More stability but not much more wealthy

6 July 2001

More stability but not much more wealthy

FRENCH farmers enjoy greater income stability than their UK counterparts, but they are not a whole lot richer, says John Corkhill, who came to farm in France 12 years ago.

Before repatriating, Mr Corkhill ran a family garden centre at Bracknell, Berks, but had a burning desire to farm on his own account. "There was no farm in the family and I was not keen on becoming a county council tenant."

The decision to come to France was a family one, prompted by his parents and sisters decision to sell up in the UK and take on a holiday business at La Bouliner, near Montmorillon in the mid-west.

Attached to the maison de maitre was a 110ha (272-acre) sheep farm, which Mr Corkhill took over in 1989.

"We found the combined business through a UK-based agent, which was advertising in farmers weekly," he recalls. "At the time it was a buyers market and there were lots of properties to look at. That has changed now and land prices have doubled, driven mainly by the influx of foreigners."

As with all land purchases in France, the transfer had to be approved by the SAFER, a government quango. The SAFER has enormous power, including the right to compulsory purchase. It also acts as an agent, competing with the private sector.

Once placed with the SAFER, anyone can stake a claim on a holding within two months, for example a neighbouring farmer looking to expand or a young farmer. The SAFER decides who has the best case.

Mr Corkhill was the favoured applicant, given that his family was taking on the whole business.

And, even though he had bought the farm outright, he was still able to apply for installation aid, the same as any Frenchman.

"Our agent did the bulk of the work," Mr Corkhill recalls. "Despite my national certificate in agriculture, I still had to do a 40-hour basic course at Civray agricultural college, to introduce me to the French banking and social security system.

"I then had to prepare a three-year business plan for the farm we had bought." This was done in association with the ADASEA (which manages all young farmer applications), for a fee of 4000 francs.

The study was submitted to a commission mixte, made up of civil servants, bankers and farmers, who approved a 69,000 francs grant to help finance the first three years farming. "This was quite a small grant compared with some. But the first 70% arrived within three months and was welcome nonetheless."

A condition of the grant was that Mr Corkhill stayed in farming for 10 years and had to achieve a target income of between 40,000 francs and 85,000 francs in the first three years.

He also took advantage of a 400,000 francs loan, (paid back at less than 3% interest over 12 years), to pay for machinery and renovation work. "I had already bought the inventory off the outgoing farmer, but this did not seem to matter, as they were keen for us to succeed on the farm."

As a young farmer – he was 25 when he started – Mr Corkhill enjoyed reduced social security charges for his first three years.

Then there were the tax advantages. "There are two basic tax systems for farmers in France – the real system, where the farmer submits factual accounts, or the forfeit system, where tax is at a flat rate regardless of profit.

"We have always used the real system, as our turnover exceeds 500,000 francs. But tax thresholds for farmers are much higher than for other sectors of the economy. Like most French farmers, I have never paid tax as I have never made enough income."

Backed with this support, Mr Corkhill farmed for nine years at La Bouliner, before selling to a local French farmer, through the SAFER. Even though the value of the farm had gone up substantially, it was still below the 4 francs/sq m gain required to trigger capital gains tax.

"I wanted a fresh challenge and set about finding a new farm further south. I used a combination of local agents and the SAFER, as well as looking at newspapers, but there was not much around."

Eventually he settled on the 100ha (247-acre) La Grange Villedon near Mezières-sur-Issoire. The farm, with buildings, was secured for 1m francs, well below the 1.6m francs asking price, fully justifying the flat rate 80,000 francs agents fee.

Once more, government help was available to make the transition, with a 100,000 francs aide mutation grant.

One of the first things to do was to secure a new droit dexploitation, literally a licence to farm. "Without this, I would not qualify for any subsidies. I already had this right from my previous farm, but it counted for nothing when I moved département. It is amazing how often this bit of paper gets overlooked by British agents installing farmers in France."

Similarly, Mr Corkill had to acquire more sheep quota. "I was running 750 Texel Charolais crosses at La Bouliner, but the quota could not move with me. Getting hold of new quota was not a problem, as there is more than enough in France and it is free." Another 500 units were acquired.

As well as farming sheep, Mr Corkhill has also started with outdoor pigs on contract with a local pig group. "We are producing weaners from 100 sows which leave the farm at three weeks. The deal is set up so that we rent the sows and own the arks, though the pig group supplies the feed. If we were farming purely on contract, we would have to pay full social security charges, which are crippling. This way we are more involved and can claim all the write-offs. That is the name of the game in France – not to appear too wealthy!"

Most accountants and even the ADASEA and Chambres dAgriculture are very good at advising farmers on how to make the most of the system.

"Having said that, British farmers should not think it is easy.

It is hard to find farms and there are plenty of disreputable agents who do not do the job properly. But for those that are prepared to make a go of it, there are opportunities. Basically, it is a way of life, but it is not a rich mans game."


&#8226 460,000 full-time farmers.

&#8226 220,000 part-time farmers.

&#8226 Annual turnover 316bn francs (£31.6bn).

&#8226 3.6% of gross national product.

&#8226 Worlds second largest export surplus – 60bn francs (£6bn).

&#8226 Farmed area 28m ha (69m acres).

&#8226 46% of land is Less Favoured Area.

&#8226 Average farm size 57ha (140 acres).

&#8226 Eligible arable land costs 25,400 francs/ha (£944/acre).

&#8226 Permanent pasture costs 16,000 francs/ha (£594/acre).

&#8226 Rents average 1000 francs/ha (£37/acre) for arable and 500 francs/ha (£19/acre) for pasture, for nine-year minimum tenancy.

&#8226 Wheat averages 8t/ha, milk averages 7000 litres/cow.

&#8226 Maize silage more common than grass, getting full area aid.

&#8226 Over 6000 new entrants a year, the highest in Europe (40%), receiving an average 110,000 francs each (£10,100).


SAFER – a government quango, which oversees all land transfers, to ensure land prices remain stable. Prioritises who can buy a farm, giving preference to young farmers or those looking to expand. Has power to compulsorily purchase.

ADASEA – local government body responsible for administering young farmers grants and loans, and all agri-environmental measures. Also keeps lists of farms available.

Exchange rate at time of going press, £1 = 10.892 francs.

As a rough guide, use £1 = 10 francs, or knock off a zero to get from francs to pounds.

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