Czech Republic: Cheap land needs buyers, and sellers
6 July 2009
Agricultural land costs much less in the Czech Republic than it does elsewhere in Europe. The Prague weekly Respekt wonders if a ban on land sales to non-Czechs, set to end in 2011, will herald an invasion of rich European farmers.
20 years ago, it didn’t take Mr Everdingen long to make up his mind. In his native Netherlands, he ran an organic cattle farm. And he wanted to expand. But that poses problems in such a densely populated country. When the Iron Curtain was raised, he saw a chance to pursue his plan and set off to have a look round the ex-Communist countries. He finally settled on a place called Žebráky na Tachovsku, in the western part of the Czech Republic, where he bought a farm that did not interest anyone in the area.
“Quite simply, we found excellent conditions here for our farm,” explains Mr Everdingen, who, after twenty years in [what is now] the Czech Republic, now speaks the language pretty well. His farm makes the area prettier, and the Czech neighbours of “that foreign farmer living on Czech soil” consider him one of their own.
Mr Everdingen uses part of the land he leases and lets out the rest. “But owning’s a surer bet,” he reasons: “If you buy land, you’ve a better guarantee you’ll be able to preserve your investment.” In 2011, when the temporary ban will be lifted on foreigners’ buying land in the Czech Republic, he will truly have that “owner’s guarantee”. The locals, for their part, are waiting to see what this revolution will mean for their home turf.
The Czech Republic is not the only place in Europe where foreigners can – or will be able to – buy land. These past few years, well-heeled Britons have been seized with a passion for abandoned farms in Normandy, for example, in the north of France. They have acquired a whole slew of them – and started working them. But at this point in time it is hard to predict how much interest Czech farms could fetch. The country has no official register showing how many foreigners farm land in the country – whether as tenants or owners through a strawman.
What is more, purchasing a plot in the Czech Republic is often quite complicated due to the difficulty of finding out the owner. This is a legacy of the Communist system of agricultural cooperatives, which the State still has not succeeded in winding up. Owing to the mass confiscation of private farmlands in the 1950s and their subsequent incorporation into collective farms, it is now extremely complicated to figure out who owned this or that plot at the time.
The land reforms currently under way should clear up the situation and make it easier to buy Czech land. Foreigners are still keen on the prospect – if only because land there is far less expensive than anywhere else in Europe. Whereas a hectare costs €36,000 on average in The Netherlands, for example, it only costs €2,520 in the Czech Republic. In fact, this very disparity fuels fears that in 2011, when foreign acquisitions are officially okayed, moneyed businessmen from all over Europe will buy up Czech fields en masse. According to the experts, however, those fears are unfounded.
“There’s really no risk of that happening: interest is bound to increase, but it won’t be inordinate,” predicts agro-analyst Petr Havel. Moreover, he points out, “In coming here, foreigners bring their know-how. So they are likely to give Czech agriculture a boost.” According to Jaroslav Šebek of the Czech Private Farmers Association, the Dutch and the Italians are the ones showing the keenest interest. The association has already started approaching foreign farmers operating in the Czech Republic about the possibility of their joining the association. In fact, observes Šebek, “The only real obstacle now is the language barrier. But in time that shouldn’t be a problem any more.”