We are unable to sell our property in France as a farmer holds rights over part of the land, says despairing French property owner Roger Bingham.
We bought our property, an old farm with ten hectares in the Lot-et-Garonne, in November 2000.
About a year later we were introduced to a local farmer who asked if he could cultivate our land which adjoined seven hectares of his own. He had a sound reputation in the area and so we agreed on parcelles amounting to just under six hectares. The farmer has more than one hundred hectares of his own.
The farmer later asked me to sign a bit of paper “to confirm the allocated parcelles for the notaire” which I did. I did not receive a copy of the “paper”; my wife, the joint owner, signed nothing.
At the time and repeatedly over the following years, the farmer agreed that he would leave the land if we needed it or if we sold the property.
We receive an annual rent, which has remained the same since 2002, the first harvest. We have always regarded the farmer as a friend and met him and his wife at various local, social events.
We put our property up for sale, details of which can be seen here.
An estate agent suggested that we ask the farmer to sign a waiver.
In August 2014 we contacted him and asked him to sign the document. He made no reply.
Before Christmas we again contacted him and asked him to meet with us which he agreed to. We explained the situation to him but he was non-committal and just avoided answering direct questions and spoke about the rural land agency S.A.F.E.R.
We ended the meeting without a solution.
We recently received an offer on our property; the prospective purchasers wanted all ten hectares.
Over a two week period we tried to contact the farmer in writing, by telephone and by text. To this day he has not responded to any of our calls.
We had to inform our purchasers of this set-back and in due course they withdrew their offer saying “even if the farmer vacates the land during the purchase our understanding is that he could still come back at some point in the future”. That is not true, but it is the advice they received from their UK lawyer.
They continued “we feel that even should he vacate the land we would then have a neighbour who undoubtedly would bear us some ill feeling and we don't wish to start our new life in France in that situation.”
And “ we have to consider the worst case scenario which at this current time all points to the fact that the farmer has a lot of rights on his side and would continue to do so even if you resolved the land issue with him and may still be a major concern for us in the future”.
It is now our understanding that a farmer who cultivates land owned by others is, subject to contract, permitted to use the land for nine years. At the end of this period the right of use automatically rolls-over for a further nine years. Written notice is required to prevent this roll-over. I have never seen or heard of this before. I am sure that it is not widely known by those who buy property in France.
We have now lost our sale and so we contacted the farmer through a local 'conciliateur'.
We were to meet with the farmer and the conciliateur to attempt to clarify the situation. The farmer did not attend but had written to the conciliateur. We are not, at this time, aware of what was written though we have a further meeting arranged and will endeavour to find out.
Immediately following the February meeting we went to a local business in which the farmer has a significant financial interest. He was surprised and somewhat embarrassed to see us. We asked him why he had not replied to our attempts to contact him and what his plans were in connection with our land.
He blustered about it being “complicated” but under pressure advised us that he was selling his land and when that was finalised he would no longer have any interest in ours. If not he would continue to cultivate.
I asked if he was looking for payment to quit and his reply was basically “make me an offer and see”.
We are not inclined to pay anyone to remove themselves from land that we own. Having said that if we were to be made a similar offer to purchase the property with all the land we would rather pay him than lose another opportunity to sell.
The worst case is that we have to wait a further until Spring 2017 before we can give the required 18 months notice for him to quit at the end of his second nine-year period - 2019.
Our neighbours (all French) are outraged at the situation and the system that allows it to happen. Indeed one of our neighbours, a farmer, blames this for a shortage of land available to small farmers. The owners are too nervous to allow anyone near their land in case they lose control of it.
Another neighbour has received no rent for at least ten years from his farmer. He went to court two years ago and the farmer was permitted to carry on cultivation if he carried out some work on the owners land. He has done nothing but is still working the land as before.
Editors Note: It is possible to grant a farmer use of your land short of creating such strong legal rights, and we shall cover this issue in a future Newsletter. That said, you need to act with great care and with good professional support.