Welcome to our Spring newsletter 2018. It’s been a hugely successful period for TFE since Christmas, despite it starting with what had been a big setback. They say every cloud has a silver-lining. In our case that has proven to be true. Firstly, I would like to thank and welcome all our new Members that have joined since our most recent Christmas Newsletter.
Lief and Kathy in among the big trees
A New Partnership – We agreed terms with the Live and Invest Overseas Publishing and Networking Organisation in March. This was after Katherine Peddicord and Lief Simon the owners came to visit us at the IRTA and Cardedeu in January as apart of their due diligence to be able to offer our opportrunity to their Client Base. We are pleased to say that after attending their fascinating conference in Panama, a number of their Members have elected to become TFE Members. To those and other new Members welcome and we at TFE are very pleased to have you on board with us on this “Truffle Adventure” of ours.
Lief and Kathie get to enjoy a great value lunch with the TFE and Micologia teams
Tree Development – A visit to the IRTA would be incomplete without a thorough examination of our trees which, are in superb condition. I can also confirm that we have ordered a further 30,000 trees bringing our total holding up to 54,700. It is our intention to accelerate tree production and planting over the next 4 to 5 years. We will be planting out our first 10 hectares of 5-year-old trees now in Autumn 2018, not March/April as my Christmas Newsletter announced, but more of that and the silver-lining later. The 20 Hectares of 3-year-old trees targeted for October/November will remain on schedule. It’s going to be a busy planting season with 30 hectares to be delivered this Autumn. All these trees will receive an additional round of male spore and bacterium treatments on planting. This will ensure a continued high and healthy male spore existence in the foundation stage of the trees establishing themselves in the plantation.
Plantations/Land – First the bad news before the silver-lining. You will recall that we had signed a form of purchase agreement on the 16th October 2017 to buy a 64 Hectare (158 acre) farm near Lafage in the Aude. You may also recall there was an issue regarding a farmer there who had given up his “fermage” – (agricultural lease) over a part of the land
Christine with an amazing rare heart shaped truffle
and that had allowed the freeholder to agree a sale with us. (You can read all the convolutions in the Christmas Newsletter on our website if you didn’t get a copy.) The week before Christmas we visited as a team, to make a site survey and draw up a planting plan. Myself, Xavi and Marcos our principal scientists, Roger our Estate Director and of course Graeme my co-Director. We spent a long but enjoyable morning there, despite it being terrible weather – cold wet and windy, which was a shock as we’d come up from Barcelona where we’d been hosting Lief and Cathy in the sunshine.
After this, we duly arrived at the Notaire’s in the centre of Castelnaudary (home of everyone’s favourite French white bean stew, Cassoulet) ready to sign the Compromis de Vent and pay down the deposit. The first curiosity was the strange helpfulness of the farmer at the property but, the second given the precision these matters are dealt with in France, was that when the Notaire started he referred to 74 hectares of land. We looked at each other and the agents puzzled and all collectively looked at the Notaire. Then with the agent the Notaire went through the parcels by their cadastrale numbers, striking out some to arrive at the “correct” hectarage of 64. This has never happened on such an occasion in my experience. Instead of signing then and there, the Notaire went through the file carefully and then said he now had everything and would prepare the Compromis de Vente and send to me for signature asap. We all left his office and I think something was just bothering me in the back of my head. Once back in the UK, I called the Notaire and asked him to send me the list of cadastrales and the plans that he had as part of the dossier of sale. He sent it over that afternoon. Imagine my shock when, I discovered that the farmer in agreeing to give up his fermage had annexed critical parcels for planting and access, including the water source, into his freehold in exchange for other unplantable parcels of his own freehold as a condition of him giving up the lease. In effect putting the squeeze on us to buy his land and farm also. The Notaire fully understood what had happened since, the immediately previous transfer of the freehold parcels would not have shown up on the cadastrale search. Had we just gone ahead and signed we would have been lumbered with a penalty for pulling out. I issued our notice of the withdrawal which, the Notaire fully supported and informed the other parties. Like anywhere in the world, in France the principle of “buyer beware” applies. But of course, this chicanery is what has put our planting behind 6 – 8 months.
Graeme and me with one of 3 – $30k trays of truffles delivered to make our inoculum for this year’s trees
Not Quite Desperation – So there we were in the second week of January – lots of trees to plant and no land and running out of space at the IRTA, since we have 30,000 new trees being germinated. I reviewed our full list of land prospects and called agents to see what the positions were. We had been to see a property on the evening of a long hot exhausting day in July last summer. We knew as we drove up on the road that led up to it at 18.45 (about 90 mins late) that, this was perfect truffle country and Marcos and Xavi like me were excited as we got nearer. We arrived and with profuse apologies to the agent, who turned out to be a Scotsman from Fife, Adam Dakin – about 25 miles north of my home city of Edinburgh, we moved across the vast hectarage with speed, taking soil samples and gabbling away to each other as the agent, his colleague and the caretaker hurried after us curiously. After the visit to the lower fields, we all headed up in the cars to the vast plateau part of the estate and continued furiously with our survey and analysis.
Dashed Hopes – By 8.30pm we were shattered having been on the go since 05.30 and sat in the beautiful local town square of Saint Martin de Londres. Not quite…. but still, very prophetically named. I mean we do have a London office and I lived there many years ago….! We had great wood fired pizza and bought some lovely artisanal merengues to take home from a charming local lady. The only two thoughts on our minds were, we must have it, BUT WHAT ABOUT THE WATER? Although it has a river running through it, “it was a dry bed when we were there” but, the agent said (he would wouldn’t he) it flowed in the winter. I got back to the UK and called the agent after 2 days saying, I want it, if we can solve the water issue. He responded almost immediately. I’m sorry Martin it’s been sold. There are two offers in for it and the owner has chosen one….
