Close to where I live in France there’s a very active organic farm called Domaine Saint Laurent, which produces vegetables, dairy products and meat. It has a stand at the local market and you usually have to queue there for quite a while as it gets mobbed. It’s been operating since 1992, with some changes of staff along the way.
Recently I had a chat with one of the interns there who explained to me that the farm is currently undergoing a change of ownership. What he told me about the future plans for the farm reminded me of some of the investment models described elsewhere on this site, so I thought I’d write a few words about it.
The farm is currently owned by a consortium of 85 individuals who rent it to the farmers. This has caused some instability as, if one of the owners dies, it’s unclear what status the inheritor would have: what if they aren’t interested in supporting the farm? Would they be able to sell their share if they want? What would happen to the value of the land then? There’s no long-term guarantee that the farm will remain a farm.
This is quite a problem in France, as elsewhere: apparently 1300 hectares of agricultural land disappear under concrete every week here. The price of land has increased by almost 40% in recent years, putting pressure on farmers to shoulder enormous debts if they wish to purchase their farms. Land is increasingly treated as a speculative instrument, which makes it virtually inaccessible to young farmers.
The solution which the Saint Laurent farmers have found is to arrange for the farm to be bought by an association called Terre de Liens. This association bears some similarity to an ethical bank, in which savers and investors place deposits at a bank which then undertakes to invest the money solely in enterprises or development projects that they consider to be sustainable and ethical. It also has some elements in common with equity partnerships, in which the different stakeholders in a property development project create a framework that benefits them all.
Terre de Liens occupies itself solely with organic farming, or as its promotional leaflet puts it, “supporting the installation and maintenance of agricultural activites which are respectful of humans and nature”. The way it operates is that individuals buy shares in it or make donations which are then put into the purchase of farmland. While applying to buy shares or donate you can stipulate whether you wish the money to go to a specific farm or to farms in a specific region of France.
Farmers then rent the land from Terre de Liens at an affordable price, with the understanding that the land will remain farmland well into the future, thus allowing them to make long-term plans. Of course they can buy shares as well.
The association is doing well, having grown in seven years from a tiny operation to one with 17 full-time employees. It has acquired, or is acquiring, 70 farms all over France, and 138 farmers are currently working within its network.
I’m unsure how applicable the model is to other countries as I don’t know enough about the differences in property law from one country to another, but it strikes me that this might be a useful approach for those seeking to establish equity partnerships in English-speaking countries: you could regard Terre de Liens as a sort of umbrella association for bringing together small-scale development projects and providing expertise and stability for all involved. Of course in this case the development in question is agricultural rather than property development, but the basic philosophy of overcoming conflicts of interest by operating within a partnership-based framework remains the same. Something to think about, perhaps.
Featured image: apple tree. Author: Paul Brunskill. Source: http://www.sxc.hu/photo/1054931
Edited on Sept 10 2019 to clarify that the farm is no longer biodynamic.
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Caroline Whyte has been involved with Feasta since 2002. She studied ecological economics at Mälardalen University in Sweden, writing a masters thesis on the relationship between central banking and sustainability. She contributed to Feasta’s books Fleeing Vesuvius and Sharing for Survival. Along with four other Feasta climate group members she helped to launch the CapGlobalCarbon initative at the COP-21 summit in Paris in December 2015, and will be promoting CapGlobalCarbon at the COP-26 in Glasgow. She is also an active member of Feasta’s currency group . She is a steering group member of the Wellbeing Economy Hub for Ireland, is Feasta’s alternate representative on the Environmental Pillar, and is one of three Pillar members of the Irish National Economic and Social Council (NESC). She lives in central France, from where she edits the Feasta website.