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French Turn to 'Cash Cows' as Alternative Investments

The French, known for their mistrust of banks, are not just stuffing money into mattresses in these anxious days of recession and minuscule interest rates. They are also putting their cash into cows.

There are about 37,000 cows under contract at 880 farms.

An investment in cows can bring a 4 to 5 percent return a year based on the sale of their offspring. For Mr. Durand, the arrangement frees up capital for improvements to his small dairy farm.

For Pierre Marguerit, 60, cows make a safe, secure investment, allowing for long-term growth from a renewable resource. The cow contracts are hardly new, but go back to Richard the Lionheart; the French word for livestock, “cheptel,” is the root for “capital.”

These are not exactly cash cows. But investment in Mr. Marguerit’s Holsteins will bring a 4 to 5 percent return a year after taxes, he said, based on “natural growth” — the sale of their offspring. That compares to an interest rate now of 0.75 percent on the basic French bank account.

Last year, his business went up by 40 percent, and so far this year, it has “practically doubled ,” said Mr. Marguerit, the managing director of Élevage et Patrimoine, a cattle investment firm in this part of eastern France, near the Alps, and president of Gestel, which works with farmers and investors.

“People have saved money and don’t want to waste it,” he said. “Stocks have fallen a lot, and people see it. We need somewhere to put our money for a long-term investment, something more stable.”

At the moment, there are about 37,000 cows under contract in France at some 880 farms, according to the French Association for Investment in Cattle. But the potential market is huge, Mr. Marguerit insists, perhaps as many as one million head in France and six million in Europe as a whole.

A typical couple will buy 10 to 20 dairy cows for about $1,700 each and can decide to sell the offspring each year or keep them as additional “capital.”

“At this difficult time, it’s a much better investment than real estate and much more tangible than the stock market,” Mr. Marguerit said. He then proceeded to praise the new interest “in natural, organic and lasting things” among the French, who have always romanticized the countryside and imagined themselves shrewd peasants at heart. “This is part of the patrimony,” he said.

In the steep financial crash, “we’re having a moment of realization — we’re landing hard and people are asking real questions.” Diversify into cows? Why not?

For Richard Durand, the arrangement frees up capital for improvements to his small dairy farm here, 500 acres deep in the countryside about 35 miles southeast of Lyon. He provides his 100 Holsteins with the best of everything, including a view of the mountains and the grassy fields where they spend the summer months. Even better, they can have a massage — a large round brush they rub against whenever the urge hits them.

He calls his property “The Farm of the Happy Cows,” and so they seem, so far as one can tell. Mr. Durand “rents” 37 of his 100 cows, all of whom he knows by name and not just by the numbered tags punched through both ears, like big plastic earrings. He seems especially fond of Tartine, a brown and white Holstein who likes her head rubbed.

Mr. Durand, 48, has come up in the world. “I smelled of cows until I was 42,” he said, describing how he had to clean their hooves with his fingers and showing off the automated sledge that runs on a track down the middle of his modern barn, sweeping away the excrement and soiled straw of all those happy cows.

Now he confines himself to making cheese, while others deal with the straw and the twice-a-day milking. He sells his excellent fromage blanc, butter and yogurts to local markets that feature artisanal products, while most of his 200,000 gallons of milk a year are sold to the local cooperative.

Raising cows owned by others gives him more tax deductions and frees as much as 17 percent of his capital for improvements or investments, said Mr. Durand, whose three children have moved away, wanting nothing more to do with cows. The animals are good natured but, he admits, boring. “They spend eight hours eating, eight hours sleeping and eight hours ruminating,” he said. As for him, the day runs from 5:30 a.m. till 7 p.m.

In a little shop attached to his barn, Mr. Durand has a list of French expressions using the cow. He points to one: “le temps des vaches maigres,” a time of skinny cows — a period of belt-tightening.

There are many other signs of coping in this area of France, where industry is also being hit hard by the recession. Business is brisk at traditional consignment shops, where people bring used or unwanted items. Stores are having floating sales, outside the traditionally rigid sale periods, possible under a new law.

Web sites bring together “neighbors in solidarity,” who help one another with chores or repairs and buy basic commodities in common; on swap sites, people can work out exchanges for things from clothes to household equipment. Sites put consumers in touch with farmers, to buy fruits and vegetables in bulk; another site, Le-Dindon.fr, facilitates the donation of unwanted items, instead of their disposal.

In Lyon, Jérémie Romand, 28, has come up with his own clever idea: an Internet company that puts together people who want rides with those who have empty seats, at a guaranteed fare that is transferred to the driver only after a customer arrives safely. His company, EnVoitureSimone.com— a French phrase roughly equivalent to “Let’s hit the road, Jack” — is doubling its customers every month, he said.

On average, he said, cars carry only 1.2 passengers every trip. “We want to capture the potential of these millions of empty seats in a way that is safe, secure and organized,” he said. “Transport is the second-largest household expense in France, after housing and before food.”

The crisis has helped his company and been a wake-up call to everyone, Mr. Romand said. “The French now want to know how to save money in every aspect of life.”

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