3 July 1998

Young French farmers helped to get a foot on the ladder…

For the first of a new occasional series on

family farms abroad, Tessa Gates interviews

a young French farmer who has left a well-

paid career in advertising to farm in his own

right – with a little help from the government

CHRISTOPHE Demars has made some very big decisions recently which will affect his life for years to come. In January he gave up his job as advertising manager with La France Agricole – the French equivalent of farmers weekly – and the salary, international travel and kudos that went with it.

He has opted for a more hands-on involvement with the industry, helped by a government scheme aimed at returning young people to the countryside.

"Two years ago the government started a scheme to help young people who live in towns and dream of farming, to create young life in the villages," says Christophe (32) who is married to Nathalie and has a baby daughter, Anne Flore. "In many villages there are no schools or young people. It is important to make us come back."

Just as in Britain, it has been difficult for young people to get a foot on the farming ladder in France. "Buying a farm is expensive and the problem is to find a farm to buy – neighbours always want the land. We are getting fewer farmers with bigger farms and the government is trying to stop this system. Now if you have 100ha you have to get permission to buy another farm," says Christophe.

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&#42 Person chosen

"Now when a farm comes up for sale it has to go to a young person. A government group, SAFER, can buy the farm and sell just after to the person they have chosen to be the new farmer."

In addition to the chance to buy, would-be young farmers, who must be graduates of an agricultural college to qualify, receive a £5000 grant towards the purchase price and can get a 10-year bank loan at 3.8% interest.

The scheme has helped Christophe to realise his dream of farming in his own right. His parents and his wifes parents, farm. "But my dream was to create myself a farm not to wait for my father to retire. It would have been easier to wait five or six years but I didnt want to do that, Nathalie and I had to do it ourselves."

Now he runs his own 80ha farm, Le Buissonnet, near Montcresson- about 100km south of Paris – and grows wheat, sunflowers, beans, maize and oilseed rape. Average land prices in the area are about £2000/ha but everything on top of the land, from fertiliser to buildings is added on to that so a farm could cost double the price of the land.

&#42 Good size

"The farm is just a good size for me, it would not be economic to employ someone. It will be different in five years time but the first five will be very important This is not the best land in France but it is a good area because of the weather, it is usually dry. We get an early harvest, and early prices," says Christophe. He expects to harvest around 3.5-4t/ha of rape, 6t/ha bean, 7t/ha wheat, 11t/ha maize, 3t/ha sunflowers.

The picturesque farmhouse dates from 1880 and needs a lot of work doing to make it habitable. "It is in very bad condition, so it was a good price. We are going to restore it and think it will take one year for us to to live here and 10 years for us to get everything done."

He does not expect any trouble with the planning authorities over his renovations to the farmhouse as long as he keeps the roof and outside walls the same. Inside there will five bedrooms, two bathrooms, kitchen, 100m dining room and a living room.

The farm has a river and woodland – trees are a great passion with him but there is no grant aid for planting them. There are no rights of way – the public has no right of access to private land in France.

Christophe does not farm organically but he says he respects nature and tries to think of the future. While all arable at present, he would like to keep sheep and where he has wheat this year, soon there will be a lake, holding water for irrigation.

"My father, who farms in the area, grows maize and hard wheat for pasta and the quality has to be perfect. He irrigates 24-hours-a-day and has to pump water from 40m. It has been very dry for the past three or four years and that is why I am creating the lake on my farm," explains Christophe. "I prefer to reserve water and use it in the summer because it is better to pump it onto the soil. There is a limit to what you can take from the land and we must respect the soil and what is under the soil."

Farming close by his family, who have farmed in the area since the 19th century, is a bonus. The couple get along well with his parents who are very proud of Anne Flore, their first grandchild. "My parents are very happy to see me every day. Before, in Paris, it was all work and I was tired on Saturdays so they didnt see me a lot for six or seven years."

&#42 helping father

"I help my father and he helps me – anything electronic or technical is my job! He gives me advice, but not money," says Christophe, who also has a sister, who lives in Montpelier.

He does not seem to miss the cut and thrust of his previous job. "My colleagues said I was very lucky to stop working in the city and to go to the country and create something. It is a fashionable thing to do but I did not do it for the fashion. Nathalie likes it very much and before I was always thinking about it – all that looking for tomorrow has disappeared."

He is optimistic about the future of farming and is certain that it is what he wants for his family. "I came back to the land because I am sure it will be good. Maybe people will increase but there will be no more land. Food and energy will be a problem in 20 years time and we will need green crops like rape for energy."

His elegant wife Nathalie works as an accountant and returned to her job 10 weeks after the birth of Anne Flore. In France, after the births of two children, mothers can stop work for up to three years but their employer must take them back if they decide to return in that period. Anne Flore, the most content of babies, spends a day each with her two grandmothers, and three days with a child minder while Nathalie is at work. At two and half years old, she can expect to go to school each morning and a school bus will collect her. Between five and six years, she will start school full time.

Christophe is happy France is in the EU and does not see it as a threat to his Frenchness. "For the money we are in Europe but when you live here you are in France. People still buy the French products first. People still support the farmer. When it is bad for the farmer they are sympathetic. A lot of people living in the towns have people in the country. But we are only 3% of the population so have not got political power." he explains.

He is happy he has returned to his farming roots and is determined to make a success of Le Buissonnet (it means little hedges). "I have put 90% of my money into the farm and have 10% for security. If it doesnt work I will find a job and do two jobs. The 35-hour week that the French people like is not my way," he says, adding that those hours and six weeks holiday are average in France.

"I want this way of life for my family," he says. "It is my dream."

Christophe Demars has returned to his farming roots and feels it will provide a good way of life for his wife Nathalie and baby Anne Flore. The couple expect to move into the old farmhouse (left) they are restoring, in about a year.