French scheme sends farmers back to school

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A regional body in northern France has developed a scheme for those interested in creating a farming business. But despite its popularity, its creators face persistent problems in accessing EU funds. EURACTIV France reports.

A classroom at Rethel Agricultural College in the French Ardennes for the first time saw a group of young adults take a three-day compulsory step on their career path to set up their own agricultural business.

The eight young future farmers, aged 21 to 38, went back to school for 21 hours of training. During this period, they listened to the testimonials of other farmers and discussed the viability of their projects with knowledgeable professionals.

The training also aimed to make them aware of the impact of various decisions that may affect their enterprises, such as local planning rulings.

"Once you have a project, don't hesitate to phone us. Special aid is available, and we'll advise in any way we can," explains Bénédicte Le Clézio, an official at the Ardennes Chamber of Agriculture.

Le Clézio often participates in these training schemes, arguing that continuing dialogue between France's one million farmers and society is vitally important.

Three days of these future farmers' training are dedicated to raising awareness of the problems they are likely to face, such as the probable reduction of direct Common Agricultural Policy subsidies from the EU, the volatility of produce prices or the increasing clout of emerging countries such as China.

"What are your main motives for going to work on the land?" asks Chamber advisor Pascal Turquier. A shared passion for becoming a farmer and desire to be their own boss, answer participants.

Guiding the way with a 'Personalised Professional Path'

This training scheme is part of what France's Department of Agriculture calls the 'Personalised Professional Path (parcours de professionnalisation personnalisé; PPP). It has several steps: a career plan outline, an evaluation of additional training needed and the '21-hour crash course'. An analysis of the future company's viability is made in parallel.

The PPP lasts approximately one year, and aims to help farmers who want to create their own businesses. Once the project is deemed to be viable and all the different steps have been taken, the farmer can benefit from special grants (ranging from 8,000 to 17,300 Euro), subsidised loans and tax cuts.

EU fund applications 'a nightmare'

But finding the money to make this particular programme work is proving difficult.

Adasea, the regional body responsible for developing farm structures in the Ardennes region, has tried to access European funds for this training for the past three years. In 2010, the amount of European Social Fund (ESF) aid requested by Adasea is some 29,000 euro, which totals 50% of the programme's cost. The rest of the budget comes from the regional authority.

Chrystel Fourny has run the young farmers programme at Adasea for 13 years. "Complying with ESF requests is a nightmare," she explains.

"We have to put a figure on every small item of expenditure. For example, we have to calculate the amount of stamps we are supposed to use during the following year, or the number of photocopies," adds Stéphanie Martin, Adasea advisor for ESF requests.

Despite these obstacles, Adasea does acknowledge that its application methods have improved consistently since its first formal grant application in 2007. "It's easier today," Martin explains. "We have, for example, adapted ourselves to completely control the recording of working time spent on each application project."

Moreover, Adasea now has an identified contact person at both the regional office dealing with companies, competition and employment at Châlons-en-Champagne (Direccte) and at the level of the département.

Three years and no funds

And yet, despite these advances, one massive obstacle remains. Because the responsibility for EU fund applications was transferred from one authority to another, Adasea has not received any ESF money to pay for their PPP for the past three years.

In 2007, funding requests were managed by the regional authority for agriculture and forestry (DRAF) and "there were no clear instructions," Martin explains.

Since 2009, the Direccte office has been in charge of the projects. "Everything has been reorganised and clarified, but because they have had to review every funding request passed on by the DRAF one-by-one, these officials are completely overwhelmed and couldn't process all the projects in time," she adds.

This complex situation generated funding problems. "The ESF asks for paid invoices which it then reimburses. But as we do not have money to pay our bills, we can't access the funds. It is a vicious circle," Martin concludes.

ESF requests from the association are now waiting for payment at the regional delegation of the Services and Payment Agency.

The European Social Fund (ESF) is one of the European regional funding mechanisms, which aim to reduce economic and social differences across the EU. The specific objective of the ESF is to promote employment and social inclusion throughout all the regions of the European Union.

For the period 2007-2013, the European Union committed around 75 billion euro to the ESF, almost 8% of the EU budget for the current seven-year financial cycle.

The other regional funds are the European Regional Development Fund and the Cohesion Fund. The financial resources of the funds have been mostly channelled to EU citizens via the regions.

As featured in regular news stories on EURACTIV's EU Regional Policy section, the debate on how the post-2013 regional (or cohesion) policy should evolve is currently intensifying in Brussels and beyond.

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