France’s Future Farmers Are Tech-Savvy and Want Weekends Off

An old farm west of Paris has been transformed into a start-up campus where computer programmers are learning how to program crop-harvesting robots. Young city dwellers are honing their investor pitches by designing vineyards or farms using big data.

They then went to a glassy, open work space in a converted barn (complete with cappuccino makers) to research profitable farming techniques to reverse climate change while cows were fitted with Fitbit-style collars.

The group was a part of Hectar, a new agricultural business venture. Most of them had never seen arugula fields or even seen a cow.

Nonetheless, a crisis is brewing in France: a severe shortage of farmers. The people gathered on campus shared many characteristics: they were creative, diverse, and eager to begin working in a field that needed them to survive.

According to Hectar’s primary backer, French tech billionaire Xavier Niel, in order to change farming, we need to bring in a new generation of young people who want to produce better, cheaper, and more intelligently. Mr. Niel, a former corporate upstart, has joined a growing movement to transform agriculture in France, the country’s most heavily protected industry.

France is the EU’s breadbasket

 Accounting for one-fifth of total agricultural output. Despite this, half of the state’s farmers are 50 or older and planning to retire within the next decade, leaving nearly 160,000 farms for sale.

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

It is modelled after Mr. Niel’s unconventional coding school 42, which he founded ten years ago, and operates outside of France’s educational system, offering free tuition and intensive training but no state-sanctioned certificate. Mr. Niel believes that because Hectar’s backers and corporate sponsors are primarily private investors and corporate sponsors, Hectar graduates will be more enterprising, innovative, and ultimately transformative for the French economy. (Hectar can only do so much: in France, becoming a farmer requires a diploma from an agricultural school.)

Investors in France are establishing small farms near population centres to grow healthy food while using less fossil fuel and fertiliser. NeoFarm, which was founded by two tech entrepreneurs, is paving the way. According to co-founder Olivier Le Blainvaux, who also has 11 other start-up ventures in the defence and health industries, boutique farms can use technology to expand their numbers and take advantage of much smaller lots, lowering costs and reducing tedious labour tasks to create an appealing lifestyle.


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