SAFERs are the cornerstone of the French rural land market. These Land Agencies are non profit-making private companies under government supervision. They were created in 1960 to intervene on the land market so as to foster balanced, sustainable rural land development.
The SAFERs are regional bodies, with varying scope, orientations and activities, depending on the local context and composition of their governing bodies. SAFERs are managed by a board of directors composed of diverse shareholders: local Agricultural Chambers, local authorities, banks financing the agricultural sector, farmers’ unions and other stakeholders such as environmental NGOs.
The activities of SAFERs are strictly regulated by rural law and controlled by representatives of the agricultural and finance ministries. Positions and policies implemented by the SAFER may vary depending on the political and union balance of their region of intervention. Until the 1980s, the majority farmers’ unions (FNSEA and CNJA) had a strong influence in the way SAFERs were developped since trade union pluralism was not recognised. Nowadays SAFERs board and attribution committee have been open to other farmers’ unions representatives at a regional level (promoting alternative ways of farming) and non-agricultural stakeholders.
The SAFERs are funded by a mix of resources: public funds, which have steeply decreased over the past decades, and the corollary development of commercial activities (profit made on the buy/re-sale of land, technical advice to public and private owners, etc.).
SAFERs intervene as regulator of the land sales market: they must be notified of any rural land sale and can intervene to act as intermediary between the seller and prospective buyers. Most of the time, they come to an amicable agreement, the SAFERs helping to channel projects to the buyer with the most adequate project, rather than the highest bidder. In 10% of their interventions, when an amicable agreement is not reached, they can pre-empt the purchase of any piece of land so as to channel it towards priority uses and users. When pre-empting, they can decide to buy at the price offered or to ask for price revision:
• if there is no price revision, they buy the land from the seller,
• if they ask for price revision, the seller may agree and the sale is concluded. The seller may also decide to withdraw the land from the market. Or the seller may contest the price offered by the SAFER before a judge. The SAFER will then have to buy the land at the price set by the judge.
Once the SAFER owns the land, its governing body decides to whom it will sell back the land, based on national guidelines and local priorities – e.g.: a young farmer entering farming, an established farmer who needs additional land. Since 2014, it is mandatory for SAFER to allocate the land in priority to an organic farmer if the land was previously in organic farming.
On average, SAFERs intervene on 20 to 30% of all land sales. 90% of their interventions are amicable ones, and they pre-empt in only 10% of their interventions. SAFERs clearly contribute to better land distribution and use. They also have a direct and indirect impact on price moderation (albeit hard to quantify). SAFERs have made it possible to drastically limit the increase in farmland prices and inequalities of land distribution. While they act in favour of establishing new farmers, their current prerogatives do not enable them to meet as well as one could wish the major challenges of massive farmland concentration and generational renewal in France.
Above all, limitations of the SAFERs’ impact lie in external factors. First, the SAFERs can only work with farmers/ future farmers who have financial capacity to buy the land on offer, which means that established farmers and conventional farmers are better placed, either because they have their own capital, or because they can more easily get bank loans than future farmers and agroecological famers. Besides, SAFERs act on the sales market, but not on the rent market: with nearly 80% of French farmland under tenancy, it leaves most of land deals out of their scope. Finally, the SAFERs are not competent to control the transfer of farmland operated by farm companies (legal persons for whom a transfer of land is actually a transfer of shares), which now manage about 60% of French farmland.
Various improvements could consolidate the role, legitimacy and efficiency of SAFERs and their capacity to actually promote the entry of a new generation and agroecological forms of farming:
1- Fund the tools developed by SAFER to facilitate generational renewal and environment protection. This funding could largely come from local authorities. A better coordination between SAFERs’ attribution committees and the priorities set on a regional level (Schéma régionaux des exploitations agricoles) would also go in the right direction.
2- Encourage local authorities and other stakeholders (environmental organisations, consumers groups, etc.), who are now entitled to take part in the governance of SAFERs, to actually sit on the board and technical committee.
3- Enable SAFER to really regulate land sales (share transfers) among farm companies (at the moment, they can only intervene when 100% of the shares are sold, which is unfortunately easy to bypass)
4- Consolidate the long-term and public resources of SAFERs to enable them to better act in the public interest. In particular, consolidate the capacity of SAFER to hold land for some time until a farmer corresponding to the priorities (e.g. a new entrant) is found.
Michel Merlet, Robert Levesque, The SAFERs, an original land market regulation mechanism that is operated by the state and farmers’ organisations in France, 2008 (also available in Spanish)
Loi n° 2014-1170 d’avenir pour l’agriculture, l’alimentation et la forêt du 13 octobre 2014
Robert Levesque, Terres agricoles – Les acquisitions chinoises dans le Berry : un cas européen, in La Revue foncière, no.11, May-June 2016
Tanguy Martin, Terre de Liens et SAFER, ensemble pour l’installation, in Revue POUR, Le Foncier agricole : lieu de tensions et bien commun, 220, (4), 2013, pp 193-198,
AEIAR, Status of agricultural land market regulation in Europe: Policies and instruments, 2015
Cour des comptes (Court of Auditors), Les SAFER : les dérives d’un outil de politique d’aménagement agricole et rural, Annual public report, February 2014
FN SAFER, Le prix des terres 2016, May 2017, 148p (Annual report on land prices and the state-of-play of the rural estate market in France)
French Ministry of Agriculture, CGAAER – General Council on agriculture and food, L’exercice de la mission de service public des SAFER de métropole, 2013
To learn all about the governance, ways of working and results of SAFER, read the two documents for download.