Thursday, August 07, 2014

Getting a start in farming

If you don't have a farm to inherit, getting a start in farming is difficult. The capital costs of setting up, equipping and stocking a viable farm are huge. For some the practical route is to become a farm manager, but then you are working for someone else.

Perhaps surprisingly, there are people from a non-farming background who want to become farmers. I say 'surprisingly' because it is hard physical work, requires a wide range of skills including dealing with a lot of paper work and the returns are often poor and uncertain. There are some jobs I could never do and farmer, actor and politician are top of the list. But I appreciate that there are those who have a real and genuine commitment.

One route in has been through county council farms. These are not usually large and may have to be combined with rented land to be viable. When I have interviewed such farmers, the off farm work of their partner (or even the farmer) has often been a key contribution to the household budget. They tend to be livestock farms, raising beef or sheep or a dairy enterprise. Smaller arable farms have been squeezed as yields have flat lined for some thirty years and economies of scale have becoming increasingly important in that sector.

However, cash strapped county councils have been selling off their estates. Since 1964 the council farms estate across England and Wales has shrunk by 37 per cent to 111,650 hectares in 2012. Total holdings have fallen by 79 per cent to just 3,442 as they have been combined to try and make them more viable.

Average size has gone up from 10.9 hectares to 32 hectares, but arguably that is little better than a large smallholding. In some cases, part of the holding has been sold off for housing, sometimes the most productive land. When councils sell holdings off, tenants can purchase at market value, but there is no way that a farm of, say, 125 acres with a book value of £1.2m could support a large mortgage.

I don't think county farms are the way forward for the future, but the measures taken under the CAP don't help much either.

Finally, can I give my nephew Deiniol Williams a plug. He has left the family farm where his brother will carry on as, I think, the eighth generation. But he has started a ceramics business and uses a kiln on the farm: Ceramics

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