Young farmers face dilemma as councils sell off 'starter farms'


LONDON LETTER:Pressured councils in England have sold £308m worth of land, much of it to developers

SINCE EARLY last century, county councils in England and Wales have owned farmland that they have rented out to young farmers starting off in the industry.

Pressed by food shortages after the second World War, the responsibilities of the councils were increased with a statutory duty under the 1947 Agriculture Act to “support and help” such farmers.

Today, however, land stock is declining. In 1984, 50 councils owned more than 340,000 acres, let to nearly 7,000 farmers. By 2006, the acreage had fallen to 237,000 and it has fallen further since. In Wiltshire, Andrew and Judith Fewings began their life on the land in 1992, renting 64 acres from the local county council in Keevil, near Trowbridge, with 22 dairy cows. By 2004, they had sufficiently thrived to take on Lower Marsh Farm, part of the Crown Estate at Dunster in Somerset.

“Here they farm 336 acres in total, milk 150 cows, and grow maize and spring barley. In just 12 years, the Fewings have progressed to a herd 10 times the size they started with and a farm six times the size,” said a report prepared for the department of environment, food and rural affairs (Defra).

“Without the opportunities offered through their two tenancies on county council farms, they may never have developed the skills needed to make this progress.”

In Lincolnshire, Matthew Naylor, from Spalding, began renting two small plots from his local parish council before he was 20 to grow flowers and potatoes to supplement his income from the family farm.

Approached by a Sainsbury’s buyer, he rented a council farm, before merging his interests with his father. The council farms, he says, are “a crucial first step”.

Facing increasing financial pressures, councils in England alone have sold off £308 million worth of land – some to farmers, but much of it to developers, particularly during the property boom of the last decade.

Shropshire has sold 52 farms for £39 million; Somerset and Norfolk county councils each raised £29 million, while Lincolnshire auctioned 104 holdings for £11.5 million. North Yorkshire council has just 80 left. “All interested parties understand the financial pressures faced by local authorities in managing their various commitments and statutory responsibilities,” says the Defra report.

“This has led to a number considering an accelerated programme of farm disposals. However, this threatens to undermine the objectives of county farms.

“If the decline in the number and area of county farms continues at the current rate, this will be a major blow for the future of the agricultural industry,” it continued.

The demand for “starter farms” continues to rise as the numbers wanting to enter the industry increases. Last month, figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency showed that agricultural courses saw the biggest jump in application numbers, by 11 per cent.

In Shropshire, the Harpers Adams University College has its largest ever number of agriculture students, up by 21 per cent on 2010 and 60 per cent higher than six years ago.

The question is where the graduates will go. Labour MP Mary Creagh has warned: “The fire-sale of county farms will choke off one of the few routes into agriculture for young farmers.”

In Yorkshire, George Dunn of the Tenant Farmers’ Association said the association’s stand at the Great Yorkshire Show is “inundated” with farming hopefuls making inquiries – “something we just did not see 10 years ago”. Even if they can get a rented farm, many will struggle, according to the Defra report: “It is not sufficient to only offer opportunities for new entrants to come into the industry if they cannot then make the transition on to larger holdings in the public or private sectors.”

Dorothy Fairburn of the Country Land and Business Association said: “It is very tough to get into farming. There are two issues here. One is county councils selling them off to release funds . . .

“The second [is] that these farms were never meant to be permanent farms – they are starter farms. However there are just not the opportunities for people to move on.”

Yesterday farmer-tenants of Powys county council in Wales debated their fears about the council’s imposition of three-year break clauses in tenancy agreements – too short for any new farmer to make his or her way. The council has 160 farms, though it is amalgamating some to make them more viable – a decision that frees up farmhouses for sale in a region, just north of the Brecon Beacons, that is increasingly attractive to second-home owners.

Council farms over 90 acres in the area are being offered with a 12-year lease and an eight-year renewal, but each is subject to a three-year break.

The break-clause, says a local estate agent who has negotiated many leases, means that young farmers cannot sign up for five-year government-supported environmental schemes.

While the young struggle, existing English and Welsh farmers continue to age. Most are in their mid-60s, but are reluctant to lease out their holdings because of complications with tax and benefit laws.

All the while, British environment secretary Caroline Spelman tells farmers they must produce more to safeguard the country’s food security.