piglet 8I know I often refer to Les Fragnes as our farm, but technically it’s not. We’re a smallholding – albeit a very large one! Since we don’t sell anything we produce here on a significant scale – currently on no scale at all – we’re not farmers.

Yesterday we had a visit from the MSA. That’s the Mutualité Sociale Agricole which handles social security for farmers and they pop in from time to time to make sure we’re not farming (which we’ve been told we can’t, as you’ll see in a minute!) and therefore carrying out activities that would make us liable to pay cotisations to them as well as to the RSI, who deal with social security for commerçants, which is what we are. The daft thing is we would like to be farmers, and have been into the Chambre de l’Agriculture on many occasions to see if we could come up with some way of qualifying, but because of the way France strictly compartmentalises various forms of business into essentially farming, commerce and skilled trades/professions it makes life complicated for those of us that fall between stools and aren’t following in a traditional path. There was no way we could swing it to run our gite and fishery as part of a farm.

I’d received a scary letter by recorded delivery a few weeks ago saying that the MSA guys would be calling in on my birthday to check up on us. They wanted me to have my accounts for 2011 and 2012 ready for them, and said I could have my accountant present if I wanted! See what I mean about scary? As an autopreneur we work with a very simplified accounting system. We declare our earnings every quarter and pay the cotisations due on them. For tax purposes, since our central business is the gite, under this simplified scheme we’re allowed 71% in expenses/overheads/depreciation etc and so it’s the 29% balance that is taxable.

There were several sleepless nights.

As it transpired the guys didn’t even look at the accounts that I’d spent hours printing out, or any of the other documentation I thought they could possibly need and pulled together. They were very pleasant, quickly determined that nothing has changed since their last visit so we’re not liable to pay MSA (which we knew!) and they gave us some advice on a few things.

piglets outside field1We’ve wondered about expanding with pigs so we asked how many we’d need to become proper farmers and therefore pay cotisations to the MSA, in return for pension, health cover etc. This is something we’ve considered that Chris could do to bring in a separate line of income. The answer took us by surprise. To be a bona fide pig farmer he’d need 21 sows! That’s a lot of pigs. We currently have two – Rosie and Portia.

Now, it turns out there’s a sliding scale of official pig ownership based on how many sows you have.

<6 sows = basse cour, i.e. self-sufficient smallholding. It’s OK to sell the odd one or two surplus animals but certainly not regularly and as a major source of income.

6-21 sows = you’re still not a farmer, but you now become eligible to pay something known as the ‘solidaire’ to MSA, which is basically money for nothing. It’s a cotisation but you don’t get any social security benefits for it. However, it does mean you can make money from farming activities to a small degree.

21+ sows = proper pig farmer, pay cotisations to MSA and get benefits BUT the minimum amount of cotisations payable is €3k per year, regardless of your income, pretty much because someone says so. There doesn’t seem to be a logical reason for doing this. Why not apply a system where you pay a percentage of what you earn, whatever that is, as happens with the autoentrepreneur system? Maybe that’s a bit too obvious!

Now, this is where things get very French. You can get away with fewer pigs to qualify as a full farmer, and therefore eligible to pay cotisations but get benefits in return, if you have land. It appears that you have to have a minimum of 12.5 hectares before you can launch on this land for pigs bartering scheme, although it’s possible to wangle things a bit if you have less land. I’m a bit confused still about it so don’t quote me on this. I have a bit more research to do. However, here are the official pig/land equivalence figures:

II. Elevage porcin

Equivalence en hectares par animal

Truies (naisseurs) : 0,35 ha

Truies (naisseurs-engraisseurs) : 0,70 ha

Porcs à l’engrais: 0,029 ha

I’ll readily confess I’m not sure what the difference is between the first two types of sows. I’m guessing the truie naisseur is a pure breeding sow, but a truie naisseur-engraisseurs) is a breeding sow that you’ll also be eating at some stage. Porcs à l’engrais are weaners i.e. pigs to eat.

rosie relocate gatewaySo, if you have 12.5 hectares of land, this is equivalent to 17.85 breeding/fattening up sows. Let’s round it up to 18 to be sensible. So, you only need 3 actual pigs to make up your 21 pigs which allow you to be a real pig farmer. Simples! But remember, you need income to pay the cotisations…

So we have sums to do to work out whether it’s worth expanding to that sort of level in order to get Chris set up as a fully-fledged farmer. But for the time being we’ll carry on as a 75-acre smallholding!