Soil and Education: In conversation at the World Living Soil Forum

The World Living Soils Forum, held in June in Arles, Provence, brought together some of the world’s experts on soils. This session was moderated by Jono le Feuvre, the founder and content producer for HanDrinksSolo.com, and brought together experts in farming and agricultural education:

  • Audrey Bourolleau, who co-founded HECTAR in 2019. It consists of a training campus, a start-up and innovation accelerator, and a pilot farm in regenerative agriculture.
  • John Furlow is the director of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society, whose focus is connecting climate science to the decision-making process, to improve lives in developing countries.
  • Ronald Vargas is secretary of the Global Soil Partnership, Land and Water Officer at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN.
  • Agricultural engineer and author Jean-Baptiste Cordonnier from Château Anthonic in the Médoc estate is an expert on agro-forestry. In 2018 he founded Vignerons du Vivant, an organic training course.

Jono le Feuvre

If anyone here has watched any films recently, we already know that the younger generation are often far more engaged than my generation. What I want to talk about is how youth can get involved, and how they can be part of the solution, rather than just why they should care.

Audrey, earlier I wanted you to open up the discussion for us. You had a lovely summary of the state of soils and agriculture within France. And I was hoping that you could share that snapshot.

Audrey Bourolleau

Just to start, I want to say that farmers are the only entrepreneurs we all need three times a day. And for France, we are in a critical situation because 160,000 farms will be taken over within three years. We have to find the next generation of farmers, of young farmers, and it’ll be no longer a family business. We have to introduce newcomers and they have to finance their land to change with soil preservation practices. And they just want to have a good life balance. So, you have to bridge the soil practices, the economic and finance, and also the social impact. My point at HECTAR is how to make that. The newcomers are, most of them, highly educated. They are aware of the soil. They just want to have the security to finance this high level of risk.

And they will have to move to be very good in their fields, but also to have new skills because perhaps they have to do agro-tourism, to produce green energy, perhaps to sell their product. We need also to talk about how we finance this transition. And it is what we are doing at HECTAR.

We have also to find the new generation coming to work in our farm. How to become a farm manager and to attract new generation of employee working in our farm?

Farmers are the only entrepreneurs we all need three times a day. And for France, we are in a critical situation because 160,000 farms will be taken over within three years. We have to find the next generation of farmers.

Audrey Bourolleau, co-founder of HECTAR

Jono le Feuvre

Thank you. So, Ronald, I was going to ask you to share the most pressing concerns and threats against the planet, that you so beautifully expressed it in the main session. That actually, it is not a good idea to be sitting, focusing on the problems, but rather on the beauty that is around us that is worth preserving.

What are some of the projects that have been inspiring you recently?

Ronald Vargas

We live in a moment in which the youth is saying, “Hey, we are here and we need to have a role”. Great. You need to have a role. Are you ready to take up the role? Because the role is not so easy because it is full of challenges. In agriculture, particularly, there are many challenges and you want to see this as a business. I come from a farm. My family was farming, but then the children, all of them left because in farming, there is no time. Eight hours per day for work and you need to work, to work, to work. And then the income is not really matching.

So that’s why, around the world, the children of farmers do not want to be farmers. They want a better life. And that’s why in many cases, they’re migrating to the cities. And I saw that in Europe, there is a sort of an opposite trend, which is the young people. They are trying to go to use agriculture as a business, but not business as usual. They are looking at agritourism or organic farming. They are targeting a specific restaurant. It’s another way of doing agriculture, but the world is bigger. The developing regions—how can we involve youth there?

The first thing they want to get access to is to land, because some of them don’t own land. You need capital for investment technical knowledge. They also would like to get better technology innovations. Okay. So, access to technology. But then, if everybody produces successfully, the prices will go down and then you will not recover your investment. And that is why we really need to think how we can transform this.

If everybody produces successfully, the prices will go down and then you will not recover your investment. And that is why we really need to think how we can transform this.

