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How can we apply the French incubator farm model in the UK?

How can we apply the French incubator farm model in the UK?
09/03/2020 Steph Wetherell

In this blog post, our Farmstart Network Coordinator, Steph Wetherell, talks about a trip to France to explore their incubator farm model.

Last year, we launched the UK Farmstart Network, aiming to support and encourage existing and new Farmstart operations across the country and advocate for policy that supports these operations and wider support for new entrants. Farmstarts, or Incubator Farms, are projects that help support new entrant farmers by providing protected access to land, and you can find out more about the UK Farmstart Network on our website.

In October, I was invited to visit incubator farms in France through an exchange organised by the Newbie network. Along with a representative from the Scottish National Farmers Union and the Scottish Land Commission, and delegates from Spain and Bulgaria, we were hosted for four days by RENETA, the French Incubator Farm network.

In France, the incubator is a stage in the process of starting a farm business. It provides a trial period that allows prospective farmers to develop their farm business autonomously at scale, over a limited period of time, while also providing a protected environment. At the end of the trial period, the incubates evaluate their project, and decide whether to continue, adjust their plans or abandon their project. It is based around self-assessment and the right to make mistakes, meaning there is no external assessment of “success”. There are more than 45 incubator farms in France, with a further 30 in the process of being established, and the model is growing in strength year on year.

The aim of the trip was to explain the different aspects of the incubator model in France and the elements that contribute to its success, and consider how this could be applied in other countries.

 

The incubator organisation

In France, it is a complicated process to set up your own business – you can’t simply register as self-employed and start working. To counteract this, a legal structure has been established that allows people to take on the legal status of an ‘incubatee’, allowing them to register with an incubating organisation through whom all the finances in and out of their business is registered. This allows people to test out a business idea without having to go through the complicated process of establishing their own business, while accessing training and business support from the incubator organisation.

Many of these incubator organisations cover a broad range of topics. One of the hosts for our trip was a local incubator in the region, À Petits PAS, who act as an incubator for rural businesses, including farming, and are funded by EU, regional and municipal funds. They find that around 60% of participants continue the business after the incubating period, but as it’s a ‘test’ period, consider it to still be a success if people don’t carry on.

 

The test site

Working closely alongside the incubator organisation is the test site where the incubator farm is located. One of the needs for these test sites is that the minimum lease period for land in France is 9 years, but the period of incubation is a maximum of 3 years, so an in-between body is required. Sometimes these are based on municipal land, other times on private land or land bought by the land access organisation Terre de Liens. There isn’t a specific definition of how these sites work, and each functions in a different way.

We visited Le Germoir, which is a test site based on a 30-hectare organic farm. Incubatees are based at the farm for a period of three years and do not pay rent during this time for their plot, instead work-trading on the central farm operation which also provides practical training for them. During the first they work 2 ½ days a week on the collective farm and 2 ½ day on their own business, the second year 1 day a week on the collective farm and 4 days on their own business, and the third year they work completely on their own business. Produce grown on the collective farm is then sold to help support the running of the test site (which is funded 50/50 by veg sales and public funds). The incubate get 3500m2 of land and 500m2 of greenhouse space to grow on, and are encouraged to establish their own routes to market that they can continue after leaving the incubator. I found this model particularly inspiring – the work trade provides both practical training for the incubatee, but also reduces their costs, while providing income for the test site.

We also met with someone from Les Champs des Possibles who have an incubator as part of their operation, which is based on several different pieces of land in the region. In their incubators they have a mix of individuals and groups who are testing out their farming operations. They identified there was a need for further support once people finish their incubation and so have also established a cooperative operation for people to move onto afterwards. People purchase shares in the cooperative which allows them access to the land, buildings and tools, and also means they are employees of the cooperative which grants them a salary and access to benefits such as a pension and unemployment benefit. A percentage (10%) of their turnover is paid into the coop to provide accountancy, support and invest in the infrastructure. Farmers are also able to access investment from the coop to help support with infrastructure needs on their operation.

 

Land access

Land access in France is strictly regulated. To rent land, the minimum lease is 9 years, and it auto-renews, giving the tenant farmer a huge amount of security and meaning landowners can be reluctant to lease land. Tenancies can also be passed on to children, and the price is strictly regulated by the state, depending on the quality of the land (around €150/hectare).

Sale prices are also regulated, and agricultural land cannot be sold on the open market – instead these sales are coordinated through local committees, which are not always operating transparently, and as a result 60% of sales of farms result in these farms being consolidated with existing farms.

We spent a morning talking to Terre de Liens, who were set up to buy and secure land, and help make it available to new entrants. They operate at two different levels – a national organisation and also as a network of local operations – who raise finances through community shares and use this to buy land. As they are focused purely on this issue, they are able to build relationships with landowners and navigate the complicated issues around purchasing land, which they then rent to incubator test sites and new entrant farmers.

 

Training, financial support and assistance

The involvement of local authorities varies between municipalities. We visited Douaisois Agglo, who cover a region of around 158,000 people and supports people to convert to organic farming, offers assistance around supply chains and procurement, and subsidises organic produce to people on a low income. They help new entrants access land, finances and markets, and provide spaces for people to test out organic farming practices.

At a regional level, the Cite de Agriculture provides people with a clear three year route into becoming a farmer. They facilitate access to national and regional aid, and help people to produce a business plan and access the necessary training. The financial aid takes the form of a grant of up to €30,000 when you set up your own business, a tax allowance, reduction in property taxes and potential access to an interest free loan. The national aid is only available to people who have completed an appropriate agricultural qualification, but regional support can be accessed without this, although you have to demonstrate you have the necessary skills.

Training comes in the form of an agricultural degree of equivalent to Level 4. It is not necessarily suited to agroecological food production, but you can also apply for other courses to be ‘validated’. This training is free to most people as everyone has an adult education training pot. While not incubators require people to have the agricultural qualification, many do, as without it, you cannot access the national aid and this can make it difficult to raise the capital investment needed to start your business.

Another big financial impact is that incubatees are also able to access benefits at a rate of 80% of their previous income for the first year, and 60% for the second (after this they are still able to access the state benefits). This means they are able to work full time on their business rather than needing to fit it around a job in order to cover their living costs.

 

The role of the network

During our visit, we were hosted by RENETA, the national network for incubator farms. They were established to influence and lobby for political support for incubator farms, and also share the experiences and practice of incubator farms. They host two national meetings each year, one as a public event and one as a members meeting for managers and coordinators of incubators. They also support and offer expert advice to new incubators that are starting.

 

Learning from the trip

I left the trip a combination of inspired by what I’d seen and disheartened by how to apply it back in the UK. It was amazing to see what has been achieved in France, especially considering the first incubator farm was only started in 2007. However, there is also extensive support at a national, regional and local level for agriculture that is just not currently being provided in the UK.

All the organisations we visited were at least part funded by public money (EU, national, regional or local) meaning that the model has been able to scale up quickly and without constant battles for ongoing funding. In addition, the access to start-up grants and benefits that the new entrant farmers are able to access means that they start their farming career in a good position, and without struggling for money and constantly being on the back foot. Land access is still an issue for very different reasons, but through Terre de Liens, there is progress being made on this, and once land is accessed, tenants are well protected and the land is affordable.

My biggest reflection was that alongside the practical support for new farmstarts in the UK, it is important that we continue to campaign and influence policy around support for new entrants if we want to support the growth of the model in the UK.

 

For more information, see information about our Farmstart Network or contact Steph on steph@landworkersalliance.org.uk

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