A Naroques

Return to earth – buying farm land in France

One was for a place on the edge of an oak wood surrounded by its tumbledown barns and a hundred years of rusting machinery. The land was not great, but it was a beggars can’t be choosers market and the big upside for me was that there was a powerful spring which had never been known to dry up. This would mean I could have at least a small part of the farm irrigated, which changes the game in terms of what you can grow. A neighbour, who was keen for me to get the thumbs up because he wanted an organic grower on his doorstep, took me round to see the old couple who were selling.

A huge pile of beans was on the kitchen table. The lady sat by the fire shelling them into her apron. When she stood up to greet us, she wasn’t much bigger than the chair. Her husband was in the grip of dementia amongst other things, and had lost his teeth. There was a lot of commotion as chairs were pulled round the table and she shooed her husband around the tiny room. Being the hour between 11 and 12, there was the requirement of the aperitif. Eventually we talked. They’d lost their son and needed to sell. Over the weeks, the drama unfolded. Distant cousins returned scenting an inheritance. Local rivalries bubbled. A neighbour began to stake his claim, which on paper was quite strong, but the old couple vowed that this family would never touch a blade of their grass, even if they died there. The disliked and disowned son of another farmer on the opposite hillside was also plotting.

The owners wanted me to buy it, partly because I didn’t mind the idea of her staying in the house until she died, and partly because she didn’t want the others anywhere near it. Over the weeks, the visits went on, often arriving at nightfall and parking in the woods so that the rivals wouldn’t see my car. The pile of beans was eventually shelled. During this time, especially when cousins or lawyers were present and keen on talking amongst themselves, I made a point of speaking to the old boy. He was far less gone than his wife’s shoeing and shouting would lead you to believe. He was a window onto a lost world, who would tell his stories while clinging to my arm with his still strong though shaking hands.

In the end, the government agency called the shots and a committee was declared to be held at the town hall. I knew more or less what I was in for as I’d taken the precaution of going to see the friendly mayor , who’s welcome was mainly based on me bringing bands to his newly constructed village theatre. Nevertheless, the situation on committee day was uncomfortable. At one end of the old wooden assembly room there was a panel of 10 farmers from the area, plus a couple of bureaucrats and the mayor. Sitting on a semi circle of chairs at the other end were the 8 people interested in the land. Apart from me, everybody knew each other. The various rivalries I’d come to understand could be seen in the body language and terse handshakes. With a call to order, the process began. One by one we had to explain why we wanted the land, what we would do with it, and why we should have it rather than anyone else. Then came questions from the farming panel. Some of my answers raised eyebrows, partly because my plans differed

completely from local farming procedure, and partly some answers I now know were ridiculous. The faces of the committee members had the same blend of doubt and dislike as I’d seen in the faces of a couple at the first farm I’d visited. Sitting around the kitchen table, they had asked of my farming experience. “Nothing”, I replied, “I’ve got a lot to learn”. She didn’t speak, but the glance at her husband hit harder than a punch. Outside the town hall, awkward farewells brought things to a close, and a dozen dirty white citroens headed out from the town square. I didn’t get the land.

A year later, the 105 times expansion of the veg patch finally came good. When we took over the farm called Naroques, the previous owners and their predecessors had been there for 80 years. He moved to the farmhouse when he married aged 18 and lived there with his parents-in-law, wife and kids. It must have been tough that his son and daughter said they didn’t want to take over. But I can see why.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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