Biography

Farmer

I left Paris for the rural life in 1981, at the age of 25 and found work in the countryside as an accounting secretary in an SME which was starting up near where I lived. I had been a secretary in a large company, and up until then, in the entire course of my life, I had only ever left Paris for a few months at a time in the summer holidays. I knew nothing about the farming world, nothing about agriculture, and nothing about animal husbandry.

As time passed, I started a vegetable garden and a poultry yard, and thanks to our neighbours and some of their farming friends, I learned to care for, kill, pluck and skin animals. I slowly came to an understanding of where the food that I had eaten up till then without thought, actually came from. In order to eat a rabbit, a chicken or a Christmas goose, one must first bring them to life, raise them, and then kill them; and this does not mean killing any rabbit, but killing my rabbits, my chickens and my geese. Was this right? Was this just? For our neighbours, it was so, unquestionably. That was just the way things were. For me however, this was not self-evident.

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After striking up an acquaintance with some goat farmers who farmed close to where I lived, and to whom I lent a hand from time to time, the idea that I could exchange the profession of secretary for that of farmer took shape in my head. My work at the factory was purely to put bread on the table, and I loved the thought of quitting, for my real life began after the working day at the factory finished, as I had started working with the goats whenever I possibly could. I learned how to deliver them, milk them and care for them. I learned how to work with animals, and I was in my element. I bought a few Corsican milk ewes, for whom I had fallen at first sight, I set up a sheepfold, and found some land to rent. Over time, the flock grew, and the house became a little farm.
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I worked as a sheep farmer for some years. My training was brief, and done on the job, and yet I could do farming. I had a feeling for it, as the residents of the hamlet told me, and I asked myself why, what this “feeling” was. I really loved the work, and in my practice of it, I considered the nature of the work, its moral challenges, and what guided my choices. In common with all the farmers I knew, I was preoccupied with the well-being of my animals, for whom I was responsible. I worked extremely hard, and like many other farmers, would not have made ends meet if I had been living alone, but I got enormous satisfaction from the work. Existence for me took on a new dimension. It had become richer.

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In the livestock industry

After leaving the farm in the 1990s, I found myself on an industrial pig farm in Brittany, as a consequence of a return to education. It was a brutal shock! This sense of shock persisted later when necessity led me to work in industrial pig farms. After having rubbed shoulders with individualised and respected goats and sheep, I found myself confronted by sows where were imprisoned in buildings where night was indistinguishable from day, where you could only breathe painfully, with “farmers”, who were interested in nothing but money, who beat the animals to move them to one place or another, who insulted them as “fuckers” or “arseholes”, who wanted nothing more from life but to upgrade their car, and be considered an elite farmer.

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In a field station in the south-west of France, where I also worked, a rubber baton was the favoured means of communication. Contrary to what seemed to me to be the most basic common sense, employees charged with moving the pigs entered the front of the pen shouting, without any provocation at all. The inevitable result was that all the pigs rushed together into a corner of the enclosure and refused to move. Shouting and hitting therefore became the legitimate means of displacement. In Brittany, I had refused to strike the animals, and I refused to do so again in the field station. I applied the methods that seemed to me to be the best. The seeming chaos that my way of working caused initially attracted of a lot of criticism, but little by little something changed, and the behaviour of my colleagues mellowed.

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I reacted against the violence that I had endured in the livestock industry, and   chose the path of reason because it was not only that I wanted to be part of making this violence against animals and against life stop; above all, I wanted to understand it. I wanted to understand why people I knew in the field, ordinary people, people who I felt close to, accepted the violence and the senselessness of the work. What would it actually cost them to say no? What was it that supported and sustained this insupportable system? More generally, why choose violence, ugliness and pain over generosity, beauty and joy?

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Becoming a researcher

After giving up my farm, I took up the agricultural study that I hadn’t done prior to farming. As continuing education, I first took an agricultural baccalaureate, then a 2-year Brevet de Technician Supérieur (BTS) in “animal production”. Nothing that I learned during my training had any connection with what I had experienced as a farmer with my animals. The training was purely technical, and based in the zootechnics that had made its appearance in the 19th century. I wanted to understand what differentiated animal husbandry from “animal production” and understand what animal husbandry has that is particular in terms of relations with animals. porcher_8

This is why, after my BTS, I chose to specialise, and found work as a technician at the same time as preparing for the agricultural engineer entrance exam. I got through the entrance exam, and after two further years of study, I got my engineering diploma. It was while perusing the engineering curriculum that I started doing deliberate research, and not just to satisfy my curiosity.

I made contact with researchers during my engineering dissertation, and I observed, (without being overly modest), that I was quite as capable as they were of researching relations between man and farm animals, because I had been acquainted with this relation and these animals at close quarters. I understood that my real work experience with animals, coupled with the research skills that I had acquired over time, would enable me to construct real research on the subject that interested me.

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I therefore did a masters on relations between humans and animals in abattoirs, followed by a Ph.D. on affective relations between farmers and animals. My thesis, which I defended in 2001, a little more than 10 years after returning to education, was commended by the jury and received the Le Monde de la Recherché Universitaire award. Following this, I was recruited as a researcher at INRA, to look at the issues surrounding suffering at work in the livestock industry that my research work had brought to light. I was made director of research in 2014.

Jocelyne Porcher.

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