The Teacher and The French Shepherdess
One summer while swimming in a lake in France, Matt Strauss '92 was struck by a lightning bolt--the coup de foudre, as it is known there. Or quite simply, love at first sight. On the opposite shore was a woman with a deep farmer's tan. As he headed her way, he never fathomed that he was taking a life-altering plunge.
"To go from playing beer pong with Duke students to a farm in the middle of nowhere--I never would have expected it," marvels Strauss, who now lives on his new wife's farm in a small town (population thirty-eight) in the Dordogne. "But looking back, it's not that much of a surprise. It's always been in my personality to take the harder path."
It all started typically enough. He knew upon graduating that his electrical engineering degree opened few doors of interest to him, so he took the well-traveled postgraduate road of consulting. After working for Andersen (later Accenture) for three years, Strauss took a job teaching at Georgetown Preparatory School in D.C. He taught math and was an assistant coach for the tennis and cross-country teams. Staffing a summer humanitarian program in the Dominican Republic gave him a taste for traveling, and "set the stage for later on."
That summer of 1998, during a family vacation in France with his parents and brother, Strauss swam up to Catherine Heuzey; her mother then invited him back to their home that very night. Catherine had worked as a town-and-country planner in Strasbourg before her father retired and offered up his sheep farm to any of his four daughters who wanted to run it. As the only one with interest in a future as a shepherdess, she had taken over the farm by herself.
For the year after they met, Strauss continued teaching in the States, while he and Catherine kept in touch and visited each other as often as possible. When the school year was over, he decided to move to France. The transition wasn't easy, since jobs for teachers are considerably scarcer in France, especially without the right credentials. But life with Catherine was going well enough; the couple was married in May 2001.
He found a summer job leading bike tours through the countryside. In between trips, Catherine taught him the essentials of running the farm, and he was soon helping drive the tractor, move bales of hay, and feed the sheep every free moment his biking schedule allowed.
Last fall, through the government, he got a job teaching English to fourth- and fifth-graders about four days a week. Outside of class, he works full time assisting Catherine in the unending process of sheep farming, which, he says, "is a lot more difficult than people think. People think that sheep get by on their own and you just leave them to their own devices, but they are actually very fragile animals--and animals never go on vacation."
Strauss has learned some difficult lessons, and not just about sheep. He and Catherine have seen the dark side of modernizing global markets, and it is threatening enough to force them to reconsider their long-term plans. "Globalization brings a vast selection of products, but from a producer's perspective, it's not a winning position. Especially in the sheep markets, small farms will get squeezed out."
Market prices are constricting: The selling price of lamb meat has stayed the same for the last thirty years, and the price of wool has dropped to a single dollar for a sheep's fleece. With the French climate, particularly difficult in the Dordogne, small farms such as Catherine's are in dire straits. Most of the market is now in enormous flocks in Australia and Chile, while New Zealand dominates lamb.
"In order to continue to be a sheep farmer here, we would have to raise production and increase our flock, and wouldn't be able to allow the sheep outside. We would have to create an artificial environment for them, all of which is against Catherine's philosophy."
A more pressing--but happier--reason for their plans to close the farm is just a couple of months in the waiting: Catherine is pregnant with their first child. The baby is due in December, after which they are contemplating a move back to the States. Catherine might become a veterinarian's assistant, while Matt will continue to teach. Wherever they settle, he says, it will certainly be in the countryside.
---Greg Bloom '03
Duke Magazine-Matt Strauss '92, Mini-Profiles-Jul/Aug 2002
August 1, 2002