14 January 2000

Learn language – integrate fast

LIZ and Roger Chafer are old hands at farming in France, they have done so for the past 11 years.

The couple, who have four children, keep 580 sheep and 100 outdoor sows at Le Grange, St Laurent sur Gorre. "We love the pigs but are not optimistic about future prices for them," says Liz.

They did not farm in England. Rogers father had a farm but it was too small to sustain another family. Roger was a firewood merchant and hay contractor in Hampshire. The couple wanted to farm but their capital of £100,000 would have bought them only bare land. Someone suggested France but finding the right farm was difficult.

"Often farms are not advertised and farmers tend not to let people know their business. The chap who sold us this farm hadnt even told his cousin over the road that he was selling up," explains Roger, who learned about the farm through a cattle dealer.

"We were exceptionally lucky to be dealing with charming people because the agent we used was useless. We thought he would deal with the paperwork but he didnt speak French and the officials thought he was incapable. He doesnt operate now," says Liz. "Our knowledge of French was written rather than spoken and I would say that people coming here must take the trouble to learn the language. The French expect you to make the effort and you will want to integrate as quickly as possible."

The couple started with 50ha priced equivalent to £70,000 but with all the associated charges it cost them £84,000. They now rent as well and farm 105ha. "It was hard to get the land originally and a lot of people wont rent to you to start with because they dont know you," says Roger. "From a business point of view it is better to rent. Basic pasture costs 500-600franc/ha to rent but 10,000 to 12,000francs/ha to buy. If you want to sell you probably have to find a British buyer because locals prefer to rent. Capital appreciation on land is negligible."

Ten years ago an average farm was 25ha but a 50ha farm and 350 sheep made a living. "Now you need 100ha and 600 sheep and that is increasing all the time, says Roger. "You are pushed to get bigger with subsidies and you need more machinery and that is hard to combat, even here."