In March, Kindling’s co-founder and co-ordinator Helen was lucky enough to join groups from all over Europe on a fact-finding mission to a number of French 'incubator farms' in the southern region of Montpelier.
We are always super keen to learn from others running initiatives like ours, both to improve the way we run FarmStart now and to shape the way it develops when we have our own farm in the future. The trip was also designed to bring together those of us in the UK working on land access, to help us develop new joint approaches and strengthen the movement for agroecological farming on a national level.
We were hosted by Terre de Liens (land access organisation) and RENETA (France’s national network of farm incubators). Like our own FarmStart sites, these farms provide access to land to new entrant farmers along with 2-3 years of mentoring, training and support, to enable them to test their growing ideas, improve skills and decide if they really want to become farmers.
The picture in France is very different to the UK, with a higher proportion of land still used for farming and, unsurprisingly, a much stronger national food and farming culture. Perhaps because of this, many of the incubator programmes and the new entrants to farming are at least partially subsidised by the state.
Stronger connections to food and farming in France have also given rise to a vast network of community supported agriculture schemes, called AMAPs, where individuals and families pay farmers for their food in advance – guaranteeing that production costs are covered, and in return receiving a weekly box of whatever veg, cheese or meat is available that week. This can make an incredible difference to farmers and new entrants, in providing income stability and sharing the risks of farming.
Nevertheless, France is still facing a similar crisis as the UK in terms of an aging farming population. Every year in France something like 30,000 farmers retire and are replaced by just 10,000 new entrants. While these figures seem incredibly high to us, it still amounts to a net reduction of 20,000 farmers each year.
There was a lot to learn from our French counterparts, who’ve been doing this a lot longer and on a much bigger scale. Here are some of the things we’ve brought back to Manchester...
- We’ve been looking into expanding the training programme we offer as part of FarmStart, and a number of RENETA incubator farms provided lots of food for thought and models we would love to work towards: “One of the incubators presented a very professional looking programme of training including sessions on business planning, marketing/branding and eco-building. They also host sessions every month for people to find out about the training programme and to discuss their business ideas and what the incubators can offer. One incubator also runs a 6 week ‘Discovery course’ – one day’s training followed by working on a farm for 6 weeks”.
- Kindling could also adapt FarmStart into more of a staggered process by learning from RENETA’s “Espaces-Test” sites (ETA’s), using our two sites for different purposes, as follows: (1) ‘Do you want to be a farmer’ evening, (2) Commercial Growers Course (or turn this into the six-week discovery training), (4) three to ten month programme of training at our Woodbank site (5) testing the business idea on a larger field-scale site at Abbey Leys over 2-3 years.
- Facilitating contact with other local farmers and land owners would enable our FarmStarters to seek advice and opinions from other farmers rather than relying completely on the opinion of the host farmer or FarmStart co-ordinator. This could also build open doors to land rental opportunities in the vicinity after FarmStarters finish the programme.
- Working more in partnership with other organisations is crucial – e.g.: with local authorities and land owners to identify land, and with agricultural colleges to find applicants and to offer a more comprehensive training programme. We are starting to do that this year by working with FreshStart to run a business academy.
There’s so much more to say about how Terre de Lien work in partnership to secure land for sustainable production and for new farmers through citizen investment – that it would require a whole other article! As would the discussions begun by the trip's UK contingent (Kindling, Ecological Land Co-op, Organic Lea, the Real Farming Trust, the Biodynamic Land Trust and the Soil Association) about how to replicate their model in the UK. So watch this space for more on all that!
We owe a huge thank you to both Veronique Rioufol of Terre de Liens and Jean-Baptiste Cavalier, coordinator of RENETA, for the most well-organised and fascinating field trip ever, and for their support and encouragement that we can make this work on a national level in the UK (despite our many cultural differences!).
Big thanks are also due to the Soil Association for inviting us along, to whom we are very grateful and with whom we look forward to working on replicating some of what we’ve learnt at a national level.