In Lorraine, the European Social Fund supports organic market gardening

6.1% of fresh vegetables produced in France come from organic farming. [George Groutas/Flickr]

Job-seekers are getting into organic vegetable farming in Courcelles-Chaussy in eastern France, as dreams of a healthier lifestyle and demand for organic products convinces people to go back to the fields. EURACTIV France reports.

Twelve unemployed people every year decide to radically change their lives by getting into organic market gardening with the support of the European Social Fund (ESF).

These people rarely have a background in the agricultural community but are just women and men with a shared aspiration to go back to a healthier life close to the land.

It is a also a response to the growing demand for organic products in France, for which there is an insufficient supply.

Only 6% of farms are currently registered as organic and they are unevenly distributed across the country. The southern regions of France, particularly the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur and the Languedoc-Roussillon regions, have ample supply but some regions, such as eastern France, have markedly less, according to Agence Bio (the French Agency for the Development and Promotion of Organic Farming).

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Trainees without land

“It’s a rewarding profession: you plant, it grows and people are happy!” said Violette, who started her training at the Ferme des Mesnils professional agricultural training institution in January 2018.

In order to be selected, the future trainees have to have an organic market gardening project, covering its implementation, its set up and its marketing. Most of them do not have any land on which to start their farms.

The project’s coherence and the trainees’ motivations are key factors in the selection process. “The ambition of these future market gardeners can’t only be financial. The ecological and social approach, including the short distribution channels, is inseparable,” clarified Phillipe Meyer, who is responsible for the training.

The training programme is heavy: 1,400 hours of lessons between February and November, during which the trainees study the principles of “agro-ecology” and how they can make a living from it.

Training is both theoretical and practical, addressing all of the necessary areas for a future market gardener. These include the technical management of crops, how to implement their project and also commercial aspects.

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The use of chemical fertilisers, pesticides and GMOs is forbidden. Trainees are shown how to accommodate natural solutions, like using ladybirds to eat aphids, and also how to sell, as all the produce is sold on site.

In addition to the ESF’s support for the training, which amounts to €40,000 a year, young farmers can also receive start-up assistance.

This assistance aims to support people changing careers as part of a first installation and to create the conditions for the economic viability of their projects. It is financed by European funds from the European Agricultural Fund for Rural Development (EAFRD) as a supplement to national funds.

The programme is celebrating its tenth anniversary and the results speak for themselves: 80% of trainees remain in the sector and 40% have set up their own farms, like Violette, who was still in training when she did this.

She was able to buy two hectares of grassland from a farmer and settled there with her husband.

“I focused on what works to start with: lettuce, courgettes, tomatoes, peppers and carrots. Originality will come with practice!” she said.

As a partner of an AMAP (association for maintaining smallholder agriculture), she will supply 25 baskets to her members this year. In five years, she hopes to provide 60.

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