Jérôme Deconinck a participé à la création de Terre de Liens, qui mobilise l’investissement solidaire et le don pour permettre l’installation d’agriculteurs créant des fermes biologiques et freiner la désertification qui menace de vastes zones rurales. Le but : maintenir une agriculture à taille humaine pour redynamiser la vie sociale des zones rurales et développer la consommation de produits biologiques.
Créé en 2003, le réseau Terre de Liens compte en 2017 19 associations régionales qui maillent le territoire et une association nationale. Ce sont près de 300 fermier(e)s installé(e)s sur des fermes Terre de Liens, 146 fermes acquises (3 360 ha dédiés à l’agriculture biologique), 1 600 candidat(e)s à l’installation agricole conseillé(e)s en 2016, et 4 500 adhérents. La Foncière Terre de Liens créée en 2007 compte 12 298 actionnaires et solidaires et un capital de près de 60 millions d’euros en 2016. En 2013, s’appuyant sur les dons et les legs, la Fondation Terre de Liens est créée et reconnue d’utilité publique par le Conseil d’État. Ce sont maintenant plus de 6 500 donateurs qui soutiennent cette jeune fondation. Depuis 2003 ce sont plus de 13 900 citoyens qui ont été mobilisés dans le mouvement et plus de 64 millions d’euros pour des acquisitions d’exploitations.
QUI EST-IL ?
Originaire de Lyon, ingénieur agronome de formation, il s’engage dans les mouvements promouvant les dynamiques rurales. Il prend alors conscience que le cœur du problème est l’accès au foncier et s’intéresse à l’agriculture biologique dont il étudie les différents modèles.
In an attempt to protect farmers from this speculation, the government has instituted strict rules controlling the rents for rural territories, maintaining a low price disconnected from the real value of land. The government has, for example, helped launch a public-private body called SAFER, which aims to purchase land in order to protect it from speculation. Yet the scheme is riddled with corruption and misaligned objectives: SAFER’s private sector representatives belong to agro-industrial lobbies that protect the interest of large commercial farms. As a result, it is much more profitable for small farmers to rent their lands rather than farm them themselves, restricting farmers’ role as custodians of the land and subjecting them to an uncertain future.
Consequently, the number of agricultural enterprises has dropped dramatically over the past fifty years, from 600,000 farms in 1950 to fewer than 300,000 today. While French agriculture is already among the top three most industrialized in Europe, this trend is only likely to continue; indeed, it is estimated that in the next twenty years, there will be fewer than 150,000 farms in France, more and more of which will use industrial methods of production. The disappearance of farms has produced a corresponding loss in France’s rural population and job availability. Today, rural inhabitants represent 25 percent of the French population, but farmers, only 4 percent of the national workforce. These trends have had dramatic social consequences on rural areas, as local stores, schools, and even hospitals have been forced to close. The environmental impact has been all the more significant, as small-scale farming plays a critical role in preserving rural landscapes. Moreover, it is estimated that agro-industrial enterprises produce twice as many tons of oil waste as traditional farms, and emit as much greenhouse gas as all French households put together.
While some European agricultural policies have quickly reacted to similar trends in incentivizing a shift to high value-added organic farming, the French sector has resisted going organic. Only 2 percent of French agriculture is currently certified as organic, with the result that France imports from 50 to 90 percent of the organic produce it consumes. France’s agro-industries currently exercise inordinate influence over governmental institutions, receiving the vast majority of the European Union’s heavy agricultural subsidies. Meanwhile, the most vocal proponents of traditional agriculture are virtually powerless in the face of existing institutions; characterized by their unwavering opposition to globalization, unrealistic and politicized claims, and refusal to compromise, they have failed to propose a viable solution to today’s agricultural crisis.
Beyond the acquisition of land, Jérôme sees his land trust as an essential tool to increase public awareness around the growing state of rural depression, and to mobilize French citizens around the issue of agricultural preservation, giving them a concrete way to participate in the custody of French rural territories. Jérôme has mobilized 160 investors, and plans to engage more than 1,600 by the end of the year, through a media campaign and expanded distribution channels. Among his partners are NEF, a large socially responsible bank, and BIOCOOP, the largest organic grocery distribution chain with 300 stores in France, which will promote his product in the fall as soon as he gets the accreditation from the financial market authority. This should coincide with his obtaining tax-deductible status for his foundation.
Jérôme’s decision to create a land trust is born from several years of grassroots work supporting agricultural entrepreneurs in the process of creating their organic and/or ecologically friendly exploitations. During those years, he realized that the main bottleneck in rural entrepreneurship was the difficulty to secure land. Terre de Liens has set up a network of local branches in French agricultural regions, which inform and help would-be entrepreneurs through the process of business-plan preparation, land acquisition, and organic certification. In 2007, they accompanied nearly 200 project leaders, in 80 percent of cases from the initial stages of conception. Terre de Liens local branches also play an active role in farming schools across France, where they inform and educate students about enterprise creation and sustainable farming, elements usually absent from curricula. In the long-term, Jérôme wants to foster a comprehensive shift in agricultural education.
Locally, Terre de Liens’ branches also play a key role in mobilizing grassroots networks and citizen organizations (COs) to work hand-in-hand to promote the rise of a new form of agricultural economy. Shifting away from traditional discourses and the organic vs. industrial dichotomy, Jérôme sees that small organic farms can coexist with large agro-industrial complexes. Because of a rising demand and the development of local distribution networks, an organic farm operating through individual distribution schemes can be profitable with 3 hectares, whereas the operating expenses of agro-industrial farming necessitate a minimum of 17 hectares to be lucrative. Jérôme’s strategy is hence to demonstrate this viability through the multiplication of projects, and to organize rural actors in lobbying for better recognition and representation of small agricultural entrepreneurs. Thanks to a network of 400 COs throughout France, including organic cooperatives and villages, farming schools and Community Supported Agriculture networks, Terre de Liens has secured representative positions in regional governments, and is shifting regional policies for the protection of arable land and small agricultural operators.
Using his extensive knowledge of rural law, the lessons learned by his grassroots work, and the expertise of his friend Kurt Wartena, a retired Dutch organic entrepreneur, Jérôme started studying existing models in the rest of Europe and in other fields, especially low-income housing, where the land acquisition model of Habitat et Humanisme struck him as very transferable. He also took a course in fundraising and resource mobilization from ESSEC, a leading business school in France, to eventually leave RELIER in 2006 and create Terre de Liens, the first agricultural land trust in France, and its adjoining foundation.
Jérôme lives in a little village in the Drôme region, far from the working-class neighborhood where he grew up, in the city of Lyon. Jérôme says he will not rest until 35 percent of French agriculture is organic, and until every single French citizen owns a piece of agricultural land.