Future farmers in France are tech-savvy and want weekends off

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And in a nearby field, one recent day, college students watched cows fitted with Fitbit-style collars tracking their health, before heading to an open, glassy workspace in a converted barn (complete with cappuccino makers). to look into laptops, study cost-effective techniques to reverse climate change through agriculture.

The group was part of a new, unorthodox farming enterprise called Hectar. Most of them had never been with cows, let alone near organic rocket fields.

But a crisis falls on France: a serious shortage of farmers. What mattered about the people gathered on campus was that they were innovative, had diverse backgrounds, and were eager to start working in an industry that desperately needs them to survive.

“We need to attract a whole generation of young people to change agriculture, to produce better, cheaper and smarter,” said Xavier Niel, French tech billionaire and main backer of Hectar. Niel, who spent decades disrupting the business world in France, is now joining a growing movement that aims to transform French agriculture – arguably the country’s most protected industry.

“To do that,” he said, “we have to make farming sexy.

France is the main breadbasket of the European Union, representing a fifth of all agricultural production in the bloc of 27 countries. Yet half of its farmers are over 50 and are expected to retire within the next decade, leaving nearly 160,000 farms to seize.

Despite a national youth unemployment rate of over 18%, 70,000 agricultural jobs are unfilled and young people, including the children of farmers, are not lining up to take them.

Many are discouraged by the image of agriculture as labor-intensive work that binds struggling farmers to the land. Although France receives 9 billion euros ($ 10.4 billion) in agricultural subsidies from the EU annually, nearly a quarter of French farmers live below the poverty line. France has been facing a discreet epidemic of farmer suicides for years.

And unlike the United States, where the digital evolution of agriculture is well advanced and where huge, high-tech hydroponic farms are mushrooming across the country, the agricultural technology revolution has been slower to take hold. . Industry in France is highly regulated, and a decades-old system of farm subsidies based on size rather than output has worked as a brake on innovation.

The French government has backed some changes to the EU’s gigantic farm subsidy program, though critics say they don’t go far enough. Yet President Emmanuel Macron has sought to rejuvenate the image of agriculture and called for a shift to ‘agricultural technology’ and a swift transition to environmentally sustainable agriculture as part of a Union plan. European Union aimed at eliminating global warming emissions by 2050.

But to capture an army of young people needed to advance agriculture in the future, advocates say, the farmer’s way of life will have to change.

“If you say you have to work 24/7, it won’t work,” said Audrey Bourolleau, founder of Hectar and former agricultural advisor to Macron. “For there to be a new face for tomorrow’s agriculture, we need a social revolution.

Hectar’s vision is to attract 2,000 young people each year from urban, rural or disadvantaged areas and to give them business acumen to become farmer-entrepreneurs capable of producing sustainable agricultural businesses and attracting investors, all by making a profit and enjoying their weekends. free.

Modeled on an unconventional coding school called 42, which Niel founded a decade ago, it operates outside the French education system by offering free classes and intensive training, but no state-sanctioned degrees. . Supported mainly by private investors and corporate sponsors, Niel is betting that Hectar graduates will be more entrepreneurial, more innovative and ultimately more transformative for the French economy than students from traditional agricultural universities. (Hectar can’t shake things up: students would still need a degree from an agricultural school to qualify to be a farmer in France.)

Some of these principles are already starting to appear in French agriculture. At NeoFarm, an agro-ecological vegetable farm located on a compact 2-acre lot half an hour east of the Hectar campus, four young employees spent a recent afternoon monitoring laptops and programming a robot. for planting seeds along neat rows.

NeoFarm, launched by two French tech entrepreneurs, is at the forefront of a trend in France of investors setting up small farms near population centers and growing healthy food using less fossil fuels and fertilizers. While large French farms are using technology to increase yields and lower costs, shop farms can use technology to take advantage of much smaller lots, lower costs, and cut down on tedious labor tasks for create an attractive lifestyle, said Olivier Le Blainvaux, co-founder who has 11 other startups in the defense and healthcare sectors.

“Working with robotics makes this job interesting,” said Nelson Singui, 25, one of the workers recently hired at NeoFarm to look after the crops and monitor the systems that automatically sow seeds, water the plants and harvest them. carrots.

Unlike other farms where Singui had worked, NeoFarm offered regular working hours, an opportunity to work with the latest technology and a chance to move forward, he said. She plans to open four new farms in the coming months.

This expansion comes as so-called neo-peasants have started migrating from French towns to rural areas to try their hand at sustainable agriculture, drawn to a career where they can help tackle climate change in a country. where 20% of greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture.

But some of these newbie farmers don’t know how to make their businesses financially viable, Le Blainvaux said. New operations like NeoFarm and schools like Hectar aim to retain newcomers by helping them develop profitable businesses and break away from government subsidies, which critics say discourages innovation and risk-taking.

The idealistic vision did not convince everyone, especially the powerful French agricultural associations.

“It’s very easy when you’re not in this industry to say ‘I’m going to make it sexy with tech’,” said Amandine Muret Béguin, 33, head of the Union of Young Farmers of Ile-de-France. of France. which is home to the 1,500 hectar acre campus. “You can have the best schools and the best robots, but that doesn’t mean you’ll have a better life. “

Muret Béguin, who is proudly from a farming family and cultivates around 500 hectares of grain, said French agriculture has already moved towards greater ecological sustainability, but the general public was not aware of it. .

Members of his group question the need for a campus like Hectar when, they say, state-certified agricultural schools that already teach agricultural management and technology are gravely underfunded. The way to attract more people to agriculture, added Muret Béguin, is for consumers to “recognize and value the hard work that farmers are already doing”.

However, for people like Esther Hermouet, 31, from a family of winegrowers near Bordeaux, Hectar meets a need that other agricultural institutions do not meet.

That afternoon, Hermouet mingled with a diverse group of young students, including an unemployed audiovisual producer, a Muslim entrepreneur and a craft cider maker.

Hermouet and his two siblings were on the verge of abandoning the vineyard run by their retired parents, fearing the takeover would be more complicated than it was worth. Some of their neighbors had already seen their children leave the vineyards for easier jobs that did not require getting up at dawn.

But she said her experience at Hectar had made her more optimistic about the viability of the vineyard, both commercially and from a lifestyle perspective. She learned about business arguments, carbon capture credits to help maximize profits, and soil management techniques to reduce climate change. It has been suggested to work smarter in fewer hours, for example using technology to identify only isolated vines in need of treatment.

“If my brother, sister and I are going to work the land, we want to have a decent life,” she said. “We want to find a new economic model and make the vineyard profitable, but also make it sustainable for the environment for decades to come.

For Niel, who made a fortune by disrupting the French telecoms market, joining a movement to modernize France’s food supply is tantamount to getting moonlighted.

“It’s a vision that may sound too good to be true,” Niel said. “But often we find that it is possible to turn such visions into reality.”

© 2021 The New York Times Company


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