In France, as in the UK, one of the biggest obstacles to getting started as an organic vegetable producer is the initial investment required. The price of water, equipment and land make it prohibitively expensive, meaning that many small-scale farming projects never get off the ground. Add to this the difficulties around passing on the family farm to the next generation, and it’s enough to deter anyone hoping to improve our food systems and make a modest living in the process.

Common obstacles for young people setting up start with the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), which allocates its subsidies largely on land ownership and plot size. This means that small-scale holdings often lose out, receiving relatively little in support and putting added economic pressure on these businesses.

In France, the challenge of acquiring land to farm is further complicated because the land agency (SAFER) has a right of purchase on much of the rural property. Initially, this body ensured that land wasn’t split into smaller plots and sold off for housing developments, but it is also under the influence of France’s main farmers’ union – the FNSEA – which is not generally in favour of small-scale, less intensive farming projects. As a result, the availability of such holdings is limited.

The big idea

But one group of organic growers in southeast France has found a way to make it work. In 2010, Rémy Léger was looking for a way to revive his grandparents’ land. It had once been a small-scale fruit and vegetable farm, but when his grandparents hung up their gloves for the last time, the farm’s agricultural days seemed over.

veg box

Aware of the obstacles to getting established as a small-scale farmer, Rémy convinced his family, who still live on the land, to take a chance on his project. He set up a Scop – a cooperative enterprise in which the employees hold the majority of the company’s share capital and actively participate in decision-making. Focused on people more than capital, some see a Scop as the ultimate company structure for participatory management. Every member (including Rémy) has an equal vote in decisions, and profits are distributed through profit sharing and channelled into the company reserves to fund future investment. As a result, members are highly motivated as they have a direct stake in the outcome of the group’s decisions.

Rémy put out an advert and not long after, Claire and Ludo joined the cooperative. With the EU-funded subsidies from local government that the cooperative won in 2009, as well as a loan from the bank, they built a modern barn for storing machinery and produce and to house the farm shop. Over the next few years, the number of growers increased to five, all of them sharing the land and resources on the farm.

An innovative structure

As members of the Scop, each one pays a ‘rent’ calculated in proportion to the resources they use, and while they share equipment and knowledge, each is responsible for selling his or her own produce. Assuming they have built up the right to unemployment benefits, their initial contract allows them to claim benefits equal to the minimum wage for the first two years of work. Earnings from production during this time are paid into the grower’s section of the farm’s umbrella account.

Only after that, and once their activity is in profit, do they begin to pay the full rent. As of January this year, growers pay €600 per month per two hectares of land, covering access to land, equipment, water, manure, insurance and the barn. They pay another €150 towards administrative costs (accountant, legal advice, etc). Rémy, as an equal member of the Scop, also pays his share of the rent. His income is derived from his production of apricots, peaches and kiwis.

Claire portraitClaire and Ludo decided to take the idea a step further and had a professional kitchen built inside the barn. Having migrated to the fields from office jobs themselves, they were familiar with the old ‘what’s for lunch today?’ refrain and decided to use their produce to cook up fresh, individually packed organic meals, delivered right to the company fridge in time for lunch. While one does the cooking, the other is in the field and they alternate on a weekly basis. The couple’s business Croq’Champs now delivers an average of 70 organic lunches a day to local businesses, costing roughly €8 each.

Ex-video producer Yann and former butcher Sylvain are the two most recent recruits. Both were keen to get into farming and wouldn’t have been able to do so without the support of the Scop. As Sylvain explains:

The basic materials alone would have cost me €23,000, that’s before even thinking about the land. For a modest rent, I’ve got two 400m2 polytunnels, half a hectare of open land, access to water and equipment and legal and financial advice.

The two supply the farm shop on site, as well as local restaurants, and this year Sylvain has built a new polytunnel for germinating seeds saved from his crops. He is also running the farm’s veg box delivery scheme, which keeps prices down for customers who are able to buy direct from their producer.

Why it works

The team at the farm was lucky that Rémy’s family were willing to take a gamble on his project. The family doesn’t benefit from it financially and they’ve witnessed many changes to the land they grew up on. The fact that there was no extant debt on the farm also helped to make the model viable, as did Remy’s initial investment and the bank loan they secured. Residents of the Drôme region are known to be among the most eco-conscious consumers in France. Demand is high and awareness of how the challenges of organic small-scale production affect prices is relatively good.

The farm is committed to raising awareness of how food systems work, and has set up partnerships with local primary schools which also serve as delivery points for the veg boxes. This has helped them build a client base and in the summer term, children take part in workshops at the farm to learn about the importance of eating locally produced, seasonal food.

Sylvain

The success of their project is clear: as their businesses have grown, they have employed others, creating local jobs. They are inundated with requests for work experience, and last year – the farm’s fourth year of business – the cooperative exceeded its projected profits by a long shot, and all the farmers are now in profit.

So, to what do they owe their achievements? Well, they are, every single one of them, extremely hard grafters. When there’s a problem, other members of the Scop are around to offer support and the weekly meeting provides a space for talking over tensions and discussing new ideas. Their local networks of clients, growers and friends overlap, and they are stronger as a result.

Looking ahead

This year, the farm is looking to set up a training scheme that fosters the expertise of older growers who are leaving the profession, passing it onto the next generation.

The success of the farm among growers and buyers is sending a message, loud and clear. Yes, it is still possible to make a living from farming, and no, it doesn’t have to be at the behest of big agri-business, or in a way that compromises our health or that of the environment. Not only that, but sustainably produced organic fruit and veg doesn’t have to cost the earth, and public appetite for short-circuit local food systems is showing no signs of slowing down.

In the UK, Fresh Start’s land partnership scheme is just one example of how landowners and entrepreneurs can collaborate to overcome the costs of land purchase. The National Federation of Young Farmers Clubs says that , “despite the often negative press, opportunities in agriculture are alive and well… the industry is calling out for the next generation to help shape the future of farming.”

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