Part of the main farmhouse at Les Jasses
Silver Lining – As part of the estate prospects review, I went back to the Agent’s site with the Saint Martin de Londres property as he specialises in large wine domaines. Lo and behold there it was still advertised. I hastily put in a call and he sort of half confirmed it was still available and I received a slightly awkward response to my question of why didn’t you come back to us, when the sale fell through? He explained that it was through other agents and that he wasn’t absolutely sure. He put in a quick phone call and the owner’s representative confirmed it was still available.
The Clever Part – We still had to resolve the water issue. I have long used the French Geological Survey data and maps to pre-check soil and strata on land prospects. Whilst looking across their site I decided to see what was in their “section ecological” and discovered that they have a large and extensive water survey with detailed national mapping. One map specifically shows all the analytical “forage” (bore holes) they have drilled all over France.
A vast lake revealed under Les Jasses
I was excited to find one on our property. By zooming in I discovered that the bore hole marker is clickable and up came a data file box which, had a number of clickable information points in it. I became increasingly excited when I clicked on one link and it brought up a form showing the borehole depth – top and bottom and lots of other information in detail. What I wasn’t prepared for was the next link. I clicked on it and it opened-up a new pdf web page which, produced a map showing a giant 5.09 km2 underground aquifer/lake with a depth of 142m down to over 600m. In other words, a limitless source of water with a government access point that we were allowed automatically to use subject to a notification to the Herault (Departmental) water authority. I then discovered that there was a second analytical bore hole on our land on the last visit and this explained the slightly different depth information we were getting from the clickable links.
Land A’ Hoy – So armed with all this information and the knowledge that there was still competition for the land, we quickly re-visited and just as quickly got our opening offer in. I had got on very well with the man who looks after the property, on our original visit and that was much the same again when Graeme and I visited with Phil Rees the co-agent of Adam Dakin. Little did any of us realise that this would be the key to securing the property. But there would be one final twist. For those of you that have been with us through all the complications that have plagued our (or anybody’s) land buying attempts in France over the past 3 years, it will be no surprise. So, having agreed the price with the vendor, after the usual toing-and-froing and seen off the others we keenly awaited the Compromis de Vente. What came through in its place shocked even Adam, who declared he’s seen everything in two decades of large estate deals except what we got.
Unilateral What? – It was a document that sort of, looked like a Compromiis de Vent, but was actually something called a Unilateral Promesse d’Achat. It was quickly explained that the owner of the property (the father of the Vendor) who had originally instructed the sale, had died in recent weeks. This meant that the property now legally fell into two heritable interests – 75% the daughter (vendor and signatory) and 25% her mother/the widow who had been living in the apartment last year when we first visited but, was now in a care home. Her daughter was her guardian and the French courts provide that in such a case a judge must approve the price agreed, so as not to disadvantage a minor party in guardianship. Until the judge approved the price agreed all that could be signed was the Unilateral Agreement.
Me, Graeme Robert & Adam at Les Jasses
A word in the right ear – We agreed a date for the signing of the Unilateral Agreement and Adam, our agent said something in a phone call that I thought was odd. He explained that we had become the preferred buyer because Mme Estimbre, the wife of the caretaker, had on the words of Robert the caretaker put in, a really good word saying I was a good man and the vendor should sell to me. It was odd, and we didn’t really understand this comment’s significance until Graeme and I flew over for the signing. It turned out to be crucial since, the Estimbre’s were close friends of the mother and father and advisors of the daughter. It was also significant that Mme Estimbre was the Notaire’s assistant in charge of the sale. The Vendor had come down from the Centre of France to meet us and wanted to show us around the property in her own way and talk things through personally. We got on very well. The signing went well and we all retired to the local bar for a celebratory drink. What we now needed to do was wait for the judge to approve the price and this was expected to take 6 – 8 weeks. After the signing Mme Estimbre confirmed that the vendor would not come down again and was delighted to be able to sell Les Jasses to us and that Mme Estimbre would be the signatory with power of attorney going forward. In other words, we had a done deal and that has proved to be so going forward.
Here Comes the Judge! – Anything to do with a judge or a court procedure in France usually takes twice as along as they say it will and it takes a long time anyway. We waited 9 months for a previous court valuation that a judge ordered to be completed in 90 days. So, we didn’t hold our breath on 6 – 8 weeks. TWO WEEKS, two glorious short weeks and the judge had approved the sale price….I’m still basking in the glow of that speed of pen to paper from on high. The Compromis De Vente was quickly drafted, agreed, signed and the deposit paid. Not only that, we have been granted an unconditional lease to take over the property until completion. Trees will begin being delivered from this Friday 25th May and the team will be there to receive them over the next two to three weeks.
The end of the beginning – it has been truly a long slog with so many bureaucratically imposed conditions, along with the machievellian antics of some French farmers, the shenanagins of the SAFER etc. However, we have arrived at the best outcome we possibly could have, in terms of the soil, the location, topography and water resources of our first plantation. This is France and there are still many administrative and bureaucratic procedures to go through and permissions to gain but farming in France is fraught with these necessities for everybody.
Nevertheless, we think it will prove to be well worth the arduous journey it has been to get to this point. We look forward to getting our first trees in the ground later this year and in time being able to welcome all our Members to come and join us at Domain Les Jasses.