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YVELINES, France — On a century-old farm that’s now a start-up campus in this verdant region west of Paris, computer coders are learning to program crop-harvesting robots. Young urbanites are pitching investors to plan vineyards and farms that will be guided through big data.
On a recent day, students observed cows fitted with Fitbit-style tracking collars. They then moved on to a large, open work area in a converted barn, where they hunched over laptops to study profitable techniques for reversing climate change through farming.
Hectar was a unique new venture in agriculture. The group was part of Hectar. They had never been around cows or near organic arugula fields.
France is now facing a crisis. There is a shortage of farmers. What was important was that the people at the campus were innovative, from diverse backgrounds, and eager to work in an industry that desperately requires them.
“We need to attract an entire generation of young people to change farming, to produce better, less expensively and more intelligently,” said Xavier Niel, a French technology billionaire who is Hectar’s main backer. Mr. Niel, who spent decades disrupting France’s staid corporate world, is now joining an expanding movement that aims to transform French agriculture — arguably the country’s most protected industry of all.
“To do that,” he said, “we have to make agriculture sexy.”
France is the European Union’s main breadbasket, accounting for a fifth of all agricultural output in the 27-country bloc. But half of its farmers are over 50. They will be retiring in the next decade. There are nearly 160,000 farms available.
Despite a national youth unemployment rate above 18 percent, 70,000 farm jobs are going unfilled, and young people, including the children of farmers, aren’t lining up to take them.
Many are discouraged that farming is seen as labor-intensive work, which ties struggling farmers to their land. France receives nearly 25% of its farm subsidies from the European Union, which amounts to 9.4 billion euros ($10.4 trillion). France has been suffering from a quiet epidemic in suicides of farmers for many years.
And this is in contrast to the United States where the digital evolution has already begun and huge, high-tech hydroponic farm systems are spreading across the country, but the farm-tech revolution took longer to become a reality. France’s agricultural industry is tightly regulated. A decades-old system of subsidizing farms according to size rather than production has impeded innovation.
The French government has backed some changes to Europe’s mammoth farm subsidy program, although critics say they don’t go far enough. Still, President Emmanuel Macron has sought to rejuvenate agriculture’s image, and has called for a shift to “ag-tech” and a rapid transition toward environmentally sustainable agriculture as part of a European Union plan to eliminate planet-warming emissions by 2050.
Advocates argue that in order to attract a large number of young people to continue farming into the future they need to change the way the farmer lives.
“If you say you have to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, that won’t work,” said Audrey Bourolleau, the founder of Hectar and a former agriculture adviser to Mr. Macron. “For there to be a new face of agriculture for tomorrow, there needs to be a social revolution.”
Hectar’s vision revolves around attracting 2,000 young people from urban, rural or disadvantaged backgrounds each year, and equipping them with the business acumen to be farmer-entrepreneurs capable of producing sustainable agriculture ventures and attracting investors — all while generating a profit, and having their weekends free.
Modeled on an unconventional coding school called 42, which Mr. Niel founded a decade ago, it operates outside France’s education system by offering free tuition and intensive training, but no state-sanctioned diploma. Backed mainly by private investors and corporate sponsors, Mr. Niel is betting that Hectar’s graduates will be more entrepreneurial, more innovative and ultimately more transformative for the French economy than students attending traditional agricultural universities. (Hectar is able to shake things up but only so: Students would still need to have a diploma from an agricultural school to become farmers in France.
Some of these principles are already beginning to be used in French agriculture. NeoFarm is an agro-ecological vegetable farming farm situated on a compact plot of land measuring two acres. Four young employees spent a recent afternoon programming a robot that will plant seeds in neat rows.
NeoFarm was founded by two French tech entrepreneurs. It is part of a growing trend in France, where investors are setting up small farms close to population centers. They also grow healthy food with less fossil fuels and fertilizer. Big French farms use technology to increase yields and reduce costs. Boutique farms can use tech for more people, to cut costs and create a more attractive lifestyle, according to Olivier Le Blainvaux (co-founder), who also has 11 other start up ventures in the defense or health industries.
“Working with robotics makes this an interesting job,” said Nelson Singui, 25, one of the workers recently hired at NeoFarm to care for the crops and monitor systems that automatically sow seeds, water plants and harvest carrots.
NeoFarm, unlike other farms where Mr. Singui worked, offered regular work hours, the opportunity to use the latest technology, and an opportunity to advance, he stated. It plans to open four additional farms over the next few months.
These neo-peasants, who are attempting to become sustainable farmers in France, have been migrating from French cities.
But some of these rookie farmers don’t know how to make their ventures financially viable, said Mr. Le Blainvaux. NeoFarm and schools such as Hectar aim to retain newcomers.
The idealistic vision hasn’t persuaded everyone, especially France’s powerful agricultural associations.
“It’s very easy when you’re not in this industry to say, ‘I’ll make it sexy with tech,’” said Amandine Muret Béguin, 33, head of the Union of Young Farmers for the Ile-de-France region, which is home to Hectar’s 1,500-acre campus. “You can have the best schools and the best robots, but that doesn’t mean you’ll have a better life.”
Ms. Muret Béguin, who proudly hails from a farming family and cultivates about 500 acres of cereal grains, said that French farming had already evolved toward greater ecological sustainability, but that the general public wasn’t aware.
She questioned the need for Hectar, as members of her group claim that Hectar is too expensive when state-certified agricultural colleges that teach technology and farm management are well-funded. The way to draw more people into agriculture, Ms. Muret Béguin added, is for consumers “to recognize and value the hard work farmers are already doing.”
Yet for people like Esther Hermouet, 31, who hails from a winegrowing family near Bordeaux, Hectar is answering a need that other agricultural institutions aren’t offering.
Ms. Hermouet was able to mix with a diverse group, including an audiovisual producer who was unemployed, a Muslim entrepreneur, and a cider maker.
Ms. Hermouet, along with her two siblings, was about to leave the vineyard that had been run by their parents. They feared that taking over the vineyard would prove more trouble than they were worth. Some of their neighbors had already seen their children leave the vineyards for easier jobs that didn’t require waking at the crack of dawn.
She said that her experience at Hectar made her more confident that the vineyard could be viable both from a commercial and lifestyle perspective. She learned about business pitches, carbon-capture credits to maximize profit and soil management techniques that reduce climate change. There were suggestions to work smarter in less time, such as using technology to identify isolated vines that require treatment.
“If my brother, sister and I are going to work the earth, we want to have a proper life,” she said. “We want to find a new economic model and make the vineyard profitable — and also make it sustainable for the environment for decades to come.”
Mr. Niel, a French telecom market disruptor, feels that joining a movement to modernize France’s food system is like taking a moonshot.
“It’s a vision that can sound too beautiful to be true,” Mr. Niel said. “But often, we find that it’s possible to turn such visions into a reality.”
Léontine GalloisContributed reporting
Source: NY Times