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France’s future farmers are tech-savvy and want a weekend off

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YVELINES, France — On an ancient farm that’s now a start-up campus in this verdant region west of Paris, computer programmers are learning to program harvesting robots. Young urbanites planning vineyards or farms that will be guided by big data are sharpening their pitches to investors.

And in a nearby field on a recent day, students followed cows fitted with Fitbit-like collars that tracked their health, before moving to a glassy, ​​open workspace in a converted barn (with cappuccino makers) to bend over laptops and study profitable techniques to reverse climate change through agriculture.

The group was part of an unorthodox new venture in agriculture called hectares. Most of them had never spent time around cows, let alone fields of organic arugula.

But France faces a crisis: a dire shortage of farmers. What mattered about the people who gathered on campus was that they were innovative, from diverse backgrounds, and eager to work 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 more intelligently,” said Xavier Niel, a French technology billionaire who is Hectar’s main lender. Niel, who spent decades disrupting France’s staid corporate world, now joins a growing movement that aims to transform French agriculture – arguably the country’s most protected industry of all.

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

France is the European Union’s main breadbasket and accounts for a fifth of all agricultural production in the bloc of 27 countries. Yet half of his farmers are over 50 and will retire in the next decade, leaving nearly 160,000 farms up for grabs.

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

Many are discouraged by the image of agriculture as labor-intensive work that binds struggling farmers to the land. Although France receives a whopping 9 billion euros ($10.4 billion) in the European Union agricultural subsidies every year almost a quarter of French farmers live below the poverty line. France has been battling a silent epidemic of farmer suicides for years.

And unlike the United States, where the digital evolution of agriculture is in full swing and huge high-tech hydroponic farms are proliferating across the country, the farm-tech revolution has been slower. Industry in France is highly regulated and a decades-old system of subsidizing farms based on size rather than production has acted as a brake on innovation.

The French government has supported a number of changes in Europe mammoth farm subsidy program, although critics say they don’t go far enough. Yet President Emmanuel Macron has sought to rejuvenate the image of agriculture and has called for a shift to “ag-tech” and a rapid transition to environmentally sustainable agriculture as part of a European Union plan to eliminate global warming by 2050.

But to capture an army of young people needed to lead agriculture into the future, proponents 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 won’t work,” said Audrey Bourolleau, Hectar’s founder and Macron’s former agricultural adviser. “To get a new face of agriculture there for tomorrow, there has to be a social revolution.”

Hectar’s vision revolves around attracting 2,000 young people from urban, rural or disadvantaged backgrounds per year, equipping them with the business acumen to become farmers-entrepreneurs capable of producing sustainable agricultural ventures and attracting investors – all while making a profit and having their weekends off.

Modeled after an unconventional coding school called 42, which Mr. Niel founded ten years ago, it operates outside the French education system by offering free education and intensive training, but no state-sanctioned diploma. Mainly backed by private investors and corporate sponsors, Mr Niel is betting that Hectar’s graduates will be more entrepreneurial, innovative and ultimately more transformative for the French economy than students studying at traditional agricultural universities. (Hectar can only shake things up: Students would still need an agricultural college diploma to qualify as farmers in France.)

Some of those principles are already beginning to appear in French agriculture. Bee NeoFarm, an agro-ecological vegetable farm on a compact two-acre parcel half an hour east of the Hectar campus, four young employees spent a recent afternoon monitoring laptops and programming a robot to move seeds along neat rows. plants.

Founded by two French tech entrepreneurs, NeoFarm is on the brink 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 use technology to increase yields and cut costs, boutique farms can use technology to take advantage of much smaller plots, cut costs and reduce tedious labor to create an appealing lifestyle, said Olivier Le Blainvaux, a researcher. co-founder who has 11 other startups in the defense and health industry.

“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, harvest aquatic plants and carrots.

Unlike other farms where Mr. Singui had worked, NeoFarm offered regular working hours, a chance to work with the latest technology and a chance to get ahead, he said. It plans to open four new farms in the coming months.

Such expansion comes as so-called neo-farmers have begun to migrate from French cities to rural areas to try sustainable farming, drawn to careers where they can help fight climate change in a country where 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from. of agriculture.

But some of these novice farmers don’t know how to make their businesses financially viable, said Mr. Le Blainvaux. New operations like NeoFarm and schools like Hectar aim to retain new entrants by helping them nurture profitable ventures and break with government subsidies, which critics say discourage innovation and risk-taking.

The idealistic vision has not convinced everyone, especially the powerful agricultural associations of France.

“If you’re not in this industry, it’s very easy to say, ‘I’ll make it sexy with technology,'” 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.”

Mrs. Muret Béguin, who proudly comes from a farming family and grows about 500 acres of cereal grains, said French agriculture had already moved towards greater environmental sustainability, but the general public was unaware.

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

But for people like Esther Hermouet, 31, who comes from a wine-growing family near Bordeaux, Hectar answers a need that other agricultural establishments don’t.

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

Mrs. Hermouet and her two siblings were about to leave their retired parents’ vineyard, fearing the takeover would cause more trouble than it was worth. Some of their neighbors had already seen their children leave the vineyards for simpler work that didn’t require them to wake up at dawn.

But she said her experience at Hectar had made her more optimistic that the vineyard could be made viable, both commercially and from a lifestyle perspective. She learned about business pitches, carbon capture credits to maximize profits, and soil management techniques to mitigate climate change. There were suggestions to work smarter in fewer hours, for example by using technology to identify only isolated vines that need treatment.

“If my brother, sister and I are going to work the earth, we want to have a good life,” she said. “We want to find a new economic model and make the vineyard profitable – as well as making it environmentally sustainable for decades to come.”

For Mr Niel, who made his fortune disrupting the French telecom market, joining a movement to modernize the way France is fed is the equivalent of taking a moonshot.

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

Leontine Gallois reporting contributed.

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