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Job Offer   :   Seasonal work in the lavender fields with Clos d’Aguzon

Clos d’Aguzon is a French company of international status masquerading as a cottage industry in the mountainous region of Les Baronnies. Located along the southern boundary of the département of Drôme, this area falls within the Alpine territory known as “Haute Provence”. It is roughly 50 kilometers east of A-7, the major autoroute running north-south from Lyon to the Mediterranean port of Marseille.

If you have ever stopped at any of the rest plazas in the southern portion of the A-7, you may have visited its gift/souvenir shop and seen various products from the lavender fields in Provence   :   perfumed hand soap, lavender sachets, and toilet water. The product labels state that these items were made by Clos d'Aguzon in Saint-Auban-sur-l’Ouvèze.

The merchandise, particularly the sachet bags, has the appearance of being hand-crafted. This is true to a great extent. What most consumers do not realize is that these tourist trade items are just a sideline for Clos d'Aguzon.

The lavender sachets, little cloth bags holding dried lavender, were originally produced by the local village women as a sales promotion item to be mailed to wholesale customers of essential oils all over the world. They not only became a popular item for resale, the distinctive patterns of Provençal cloth designed especially for Clos d'Aguzon to use in the bags have now created another subsidiary textile market for the firm.

To reach the Baronnies, home of Clos d'Aguzon, it is necessary to leave the autoroute. The A-7 follows the valley of the Rhône River, lush bottom land where orchards and fields of sunflowers stretch as far as the eye can see. Once you exit and head east, most likely at the northern border of Provence, a line which meanders between the neighboring départements of Drôme and Vaucluse, the land begins to climb imperceptibly. Chances are you will be on the departmental road, D-94, which parallels the Eygues River as it rushes down from the mountains of the Vercors to join the Rhône on its way to the Mediterranean.

This is not far from the Route de Napoleon, the road that Bonaparte followed when he left his island prison on Elba and marched towards Paris in his military maneuver to regain the leadership of France. But you are not going that far east. At the city of Nyons, producer of perhaps the best olive oil in all of France, your route turns sharply south.

Suddenly, without quite realizing when it happens, you are surrounded by mountains. The road narrows and twists to follow the torturous contours of a river valley. Every little village you pass through is a narrower, not a wider place in the road. The houses, gray stone, small-windowed, crowd right up to the road itself. Attached gardens are non-existent; an enclosed courtyard (Cœur du maison) provides privacy between neighbors.

Between villages the fields slant sharply upwards. Some are barren, some have a small flock of sheep, but most are covered with lavender plantations. During the dormant winter season they look like nothing more than an insignificant gray-green low scrubby growth. In the summer they are a glory   :   wave after wave of purplish-blue, a sea of lavender.

Your route turns east again and you are in the valley of the Ouvèze, another shallow river rushing to the sea. As it traverses Saint-Auban-sur-l’Ouvèze its waters are diverted to the laundry basins of the open-sided public wash house in the center of the village.

Nothing apparent to the eye sets this little community apart from any of the previous villages you have passed through. In addition to the wash house there is a square-steepled church, a post office, a tobacconist, a grocery, a bistro. The population is perhaps between 100 and 150. But this is the address of one of the largest producers of essential oils in the world.

The offices, oil distillery, shipping and warehouse facilities are tucked away in a secluded area to maintain the bucolic atmosphere of the valley. Sales offices are located in Paris, New York, and other large centers. Saint Auban looks like - and is - what it has always been   :   a rural mountain village in Provence.

The firm of Clos d'Aguzon, known in other countries as Bontoux, started as a small family operation in 1898 when all social classes in France began to use perfume products and the price of lavender oil skyrocketed. Lavender production is a highly seasonal affair and in the early days it was a joint effort of the entire village to harvest and distill the crop. The work was intense for six to ten weeks, then it was finished until the next season.

Women cut the lavender spikes and spread them to dry in bundles, men collected the harvest and handled the heavy barrels, teenagers fed the wood-burning distilling machines. Today, except for wild lavender found on the highest mountain plateaus, the production of lavender oil and lavender essence is highly automated. The period of harvest and distillation is still confined from July 1 to the end of August or mid-September, depending on weather and the type of work. During this time many temporary workers must be added to the relatively small permanent staff.

Clos d'Aguzon has solved this problem not by hiring migrant workers but by appealing to a character inherent in the French personality.

France has always been an agricultural nation. Modern-day France, despite its prominent role in such high-tech industries as aviation, armament, machinery and transportation equipment, is still closely tied to the land. The majority of its citizens live in population centers of less than 5,000. For every French person who can boast of a “de” in his or her name, denoting a connection to titled nobility, there are ten Monsieurs and Madames who are proud of having an ancestor who was a paysan, or peasant.

Even today, many families send their teenage children to the farm of a family friend for the summer months so they can have the experience of working on the land. Other youngsters in rural areas work as day laborers when the harvest season is at hand. It is this aspect of the French mentality that Clos d’Aguzon taps into for its seasonal labor force.

The company does not hire minors. In France this translates to anyone under the age of 18. The company maintains recruitment websites under the name “Clos d’Aguzon” in French, German and Italian. With the new labor laws of the European Union, work permits are not necessary between member nations. Most university-bound young people in the European Union speak at least one secondary language, albeit in a cursory fashion.

The work is divided into harvesting and distillation, with the labor force divided into teams. Team leaders are generally chosen from those workers who have returned for their second or third year. Women are hired as well as men, with the ratio being roughly four men for every woman. The guys are there to build muscle and deepen their tans. The air is clear on the mountain plateaus, and the sun is hot. The women are there perhaps to build a tan, perhaps for other reasons. Building a cash reserve for the coming school year is as good a reason as any.

By European standards the wages are not great, but certainly not the lowest available. The work week is 35 hours and the gross monthly salary is between 1,200 and 1,500 Euros (about USD 1,500 to 1,850). The company provides a substantial main meal in their cafeteria for Euro 2.75 (less than UDS 3.50) as well as a mid-morning brunch of croissants and café au lait.

Housing is not provided, but gites are available, simple houses with minimal furnishings available for group rentals on a weekly basis. Others stay at one of the many campgrounds in the area, either in vacation trailers or in tents. The work is in shifts of 6 or 8 hours, 3 shifts a day Monday through Saturday, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., taking advantage of the long summer twilight. Sunday is always a free day. Many of the surrounding villages hold lavender festivals with street fairs and dances on the weekends during harvest season, while the campgrounds are always good for fraternizing.

A Belgian friend of mine bought a little cottage in St. Auban for his summer retreat. Unfortunately, he had always visited the area in fall or early spring. One year he decided to spend the month of July there, to enjoy the quiet and peace of the tiny village. He had never realized that a campground was just a half-mile from his cottage. Now he registers his vacation home with a rental agent during July and August, earning enough for its upkeep during the rest of the year.

Personal observations
Lavender fields in Provence

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