In response to increasing agricultural industrialization throughout France, Jérôme Deconinck has created the first agricultural land trust to mobilize the French population to preserve their agricultural heritage, and to promote the development of a more unified small-scale organic farming culture. He is demonstrating that another form of rural development—one that preserves landscapes, ensures custody of the environment, and maintains economic and social activities—is possible.
La nuova idea
France continues to lose an average of 66,000 hectares of agricultural land each year, having already seen its number of farms cut in half in the last twenty years. Recognizing the enormous social and environmental implications of these changes, Jérôme has created France’s first agricultural land trust, demonstrating that another form of rural development is possible. By mobilizing citizens to invest in agricultural land acquisition, he works to protect large territories from widespread land speculation caused by urbanization and increasingly industrialized agriculture. Finally, Jérôme combines his work with small-scale farmers with legislative advocacy efforts, urging the government to adopt measures and reforms that will better democratize access to agricultural lands. Jérôme’s land trust aims to help small farmers create their own organic or otherwise environmentally friendly enterprises. Through his land trust, he is dramatically reversing the trends plaguing rural areas in France, preserving the otherwise diminishing role of farmers in rural villages, and giving a common voice to grassroots movements working in the field. Whereas previous efforts to expand organic agriculture have relied on a combative approach, Jérôme’s land trust scheme is demonstrating that organic agriculture can coexist with its industrial counterpart. He is ultimately working to restore ties between the French population and their ancestral agricultural traditions, providing them with ownership over their common heritage.
Over the last several decades, urbanization and industrialization have led to a radical shift in the French landscape, once dominated by agriculture. Since 1970, over 170 hectares of agricultural land have been lost each day to other uses, including urbanization, industrialization, and land management policies. This, in turn, has led to a rapid increase in the value of agricultural land; in the French region of Picardie, for example, the value of agricultural land has quintupled over the past five years. As a result, agricultural land is currently concentrated in the hands of the few large industrial farms that can still afford to own it. Of the small-scale landowners who have managed to hold onto their lands, most are aging farmers waiting for their property to be rezoned, so that they can sell it; indeed, today, 85 percent of land belongs to farmers aged fifty-five and older. As a result, it is increasingly difficult for people to acquire land and create their own agricultural enterprises.
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.
In order to stop speculation on arable land and open up ownership to as many people as possible, Jérôme has created Terre de Liens, France’s first agricultural land trust. By mobilizing private savings and creating a new financial product, and soon by capitalizing on donations through a public foundation, he is building a critical mass of private depositors willing to invest in agricultural land acquisition. This capital allows Terre de Liens to back up small agricultural entrepreneurs looking to create their organic or environmentally responsible farm, using land that would otherwise be lost to speculation and most likely be purchased by large agro-industrial farmers. When creating the land trust in 2007, Jérôme immediately saw the importance of incentivizing investors and making his financial product mainstream. Through careful lobbying, he managed to change the finance law and obtain a tax-deductible status for socially and environmentally responsible land acquisition investment, which guarantees a 25 percent tax allowance to investors, and a return close to 5 percent a year over five years, at a level comparable to most savings products. Also, the soon-to-be-created foundation will enable retiring and responsible land-owners to protect the future of their organic farms by placing it in the hands of responsible entrepreneurs. This unique mechanism in the French context is built on the combination of several models successfully implemented in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, where Jérôme drew much of his inspiration. Within the first two years of his project, he has collected more than €700,000 (US$929,000) in savings and through an innovative campaign, recently raised more than €3M (US$ 3.9M) in less than 3 months.
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.
An agronomical engineer by training, Jérôme felt compelled to work closely with those operating the land rather than to work in a laboratory to do research. He shifted away from his initial study to get engaged in rural movements. After a few years of volunteering, he created his own position of national coordinator at RELIER, a network connecting local initiatives to foster rural development. In his daily work of supporting entrepreneurs in the creation of their exploitations, he quickly realized that the bottleneck in the sector was access and acquisition of land because of the pressing speculation.
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.