Marion and Benjamin are pig and dairy farmers on a community funded farm in Brittany, France. Agricultural engineers by training, they have reverse engineered the process of farming to make sure they get to take time off and make a decent living. In part 1 of a fascinating conversation, Valérie Geslin, project coordinator for Nos Campagnes en Résilience, unpacks their experiments in rural resilience.
Marion and Benjamin welcome us in the farm yard with a big smile. Their farm, “Le Buis Sonnant” in Brittany, is a place that quietly questions the current state of farming and how it’s changing. Buying land, succession, sharing of responsibilities… discussion around the hot topics is even-handed and open-minded.
Agricultural engineers by training, Marion and Benjamin each chalked up experience in a variety of fields before starting their own farm. Volunteering in a village in Madagascar was an eye-opener:
“Sharing, living from day to day, how lucky we are to have our system, to be born in France, it’s amazing. Feeding our neighbours is what we do and what we want to do.”
Marion’s grandparents had a farm, and that’s where they began farming in 2015. In all there were three member in a cooperative set-up (GAEC, or Groupement Agricole d’Exploitation en Commun). For the first year they received financial, social, economic and administrative support from CIAP 44 (the regional branch of Coopératives d’installation en agriculture paysanne – a national grouping of cooperatives to support new entrants) as part of a “creative farmer” apprenticeship. The final step was to buy the farm. To do this Marion and Benjamin opted for a minimal bank loan and a community funding drive.
Community funded farm
Marion : “In June 2016, we decided to have an SCI (société civile immobilière, a community business to buy property) buy the farm. Terre de Liens gave us support to buy the buildings and land, and to raise money in the community. We raised €140,000 euros in 42 days. We’d spread the word on flyers, Facebook, our website, and in public meetings. We now have 120 associates. The SCI has more than 400 shares at €250 a share. Everyone’s money is their own and they can get it back whenever they want. There’s no property speculation.”
Benjamin : “We launched the funding drive and succeeded in a month and a half with people who got involved because it was organic farming, others because they knew us, others because they were neighbours or local people who thought it would be nice to have a small farm in the area…. and others who wanted to put there money somewhere else than the bank. They’re into ethical, ecological economics.”
Marion and Benjamin set the price of the shares, striking a balance between meeting their needs and limiting the number of shareholders.
Marion : “Legally speaking there is no maximum number of shares, but we’re careful to ensure that if someone wants to leave they can be bought out. We set a ceiling of €10,000 per person”.
The most important thing for Marion and Benjamin is for the shareholders to have a connected with the farm.
“It’s not just money in the bank.”
Benjamin : “We rent the buildings and the land from the SCI; the money is then re-distributed to the shareholders. The advantage is we reduced the amount of the loan. And it stopped speculation on the property and the land. This allows the farm to be passed on, which is important and something we’ve thought about from the start. We don’t want to spend our time repaying loans and then ask the next generation to pay us back our investment and then some. All these lenders are backers of the project and therefore potential customers. With the SCI, we thought it was important for consumers to also have a voice in farming. Not everyone has the vocation or wants to do this job. We made this choice and we’re very happy with it.”
Since one member left, Marion and Benjamin are the only two members of the GAEC. They have one full-time employee on the farm and a few seasonal workers to get through the year.
Benjamin : “It’s not how we’d want to do things. We find ourselves in a system where we’re two managers with people we give orders to, even though everyone works independently. In practice we share responsibilities but legally it’s another story. We want to share responsibilities, to share the farm. We manage to pay ourselves a wage of €1300 each. We’re happy with the working rhythm for the money we get. On top of that we get benefits: food, cars, 5 weeks’ holidays.”
Growing the GAEC
People are at the heart of this venture. Maxime and Sophie are to join the GAEC as new members this month, and Marion and Benjamin are looking forward to working together to build a new vision for the future of the farm.
Benjamin : “We’re going to work on the people power that keeps the farm going, in keeping with our shared values.”
It’s an opportunity for Marion and Benjamin to pause and take stock of what’s important for them, what’s negotiable, and what are the dealbreakers. Not everything can change of course but they are open to new ideas.
New legal structure, new horizons?
Benjamin : “We always have succession in mind, the idea of allowing someone to take over easily. It’s too complicated to get into and out of farming. With all the economic and administrative hurdles, it’s a real obstacle course. If the farm was a SCOP [Société Coopérative Ouvrière de Production – a cooperative structure that is unavailable to farmers but commonly used by food processors] it would make it all easier. Because it’s a GAEC [Groupement Agricole d’Exploitation en Commun, the cooperative structure commonly used by farms], we’re forced to buy out social shares. We’ve kept them at a minimum – €500 euros per person – but they’re linked to an account where the goal is to have a successful business. We’d be happy with €1500 and 8 weeks’ holidays. That’s where we want to get to.
“We try not to hold money in the business. A SCOP allows for that and you’re legally obliged to not hold onto it: a share of the money is held for the companies and the rest is divided among the workers. When you sell a GAEC, that’s not the case. The newcomers have to buy out the outgoing members. So they have to borrow money and can’t pay themselves a wage. What sort of a life decision is that? You start out at the age of 30 but don’t worry you’ll be happy at 60. We live our lives in the day-to-day without slaving for the future. We don’t want to mess around but we want to earn a wage today. We want to enjoy our kids today.
“The GAEC is very advantageous fiscally at the moment. Employer contributions are very low. The SCOP doesn’t have these advantages. The contributions are higher… but you can have a deferred wage for your retirement without capitalising on the farm. The models have to change.”
Translated by Louise Kelleher
Coming up in part 2: Marion and Benjamin battle stereotypes in farming, probe the perils of unpaid work, and explain how opening up to the wider community is good for their farm.
Nos Campagnes En Résilience is ARC2020’s project to help build rural resilience in France. Visit the project page here and follow us on Instagram, LinkedIn and Facebook. If you’d like to get involved, contact our project coordinator Valérie Geslin.
Teaser photo credit: Climate change means watermelons can grow in Brittany… Marion et Benjamin of Le Buis Sonnant farm. Image credit: Valérie Geslin