Photos © Adrien Basse-Cathalinat, Communauté d'Agglomération Pau Béarn Pyrénées

Pau’s farming start-up renaissance

Alexandre, 28 and Lore, 30, have run the Cultive! farm in Rontignon on the outskirts of Pau, France since early 2022. They work exclusively with hand tools, grow all their own plants and are certified organic, using methods that encourage the life of the soil. They sell their produce directly at markets, on the farm, in baskets and to restaurants.

“Our aim is to offer quality agriculture on an ultra-local scale,” says Lore.

As career switchers – Alexandre is an engineering graduate and Lore worked in cultural mediation – they couldn’t have launched their business without a city-backed initiative in Pau that helps independent farmers get set up and succeed.

Shortening food supply chains and producing more food locally – as Alexandre, Lore and a growing number of independent farmers aim to do – supports local economies, reduces the carbon footprint, and bolsters food resilience. That’s why it was a key goal for the City of Pau. There was a challenge, though: a 2019 survey revealed that as many as 70 percent of local farmers were due to retire or close their farms within the next decade.

Our aim is to offer quality agriculture on an ultra-local scale.
— Lore, who runs the Cultive! farm in Rontignon

A new breed of farmers to replace them was unlikely due to the high costs of setting up a farm – not only for land but also for tools and materials. In addition, the city knew that in order to attract new farmers, the demand for their goods needed to be there.

To address these issues, Pau turned to the idea of entrepreneurship – joining others to form a start-up to spur local agricultural start-ups.

The approach has been recognised internationally and is shortlisted in the Eurocities Awards, which will be held during the Eurocities Annual Conference in Cluj-Napoca in May.

Pau’s Green Belt

The Green Belt Pays de Beam is a co-operative enterprise that was formed by the Metropolitan Area of Pau, the Chamber of Agriculture of the Pyrenees Atlantiques, and La Ceinture Verte Group in early 2020. It has an ambitious goal to settle 100 farmers on small surfaces (around 2 hectares) within seven years and significantly increase the amount of vegetables, fruit, milk and meat produced and consumed locally.

“The idea of building a company rather than a committee is at the heart of the partners’ commitment,” said Pierre Pezziardi, President of La Ceinture Verte Group. “Both the city, the agriculture chain, the partners and the citizens are committed to growing the share of local food through this non-profit agile startup.”

The fact that the politicians and the city are there shows the commitment.
— Pierre Pezziardi, President of La Ceinture Verte Group

Pezziardi has sat on both sides of the fence in the public and private sector. He is an entrepreneur behind companies such as the KissKissBankBank crowdfunding platform and the former ‘entrepreneur-in-residence’ at the French government’s general secretariat for the modernisation of the administration. There, he pioneered the idea that public policy challenges can be tackled through state start-ups.

This ethos intrigued Patrick Buron, who is the Mayor of Meillon near Pau and in charge of agriculture and food for the Metropolitan Area of Pau.

“We realised that we could not expect the farmers to bear all the funding of farms,” Buron said. Meanwhile, bankers were unlikely to take a risk on farming start-ups. “The idea was that the collective should bear the funding of the farm to unlock the system.”

Kickstarting startups

Independent producers get more than just financial help; on top of a fully equipped farm, the Green Belt programme provides them with technical, mentoring and commercial support. For instance, the farmers gain access to city markets, subscription basket services, and local restaurants. They also benefit from the latest methods and innovations, from robotic systems to new species and irrigation optimisation processes.

Eight farms have now been set up as of the end of 2023, and all the farmers are earning more than the minimum wage. These farms produce over 240 tons of vegetables per year to be distributed locally, as well as fruit, honey, cereals and meat and dairy products.

“This is a great achievement and the main goal of the cooperative,” said Buron.

He puts the success down to the participation of the multiple stakeholders in the cooperative, particularly when it comes to the ongoing challenge of finding and securing suitable land.

I think that there is a long-term trend for inhabitants to expect high quality food.
— Patrick Buron, Mayor of Meillon and lead on agriculture and food at the Metropolitan Area of Pau

He is confident, too, that the programme will continue to thrive and grow: “I think that there is a long-term trend for inhabitants to expect high quality food.”

Pezziardi, agreed, adding: “The fact that the politicians and the city are there shows the commitment. It’s not like a private company plus the city – the city brings its institutional capital, it says: this is long term, this is a public policy.”

Further plans in the works include connecting Green Belt farmers with central city kitchens which serve 11,000 meals a day for schools, retirement homes and hospitals. Another planned initiative will bring lockers to supermarkets where producers can deliver their goods to busy consumers.

New farmers are coming through routes such as the local agricultural college, farmers’ groups, the Chamber of Agriculture, and career services that connect newly qualified people with work opportunities.

Following initial funding of €500,000 (€100,000 from public funding and the rest private), the Green Belt aims to be financially self-sustaining.

Each farm costs €200,000 to set up – half of this is subsidised through European Common Agricultural Policy funding, and half is provided through a loan which the farmers pay back over time, with the repayments starting low and scaling up as the farms become established.

The non-profit co-operative has no fixed costs or requirement to generate revenues and membership fees are reinvested into new farms.

Green Belt farmer Lois © Adrien Basse-Cathalinat, Communauté d'Agglomération Pau Béarn Pyrénées
Green Belt farmers Lore and Alexandre © Adrien Basse-Cathalinat, Communauté d'Agglomération Pau Béarn Pyrénées

Citizen investors

Residents are also an important aspect of the funding and co-operative model and can become investors in the Green Belt programme to support farmers and also offer their skills for tasks such as building greenhouses or setting up irrigation systems.

Pezziardi said: “We decided we would grant access to the capital of this company to the public. Not only do we say to people we are going to build these farms but we also told them: it’s not an easy task, we need you and you can help.”

Retiree Florence Vieban is one of these citizen investors.

“I am enormously stressed by the environmental disaster that we have caused, especially when I think about the future of my grandchildren”, she said. “I then try, as best as I can, to take actions to avoid contributing to this catastrophe and to provide some solutions, whether in my daily lifestyle, or by supporting larger projects. The Green Belt is one of them.”

This money is better placed in the Green Belt than in a bank that invests in fossil fuels.
— Florence Vieban, a citizen investor

While she hopes not to lose any money, Vieban is looking for a return on her investment in a broader sense.

“If I had wanted an interesting financial return, I would have invested in shares of companies listed on the stock exchange,” she commented. “My investment is an ethical and supportive act dedicated to a project that is meaningful. I am really delighted to see that this allows young market gardeners to set up shop, make a quick and decent living from their work, and even create jobs on their farms.

“This money is better placed in the Green Belt than in a bank that invests in fossil fuels.”

Pau’s Green Belt initiative was the first, but it is now part of a growing network of 10 cooperatives in France, including in Paris and Rouen, which are overseen by La Ceinture Verte Groupe.

Bolstering local food production is a priority for many cities in France and Europe. Buron and Pezziardi say it can be done but the work required should not be underestimated.

“It’s a complex system,” according to Pezziardi. “Every city wants to support local farmers but every city that does it alone will fail.

“It’s not just buying land or building things; it’s helping people succeed. My main message is that you need to find associates to tackle the problem.”

Sarah Wray Eurocities writer