What are the challenges faced by new farmers in France and which support do they receive?
NEWBIE Partners Business Incubator-Gotse Delchev from Bulgaria, the James Hutton Institute from the UK and Evora University from Portugal went together with local stakeholders on an international exchange in Northern France from the 28th until the 31st of October. This exchange was organized by the French network of agri-business incubators RENETA.
The delegation learned about three main things
- The main challenges of new entrants, which are access to land and the acquisition of specialized agricultural skills and knowledge
- A well-developed support network for new entrants on local, regional and national level
- Young people’s motivation to become farmers
Why is access to land one of the biggest challenges for new farmers in France?
Usually a Newbie cultivates 15-25 ha and does not have own land. On the other hand, farmers who are about to retire have farms with 70-100 ha, often with a house and farm buildings. The French agricultural policy wants to support farmers, and give them some long-term security. Therefore the land lease is long-term, with 9-year contracts which are automatically renewed if no one objects. Once a contract is concluded it is very difficult to terminate. The rent is state controlled, depending on the quality of the land and the region. The allocation of rented land is often arranged through organizations, and personal preferences of the land owner are thus not always taken into account. Only 3% of the land market is free, but also this market is heavily regulated, with deals and prices which are intensively monitored.
The local/regional authorities and communities try to solve the problem of difficult access to land in different ways. An example is Metropol Lille, a public organization that bought 35 ha of farmland, certified it for organic production, warehouses and cooling premises, and put it at the disposition of 9 newbie farmers for shared use. They now produce a large variety of organic vegetables in greenhouses and open spaces, and sell their produce in Lille. Some of these new farmers have been supported by an agribusiness incubator for 3 years. Overall, it took 10 years to discuss and agree upon the best approach and mechanism to support these new farmers.
How do agro-incubators support new entrants?
The approach of RENETA is quite liberal and provides space to experiment with new models. There are no restrictions, only shared values. A farmer-to-be has the freedom to self-test in agriculture – not “to be tested by institutions” – thus to make mistakes and find the right solutions. However, there are different types of agro-incubators. Some, such as the visited Le Germoir, specifically support organic farms. They provide certified land and vegetable growing equipment to those who want to become organic farmers. Tenants are learning how to farm under supervision of a mentor, i.e. a more experienced farmer, working 2.5 days a week for themselves and 2.5 days for the cooperative in the first year. The cooperative sells the produce and pays half of the rent for land and rented equipment, the other half is financed by public funds – local or regional, most often the ESF. Other incubators like “A Petit Pa” have no land and newbies either should have their own land, or be supported by a land organization. The approved tenants use the incubator’s legal registration for their activities. Thus, an unemployed person enters the incubator for up to 3 years and learns to be a farmer (or a baker, or artisan, etc). He receives his social benefits over the period of testing the business. The incubator processes the tenants’ bills – for example, seeds, marketing, transportation, and communication, etc – and covers the costs with the revenues. During this period the person acquires skills, contacts, can find markets for his products, can analyse and chooses the most suitable legal form for his business, etc. It is also very well possible that he finds out he is not fit for farming and is allowed to quit. During this process, specialized knowledge is provided by other NGOs working in partnership with incubators. For that support, agro-incubators receive an annual budget by the ESF, and of regional and local public funds. The system is completely different than that in Bulgaria where the incubators do not have any direct public funding at all.
To support of the start of newbies several organizations work in partnerships, such as for example (1) Terre de Liens Hauts de France, which provides access to land, (2) Initiatives Paysannes, which discusses initial ideas, directs them to organizations according to their needs and specific questions – related to land, specialized training, incubation, etc. – and helps farmers to access funds, and (3) the chambers of agriculture which are oriented more towards conventional agriculture, (4) organizations of organic producers, etc. For farmers, these services are usually free of charge or at a very reasonable price, as there is very strong local, regional or national funding for this type of supporting organizations. And although this system of many organizations working together seems very complex for outsiders, very positive feedback is generated at the local scale.
Finally, we visited and discussed with several organic farms and also a farmer that produced organic crafts beer from his organic barley. What was now their main motivation to get into farming? A more peaceful life in a better environment surely plays an important role for these farmers. They also prefer organic market gardening because of the higher market price they get for their products. As such, cultivating about 2 ha of land, including a greenhouse, could generate annual income of € 35,000-50,000. To help to get these businesses off the ground, a variety of funding is available, amongst which local, regional or national funds or interest-free loans from local communities. And these organic farmers also do not seem to have a problem with access to markets: they can make contracts for fixed prices even before sowing, or look for customers by themselves, or combine both. Often large cities offer the best markets as they have many potential consumers. Local and regional authorities also play a role in this story: they not only fund the support but also enforce policies to encourage the consumption of organic food in schools, gardens and communities.