Ronald Vargas, Secretary of the Global Soil Partnership, Land and Water Officer, FAO

Jono le Feuvre

I love the way you connected the product or the agricultural processes and the market. At this point, I want to open up the floor just for two questions that you might have perhaps for Ronald or for Audrey.

Audience Member Robbie Walker

My name’s Robbie Walker, I come from Scotland. Given the pressures on different farmers to be masters of many different skills, is it inevitable that farms will now become big multifunctional businesses rather than small farmer owned businesses, simply because of the plethora of skills that you have to have?

Audrey Bourolleau

You can be a successful entrepreneur on a small farm, or on a big farm. It’s not my key point. You have to choose how you finance, and the money you want to in the time you want to spend in your farm, and how you make the soil preservation practices. Achieving carbon neutrality in France by 2050 will move all the value chain in terms of economics and skills. Some people want to have big farms. Others want to have small farms.

The key point is, what is your job? What do you want to do? Are you good in your field? Do you want to make the sales? Do you want to produce green energy in France? The figures show that 75% of farms will produce green energy within 10 years. So, we have to implement this new business model in our farms. I am not convinced that only the big farms will have this success.

We have a have new generation of farmers, but also new employees—half of the team is not coming from the farmer’s family and not coming from agriculture study. And we have to create something fantastic. How we can manage people coming from other jobs?

Audience Member 2

One issue is that we need to have young people established in rural areas to take over farms. France is welcoming many migrants, like any other European country. And a lot of these are young people coming from Africa or Asia, a lot with the farming background. Shouldn’t there be some sort of political incentive to have these people in rural areas, instead of establishing them in suburbs?

Audrey Bourolleau

We are convinced of that. I am upset to hear the French farmers say, I don’t find anybody who wants to come work in my farm. It’s not true. What job are you offering? How you can pay it? What is the time of the week? And, you know, we have to become managers in our firm. It’s not a question of finding people. It’s a question of how we welcome newcomers in our farms.

Audience Member 3

We can see that regarding food, there is a segmentation: the conventional, the organic, the regenerative. Now you have the amount of CO2 produced per kilo of what you buy and a sense of different prices for these attributes. Is it a trend that will follow and give some decent incomes for the one who are looking for this regenerative agriculture? The second question is, do we have to anticipate that food will be more expensive in the future than it is today?

Audrey Bourolleau

Achieving carbon neutrality by 2050 will move the economic model. I don’t know how to make Net Zero without changing the model and the price, because it doesn’t work. We have to be honest here.

When you look at our companies, you have low margins. You work a lot and you invest a lot. We will not make it without the involvement of the new generation of consumer.

Ronald Vargas

The question is always the same. Are we really paying the right price of the food? Globally speaking, do farmers get the right price for the cost? The answer will be, “no, we don’t”. I mean, farmers are not paid the right price for the work they do. And with the trends that we are observing currently, the food price has increased because of COVID and because of the ongoing conflict; fertilizers have increased 21%. Organic is for people who are ready to pay for it, with a medium to high income, but who also have the knowledge. All people should be aware of where the food comes from. Then they will also start asking, not only for organic, but at least that the food is safe to eat, free of contaminants.

And then to address the first question regarding what will be the future of agriculture. Big companies starting to have thousands of thousands of hectares to produce one crop, and the family farmers disappearing. If we don’t take actions in terms of policies to incentivize and support the family farmers that could be one option. But it will be not the one that we prefer.

Jono le Feuvre

I want to bring John into the conversation. We were discussing earlier about the need for multi-level education within agricultural systems. Can you perhaps talk a little bit more to that point?

John Furlow

So, I work at a university. Obviously, universities train young people, but my research centre does very applied work. We work across the developing world. We train meteorological agencies to produce better forecasts, to support agriculture, public health. People come out of university with new energy, they’re enthusiastic. And they run into a wall of supervisors who don’t understand that they want to do things differently. It slows down this transformation of the system that Audrey was speaking about. If you think about the layers of management, and the multitudes of knowledge that have to go in to producing food, you need knowledge and experience at multiple layers.

