will be financial, not physical.
“We’ve created structures that are too big for young people to set up their businesses,” said her father, Jean-Baptiste Lacombe, who farms cereals and raises dairy cows.
Jean-Marie Pothier, a fourth-generation sheep farmer, explained that there is as much farmland now as when France had millions of farmers. But today, instead of farms being passed down from father to son, neighboring farms absorb the land when it becomes available, in order to create bigger and bigger farms. Now it is nearly impossible for a young person to break in, Pothier said.
Starting from scratch is incredibly difficult, said Nicolas Mousnier, an executive member of Young Farmers, a national union for farmers under 35. With the acquisition of land, equipment and animals, setting up a sustainable business can cost upwards of 60,000 euros (about $77,000), capital that most young people just don’t have. The union helps with grants and spreads the word when land frees up, he said.
During her turn, Lacombe moved confidently through the timed tests, which included hoof clipping and isolating three sheep into a pen based on the color of their collars. She finished fourth in the French contest and moved on to the European finals. That round involved driving a small tractor through an obstacle course and the carcass test, in which the young shepherds had to point out the parts that might be nice to eat.
Lacombe shrugged to express that she was not put off at all by the dead animal. She finished sixth.
“They’re raised to be killed,” said James Healy, a 19-year-old contender from Wales. “The better you take care of them, the better the meat.”
(The farming events aren’t all so serious as life and death. In “Squeal like a pig,” contestants vie to be named the best pig impersonator. Here is winner Noel Jamet, who gives his pig a complete story line, including giving birth to piglets and suckling them:)
(If you liked that, here's Jamet's take on childbirth, porcine style:)