Letting your local farmer use your land and receiving the odd envelope, a bale of hay, a slab of meat or vegetables in exchange may put you in a tricky situation.
Ghislaine has retired in a sunny corner of the French countryside for a while now and owns a few acres of agricultural lands next to her property but she is no farmer. Every Tuesday at the local village’s market, she buys local products from a local farmer, Romain, and she mentioned to him that she could use someone to cut the grass. Romain offered to let his cattle graze on her lands and generally maintain the plots in good condition. They shook hands on it and Romain started to look after Ghislaine’s land every now and then.
On one occasion, Romain thanked Ghislaine by giving her a few Euros, another time he gave her some hay and later, he gave her some meat and vegetables. After a few years, a paper was signed in order to formalise the fact that Romain was using the land for free. This seemingly working arrangement carried on until Ghislaine died.
On Ghislaine’s death, her children receiving the estate decided to sell the property and the lands attached to it. As they did not wish to burden potential buyers with an agreement with a local farmer, they asked Romain not to use the land anymore.
But Romain refused and carried on taking his cattle to the land. A 3-year litigation procedure ensued and eventually the Cour de cassation ruled on 7th March 2012 that because on the first year of the arrangement (in 2004) Ghislaine received an envelope of cash and also accepted hay, meat and vegetables and, despite the fact that it cannot be considered as a regular payment, the arrangement could be deemed a rural lease.
Rural lease (bail rural)
A rural lease is a contract by which one of the parties binds himself to have the other carry out farming activities on agricultural property during at least 9 years, and at a certain price which the latter commits to pay.
Although it is easier to evidence a rural lease with a written agreement, a verbal lease is valid and can be proven by any means.
The landlord cannot refuse the renewal of the lease unless:
- two rents have not be paid,
- the upkeep of the land has not been maintained,
- the farmer has reached retirement age,
- the farmer has sublet the land,
- the landlord wishes to farm the land.
A landlord not renewing the lease must notify the farmer 18 months in advance and usually a Court order will be required to authorise the non-renewal.
The lease does not end upon the farmer’s death but is transferred to the surviving spouse or the children (if they are also farmers).
Finally, in case of sale of the land, the farmer benefits from a pre-emption right.
Preventing the application of a rural lease
Considering the terms and conditions of a rural lease, it is easy to understand why one would prefer to avoid such situation. It is still possible for a farmer to use your land but a few points should be considered.
Firstly, it is important to keep the use of the land free. As the recent Court case shows, even one payment can justify the application of the rural lease.
Secondly, a written agreement signed by the parties outlining the terms and conditions of use and the gratuity of the service is the most suitable evidence to thwart any claim that rural lease rules should be applied.
In any case, it must be pointed out that it is always beneficial to seek independent legal advice to help you through the intricacies of an agreement with your local farmer and prevent potential pitfalls.
 The Court of final appeal for civil and criminal matters which rulings can usually be relied upon as case law.