We find that preparing the job market that will receive the young as they come out of university, by training their managers on why thinking about climate, about soils, is key. I think it makes for a better work environment for the young. It makes for a more productive service that’s being provided. Also, if you wait for people who are entering university now to come out and be ready to do things differently, you’ve lost four or five years.

We find that preparing the job market that will receive the young as they come out of university, by training their managers on why thinking about climate, about soils, is key.

John Furlow, Director of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society

Jono le Feuvre

I’m going to move to Jean-Baptiste because I feel like this is exactly where we need to be.

Jean-Baptiste Cordonnier

Vignerons du Vivant was created in the Medoc in 2018. I have built a group of 10 producers, and we have been associated with a well-known association working with youth in France.

A lot of young people between 18 and 30 live in the Medoc, never applying to a job inside the estate, because they have no diplomas, no confidence. Meanwhile, as employers, we were missing candidates when we are offering a job. The idea was how to meet these two communities, these two demands.

The problem was we are offering jobs and teaching, schools, without the sensibility of agro-ecology. It’s not written in the genes of the existing teaching programmes. The idea was to build a sort of school, without the name of a school, and without a classroom. The idea was to build the work in the vineyards, teaching the basic work of pruning the vines, to give passion to these young people and instill in their eyes a light about the business that was not attractive for them.

And today we need something more, because we are developing our three growth projects. We don’t only need a worker able to prune the vines, but also to understand how he’s doing the hedge inside the parcel, the cover crop. These things are very important, and they are not taught.

The people we want to teach are far from the job market. So, we prepare them for the future job market, that doesn’t yet exist. And they deserve the best teachers, so I’ve called in some specialists to come and teach the programme.

‪We now have four sessions. We teach 10 people every year. Last year, we opened a second group in Saint-Émilion and we are discussing opening one in Champagne, one in Provence, one in Alsace, and another one in the Loire Valley.

We don’t only need a worker able to prune the vines, but also to understand how he’s doing the hedge inside the parcel, the cover crop. These things are very important, and they are not taught.

Jean-Baptiste Cordonnier, Château Anthonic

Jono le Feuvre

We’ve been talking a lot about the role of education in creating solutions. In preparation for this, I spent time talking to Professor Reiner Schultz from the University of Geisenheim. He had a concern that a lot of these sorts of programs were funded largely by large corporates. And he was saying the problem is that often large corporates don’t share that information outside. He feels very strongly that academic institutions should be leading the charge in transitioning change. John, I wondered what your thoughts were coming from an academic background yourself.

John Furlow

It’s a good point. We’ve been doing work with Pepsi, and at the beginning of each grant that Pepsi makes to us, we have a very careful negotiation over what can we publish in the academic literature and what will they hold behind their firewall, so that they’re not giving whatever they’re learning from us to Coca-Cola or somebody else. There used to be a group in the United States—I guess it was a global group that started by working with big corporations that had common interests in worker health. Then they expanded to the environment and they found ways for these corporations to come together and talk generically about the issues that they were all sharing without giving away corporate secrets.

I think also working more openly with universities would be good. And focusing at the beginning of the project on how is the information going to get out, rather at the end. There are not a lot of people who enjoy reading academic journals, so it’s not like universities are plugging into the public mindset. Where corporations are quite good is getting information out and persuading people. I think this is a good opportunity for collaboration, and we should explore what is the outcome that we want to achieve—more efficiency, more sustainability, or more regenerative practices.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and length. It was produced with the permission of Moët-Hennessy, the organizers of the Forum.


The World Living Soils Forum is an international forum organized by a private actor Moet Hennessy to: 

  • Connect people committed to soil regeneration
  • Share concrete actions for sustainable and regenerative viticulture/agriculture
  • Strengthen the link between Science, Innovation, and realities of the field
  • Gather Science-based KPIs and methodologies to champion soil health

The forum brought together researchers, experts, public institutions, journalists, trade associations and companies from the Food & Beverage industry for two days of conferences, round tables, masterclasses, and workshops. This first edition of the World Living Soils Forum took place on June 1 & 2, 2022 in Arles-en-Provence. You can watch all the replays of the sessions HERE in both English and French.