Meet the farmer who found happiness in an ancestral way of life

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French farmer Jean-Bernard Huon has shunned modern techniques such as machinery and pesticides, choosing the manual subsistence farming methods once followed by his peasant ancestors.

Farmer Jean-Bernard Huon stands on his farm with a bail of hay on his back. Reuters

Reuters photographer Stephane Mahe spent seven days with Jean-Bernard and his partner Laurence in Riec-sur-Belon, a corner of southern Brittany on France’s west coast, to capture scenes of their unique way of living.

A view of Jean-Bernard's farm including several buildings and farm animals Reuters

Jean-Bernard, 70, describes himself as a “happy outsider”. He and Laurence milk eight cows by hand, grind flour and collect manure to fertilise the crops that feed his livestock. Jean-Bernard chooses to sell his pork, veal and butter directly to visitors to his farm rather than engage with large supermarkets.

Despite his produce being organic, he has even avoided the trend of selling at farmers’ markets, where organic food is hugely popular.

Jean-Bernard tends to barrels of cider Reuters
Jean-Bernard puts the cap back on a barrel of cider, made using apples from the orchard.
A bowl of butter being stirred Reuters
Laurence adds salt as she makes butter by hand.
Jean-Bernard and Laurence standing on a pile of vegetables Reuters
Jean-Bernard and Laurence use beets as animal feed.
Laurence and Jean-Bernard sip from cups in their farmhouse Reuters
The pair enjoy homemade cider as they eat lunch.

Farm machinery revolutionised French agriculture after World War Two, but Jean-Bernard chose to continue using the traditional manual farming methods.

As the country modernised around him, he continued to plough fields with oxen and has no TV, internet, running hot water or a car.

Jean-Bernard using several oxen to plough a field Reuters

“I’ve always managed by myself – I’ve never been rich but what do I care?” Jean-Bernard told photographer Mahe.

“Farmers today have a lot more land and animals than me, but they’re not necessarily happier. They face a lot of constraints.”

Jean-Bernard with a man next to a cart and oxen Reuters
Jean-Bernard laughs with a friend who helps harvest beets.

He does not oppose modern farmers and their methods.

“People criticise and it’s good to criticise, but you have to know why it came about. Chemicals were a liberation for farmers. Can you imagine? You apply some glyphosate and you don’t have any more weeds. Otherwise you have to do it with the hoe.”

A wintry view of a farm field Reuters

Jean-Bernard has had to make some concessions to modernity as he has grown older, investing in two tractors to help with the heavy lifting of hay.

Jean-Bernard writes noted as Laurence looks on Reuters
An old photo showing Jean-Bernard's ancestors Reuters
Jean-Bernard’s great-grandparents were the first of his family to work on the farm – his family are pictured here in about 1910.

Jean-Bernard wants to donate his farm to a willing successor, rather than sell it. But he admits his traditional methods may not be adopted by the future owner.

“I lived in a time when you could set up easily,” he says. “You just had to have some land and you could produce.”

A farmyard with Laurence and several geese Reuters
Jean-Bernard with two oxen in a field with the sun low in the sky Reuters

Photos by Stephane Mahe.

Farming the old-fashioned way

French farmer Jean-Bernard Huon has shunned modern techniques such as machinery and pesticides, choosing the manual subsistence farming methods once followed by his peasant ancestors. Reuters photographer Stephane Mahe spent seven days with Jean-Bernard and his partner Laurence in Riec-sur-Belon, a corner of southern Brittany on France’s west coast, to capture scenes of their unique way of living.

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