Councils are selling off their farmland, but essential community links are being lost in the process, along with the chance to make farming financially viable. Simon Fairlie reports on the campaign to save smallholdings
Wednesday February 8, 2006
The Guardian, Society sec., p.9
The last shop in the Somerset village of Chiselborough closed in the early 1990s. Last, that is, until Richard and Sarah Jones opened up a farm shop at Balham Hill Farm, just outside the village boundary, selling home-produced meat, eggs, milk and vegetables, and produce from other local farms. The shop has helped to lift the spirit of a village where, six years ago, it looked as though even the pub might have to shut.
So it came as a shock to villagers, just before Christmas, to learn that the farm and shop are threatened with closure. Balham Hill is an 80-acre "county smallholding", owned by Somerset county council, which is in the course of selling off the majority of its farm estate.
Five farms have already been sold, netting the council £3.6m, and Balham Hill, unless it is given a reprieve, is scheduled for auction shortly. Like the others, it is to be broken up and offered in small lots, which command a much higher price as pony paddocks, while the buildings can be sold for redevelopment. The rationale for breaking up the farm was provided by the Liberal Democrat leader of the county council, Cathy Bakewell, who announced to Chiselborough villagers, at a local meeting about the sale, that "farming is dead".
There are places where it is safe to claim that farming is dead, but a parish council meeting in a rural village is not one of them. There was uproar and Somerset council had to embark on a major damage limitation exercise. A statement was issued denying she ever said such a thing.
"The farm in question certainly is not dead," says Jim Macartney, chair of the parish council. "It is well maintained by a family who have developed the business and run a farm shop that is a valuable resource for the village and a wider community. And farming is not dead, it is in recession. Now is exactly the time when we should be maintaining these farms, not selling them off."
The County Farms estates were created in the lean agricultural years of the early 20th century and between the two world wars, to prevent a decline in agricultural employment and meet what a contemporary called the insatiable demand for land in small parcels -- conditions not dissimilar to those that exist today.
Small parcels of land, then as now, were disproportionately expensive, and county councils were given the power to buy up farmland and subdivide it to provide part-time smallholdings or a "first rung on the ladder" to farm ownership. It was the nearest the English government came to a land reform programme.
Over the years, thousands of competent but impecunious farm workers were given the opportunity to set themselves up as independent farmers, and while some failed, many more succeeded in realising their dreams.
By the early 1990s, the county smallholdings estate in England was about 350,000 acres. But in its 1995 rural white paper, the Conservative government advised county councils to sell them off.
At the time, Elliot Morley, now minister for the environment, asked in parliament: "In what way does it help the rural economy to give encouragement to county councils to sell smallholdings?". The Conservative spokesman, Tim Boswell, dodged the question by responding: "I am surprised the honourable gentleman wishes to take away the autonomy of county councils."
In 2003, the farming minister, Lord (Larry) Whitty, sent out a letter to county councils advising against further sale of the estate, but otherwise the Labour government has followed Boswell's advice. County councils can do what they want.
So, for example, Oxfordshire and Northamptonshire have sold off all their estate; North Yorkshire has sold half its estate and plans to sell the rest; Buckinghamshire has sold off a third and plans to sell the same again; Shropshire has sold 80%, but has recently decided to keep the rump. Cambridgeshire is keeping much of its huge estate but, after selling a holding to Persimmon Homes for £5m, employed Savills estate agents to lobby for other parts of its farm estate to be allocated for housing in development plans.
Since the 1990s, about 30% of the nation's county farms have been sold off. But other counties, such as Cornwall, Hertfordshire and Gloucestershire, are maintaining their estates and are proud of the fact. They continue to provide a wide range of opportunities, from 200-acre dairy farms to 15-acre smallholdings producing vegetables or pork, and one-acre plots for retired farmers.
Hertfordshire has produced a report on its farms estate, entitled A Century of Achievement, which provides a history of the estate, and announces a 50-year masterplan for its future management. "The keen demand for tenancies," it states, citing a farm up for rent that attracted 80 inquiries and 17 applicants, "can be seen as a litmus test for people's continued enthusiasm for small-scale farming…The tenancy of a county council farm is now virtually the only opportunity for anyone with limited means to become a self-employed farmer".
Hertfordshire's 10,000-acre estate makes a profit for the county council of around £300,000 per year.
Other counties are strengthening links between their farms and local communities, including schools. Gloucestershire, which boasts six farm shops and a cheesemaker, offers a rent rebate to farmers who pursue collaborative food or diversification enterprises.
This is the sort of approach Macartney would like to see in Somerset. He points out that the local authorities' websites are overflowing with support for local foods. "If the council supports this concept, why doesn't it hold Balham Hill Farm up as a model, rather than breaking it up," he says. According to Somerset's farm estate manager, Graham Parsons, county farms need to be sold because of the "dire and worrying viability issue ... Farming at the bottom end of the size scale, as is the case with County Farm tenants, is extremely financially challenging. Few of our tenants are earning a viable livelihood from their farming operations."
This may be true of some farmers selling produce to middlemen and retailers who cream off most of the value. But on a farm catering to the local economy -- like Balham Hill -- produce that is sold through the shop or other forms of direct marketing is profitable, while any surplus that has to be sold into the supermarket economy brings in slender returns. The trick is to maintain a continual and varied supply of goods for a local clientele throughout the year, and this does not necessarily require large areas of land.
The Trading Post, a successful farm shop four miles from Chiselborough at the village of Lopen, is based around an intensively managed market garden of just five acres. In Dorset, Fivepenny Farm sells vegetables, herbs, meat and eggs to local shops and at a stall at Bridport market. "Eighty acres not viable? You've got to be kidding!" was the reaction of Fivepenny's Jyoti Fernandes to the news that Balham Hill Farm was under threat. "We have been going three years, and our 42 acres already provide a living for two families and a surplus to invest in infrastructure."
For Richard and Sarah Jones, however, Balham Hill has been a rung on the ladder to bigger things. They have recently secured the tenancy of a 450-acre farm belonging to the Prince of Wales's Duchy of Cornwall, where they plan to produce organic beef, lamb, chicken and pork for a larger farm shop to be sited on a main road leading to the Tamar Bridge. With a teenage son at agricultural college, this is not a family that feels they are working in a dying industry.
When the Joneses leave in March, the council will have to decide whether to sell off Balham Hill. Support is rallying for re-letting the farm and saving the shop. The National Farmers' Union has written to Bakewell urging its retention and stating: "It is difficult to see why another young farmer could not emulate Mr Jones and continue to farm the holding profitably."
There are hopes that the Conservative minority on the council -- the party that originally proposed the national selloff -- will oppose the sale. Farming is still alive and kicking in the village of Chiselborough. It remains to be seen whether the county council will persist in its policy of declaring it dead.