The farmers of France’s future are tech-savvy, and want a weekend break
YVELINES, France — On a century-old farm that is now a start-up campus in this lush green area west of Paris, computer coders are learning how to program harvesting robots. Young urbanites planning vineyards or farms that will be guided by big data are honing their pitches to investors.
And on a recent day in a nearby field, Students monitored cows equipped with Fitbit-style collars, tracking their health, to hump on laptops (along with cappuccino makers) before heading to the open work space in a converted barn, through farming Studied beneficial techniques to reverse climate change.
The group was part of an unconventional new agribusiness venture called Hector. Most of them had never spent time around cows, let alone near fields of organic arugula.
But a crisis looms large over France: a severe 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 needed them to survive.
“We need to change farming, attracting a whole generation of young people to produce better, less expensively and more intelligently,” said French technology billionaire Xavier Neil, Hector’s main proponent. Mr Neil, who for decades torn France’s stagnant corporate world, is now joining an expanding movement that aims to transform French agriculture – arguably the country’s best-protected industry.
“To do that,” he said, “we have to make agriculture sexy.”
France is the main breadbasket of the European Union, accounting for a fifth of all agricultural production in the 27-nation bloc. Yet half of its farmers are over 50 and set to retire in the coming decade, with about 160,000 farms left to be grabbed.
Despite the national youth unemployment rate being above 18 percent, 70,000 farm jobs remain unfilled, and youth, including farmers’ children, are not queuing up to take them.
Many despise the image of farming as a labor-intensive task that binds struggling farmers to the ground. Although France receives 9 billion euros ($10.4 billion) annually in EU agricultural subsidies, almost a quarter of French farmers live below the poverty line. France has faced a quiet epidemic of farmer suicides for years.
And unlike the United States, where the digital evolution of agriculture is well underway, and giant high-tech hydroponic farms are popping up across the country, the agri-tech revolution has taken hold. Industry in France is highly regulated, and there is a decades-old system of subsidizing farms based on size rather than production. Acted as a brake on innovation.
The French government has backed some changes to Europe’s massive agricultural subsidy programme, although critics say they do not go far enough. Nevertheless, President Emmanuel Macron has sought to rejuvenate the image of agriculture, and be “ag-tech” and environmentally friendly as part of the EU’s plan to eliminate planet-warming emissions by 2050. There has been a demand for a rapid transition towards sustainable agriculture.
But to capture an army of youth needed to pursue farming in the future, advocates say, the farmer’s lifestyle will have to change.
“If you say you have to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, it’s not going to work,” said Audrey Bouroulou, founder of Hector and former agricultural advisor to Mr. Macron. “For tomorrow to be a new face of agriculture, a social revolution is needed.”
Hector’s vision revolves around attracting 2,000 youth each year from urban, rural or disadvantaged backgrounds and equipping them with the business skills to become farmer-entrepreneurs capable of producing sustainable agricultural enterprises and attracting investors – all profiting. Earning, and free of charge when they have weekends.
Based on an unconventional coding school called 42, which Mr. Neil founded a decade ago, it operates outside France’s education system by offering free tuition and intensive training, but no state-sanctioned diplomas. Mainly backed by private investors and corporate sponsors, Mr Neil is betting that Hector’s graduates will be more entrepreneurial, more innovative and ultimately more transformative for the French economy than students attending traditional agricultural universities. (The hectare can only shake so much: students will still need a diploma from an ag school to be eligible to become farmers in France.)
Some of those principles are already beginning to appear in French agriculture. At NeoFarm, an agro-ecological vegetable farm on a compact two-acre plot half an hour east of the Hector campus, four young workers spent a recent afternoon monitoring laptops and programming a robot to sow seeds along clean rows. .
NeoFarm, started by two French tech entrepreneurs, is on the cutting edge of a trend in France to establish small farms near population centers, and develop healthier food using less fossil fuels and fertilizer. While large French farms use technology to increase yields and cut costs, boutique farms can use technology to take advantage of much smaller lots, reduce costs and create an attractive lifestyle. Can reduce tedious labor tasks, said Olivier Le Blainvaux, a co-founder. 11 other start-up ventures in the defense and health industries.
“Working with robotics makes it an interesting job,” said 25-year-old Nelson Singui, most recently at NeoFarm, with a crop care and monitoring system that automatically sows seeds, waters plants and harvests carrots. One of the workers hired for
He said that unlike other farms where Mr. Singui worked, NeoFarm offered regular working hours, the opportunity to work with the latest technology and the opportunity to grow. It plans to open four new farms in the coming months.
Such an expansion comes as so-called neo-farmers begin to migrate from French cities to rural areas to try their hand at sustainable farming, attracted to a career where they will be able to cope with climate change in that country. where 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from. Agriculture.
But some of these rookie farmers do not know how to make their enterprises economically viable, said Mr. Le Blainvaux. New operations like NeoFarm, and schools like Hector aim to sustain them by helping freshmen nurture profitable ventures and take a break from government subsidies, which critics say discourage innovation and risk-taking.
The idealistic vision has not persuaded everyone, especially the powerful agrarian unions of France.
“When you’re not in the industry it’s very easy to say, ‘I’ll make it sexy with technology,'” said Amandaine Muret Beguin, 33, head of the young farmers’ union for the le-de-France region, which is owned by Hector. Home to a 1,500-acre campus. “You may have the best schools and the best robots, but that doesn’t mean you’ll have a better life.”
Ms. Muret Beguin, who proudly comes from a farming family and farms About 500 acres of grain, said French farming had already developed toward greater ecological sustainability, but the general public was not aware of it.
Members of his group question the need for campuses like Hector when, they say, state-certified agricultural schools that already teach agricultural management and technology are severely underfunded. Ms. Muret Beguin said the way to attract more people to agriculture is for consumers to “recognize and value the hard work already being done by farmers.”
Yet for people like Esther Hermoet, 31, who hails from a wine-growing family near Bordeaux, Hector is responding to a need that other agricultural institutions are not.
That afternoon, Ms. Hermoet mingled with a diverse group of young students, including an unemployed audiovisual producer, a Muslim entrepreneur and an artisanal cider maker.
Ms Hermoet and her two siblings were on the verge of leaving the vineyard run by their retired parents, fearing it would cause more trouble than they could handle. Some of his neighbors had already seen their children leaving the vineyards for easy tasks that did not require waking up at dawn.
But she said her experience at Hector has made her more optimistic that the vineyard can be made commercially and from a lifestyle standpoint. She learned about business pitches, carbon capture credits to help maximize profits, and soil management techniques to mitigate climate change. There were suggestions on how to do better with fewer hours, for example using the technique to identify only individual vines that need treatment.
“If my brother, sister and I are going to work on Earth, we want a fair life,” she said. “We want to find a new economic model and make the vineyard profitable – and make it environmentally sustainable for decades to come.”
For Mr Neil, who made his fortune rending the French telecommunications market, joining a movement to modernize the way France is fed is the equivalent of taking a moonshine.
“It is a vision that may seem too beautiful to be true,” said Mr. Neil. “But often, we find that it is possible to turn such a vision into a reality.”
leontine galois Contributed to reporting.
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