IF YOU want to start farming or make wine or if you are selling a farm, forest or other rural business, your Société d'Aménagement Foncier et d'Etablissement Rural (SAFER) may be involved.
There are 27 of these not-for-profit bodies, set up since 1960 under the control of the Agriculture Ministry. They help local agriculture and rural trades thrive and protect the environment – mainly by buying and then judiciously reselling rural property.
About 80,000 hectares a year is bought by SAFERs and sold to whoever is judged to have a project in the public interest. Buyers could include a farmer or wine maker, a
mairie, or a body such as a national park authority or coastal protection body, the Conservatoire du Littoral.
SAFER means the "land development and rural establishment society" and was created after pressure from the young farmer's union CNJA (now JA – Jeunes Agriculteurs).
Modernisation of the economy and agriculture meant a lot of farmland was coming on to the market and they wanted to make sure it was fairly shared out. One aim was to avoid rich families buying up all the land in an area at the expense of a diversity of local agriculture.
SAFER's effectiveness led, in 1999, to its role being extended to other matters concerning the share-out and management of rural land. SAFER is systematically informed
by notaires of pending sales of land in agricultural or natural zones, and, if necessary, has a preemptive purchase right.
However, a spokeswoman, Fabienne Marion, said this was usually exercised on demand from an interested party, often the commune.
"We are interested in agricultural or other rural properties – it could be an inn or café and the mairie might ask us to buy it. If it's an inn, we would look for an innkeeper to take it on to maintain the area's economic vitality.
"Or we might buy a piece of land that needs to be protected to safeguard nature and biodiversity."
A preemptive right might be used, for example, where a farmer is planning to sell to a Parisian but a young local farmer, who needs to expand, asks SAFER to intervene.
SAFER will usually buy at the asking price, but it should be a reasonable market price.
"Say a rich Californian wants to buy a vineyard at 10 times the market price, which would push up the prices of agricultural land in the area and make it unaffordable to local farmers, SAFER may preempt. Or if a billionnaire decides they want to buy the whole wine production of the Languedoc..."
Where SAFER makes its own, lower, price offer, the seller can refuse and withdraw the sale. SAFER preempts only after permission from the state and on advice from its "technical committee", a panel of local experts including representatives of chambers of agriculture, banks, agricultural insurers and unions, local councils and the state.
It is not a common procedure: in 2008 it preempted 1,590 times, less than 1% of sales notified to it. Where someone wants to sell a rural property, they can contact SAFER
directly, rather than waiting to see if it preempts. You can also go to it if you are looking to buy.
For sellers, benefits include guaranteed payment in an agreed timeframe and knowing their property will be sold to someone with plans that benefit the local area.
Ms Marion said: "SAFER has a very fine knowledge of the terrain that estate agencies don't usually have – knowing who's about to retire, who wants to buy, who's looking
to set up."
Should you be interested in selling, you need to:
- Arrange a visit from a local branch expert who will evaluate the property's value (check the website www.safer.fr/contacts.asp). SAFER also offer a land evaluation service to owners not looking to sell.
- Agree on a price and time frame for the sale
- SAFER looks for candidates by advertising in two local papers and at the mairie and on its own property site (www.proprietes-rurales.com). It will also draw on its local knowledge of who may take it on.
- SAFER chooses the best candidate to sell to after applications are studied by the technical committee. When it comes to buying, by going through SAFER you potentially benefit from a fair market price and from expert support and advice.
- If you see a property of interest on its site, you fill out a form describing what you would do with it. The site has an English version and includes, on going to press, opportunities from a vineyard in the Loir-et-Cher or a riding centre in Haute-Savoie, to a big stone-built farmhouse near Auch, Gers, with facilities suitable for combining livestock rearing and running farm holidays. You can also save a wish list on the site, so as to be alerted if something suitable arises.
In some cases you are asked to pay a deposit, which would be fully refunded if the property is not sold to you. Your candidature will be considered on its merits along with any others received. It is also possible to talk to the SAFER for a region that interests you for advice on upcoming sales.
- Buying through SAFER involves fees of about 6-12%, however, there is a tax benefit as you are exempted from land registration fees (usually 4-8%) if you promise to maintain agricultural use. One farmer who bought through SAFER, Stéphane Sansonetto from Cornebarrieu, Haute-Garonne, converted to farming after being a builder then a swimming pool installer.
He took an agricultural course before contacting SAFER and said: "Agricultural land is a rare commodity in this department and all the harder to find on the edges of towns, which fitted my plan to sell direct from the farm. SAFER proposed a 15ha plot 3km from my home, which was ideal.
"The competition was tough – some people with a more classic farming profile than me wanted it, but SAFER had confidence in me. I now grow wheat and sunflowers that
I make into flour, oil and pasta that I sell from home."