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Too late, the soaring price of land

Friday 12 September 2008

Our countryside commentator John Sheard mourns a farmer friend who could have lived the life of the millionaire he once was – but sacrificed all for the love of the land

BACK in the 1970s, my farmer friend Tom was a millionaire, not on paper but in that real asset, land. Back then, I was a top-paid national newspaper journalist earning perhaps £5,000 a year but Tom could have bought and sold me for the price of a couple of his prize heifers.

Tom (not his real name – I have changed it to save his family any potential embarrassment) was the owner of some 400 acres of prime valley bottom land, as well as a pedigree milking herd, various bits of expensive machinery, and a historic farm house.

Dairy Cows
A farming tragedy

Even then, the land alone was worth £3,000 an acre, a total of £1.2 million excluding all the other assets. To compare prices then, I had a four bedroom detached house with two bathrooms, a study, and a third of an acre of garden. It was worth about £40,000.

Tom had many offers to sell and could have easily taken himself off to the South of France to live in luxury for the rest of his days. But he had inherited the farm from his father and wanted to pass it on to his son. So he stayed put not realising that he was facing disaster.

This came, not in one sudden overnight blow, but gradually, creeping up on him over the decades when he took decisions which, at the time, seem good common business sense. But like many country folk, Tom did not realise that the world was changing and, down on the farm at least, it was changing very much for the worse.

First came the absolute folly of milk quotas, an EU inspired idea that was supposed to reduce the milk lakes which, along with the beef and butter mountains, were making the Common Market an expensive and shambolic laughing stock.

Whatever Brussels bright sparks came up with the idea, they were too thick to realise that they were in fact creating a new sort of agricultural currency because these quotas were soon being traded on the open market like stocks and shares. It was so idiotic that a farmer could lease his quotas to a neighbour at a huge fixed income and not bother with all the trouble of grazing stock on his land at all. It was, literally, owt for nowt.

My friend Tom, as one of the biggest dairy producers in the area, thought this was a jolly wheeze and invested very heavily in milk quotas. Being a man who spent his entire life deep in the countryside, he did not realise that, in the towns and cities, a retail revolution was under way.

The giant supermarkets were taking over a huge proportion of national dairy produce sales. The door-step delivery of the daily pinta became in many areas a thing of the past as tens of thousands of traditional milkmen gave up their rounds in disgust, unable to compete with supermarket prices.

And those prices were unassailable because the supermarkets were selling milk at a loss: it was, literally, their major loss leader, a device aimed at luring customers into the store so that, on the shelves further down the row, they would buy other goods at higher prices than in the old-fashioned grocery stores which once dotted our High Streets.

With a near monopoly established, the major chains began to put the squeeze on their suppliers and, in particular, on the dairy farmers. If they could sell milk at a loss, they argued, the farmers should share the burden.

But he wasn’t a greedy man, you see. He was that much derided caricature, a true son of the soil

This was the start of the slump when dairy farm profits dipped so quickly that another farmer I know who was making £100,000 profit one year was losing £5,000 a couple of years later. Farmers were pouring milk down the drain rather than face the cost of sending it to market.

This was when Tom became ill. I cannot say that the collapse of his £1 million-plus enterprise brought about the illness but it most certainly did not help. The farm was sold. His son got a job Down South mending fences. I was supposed to see Tom in his new cottage home when the phone rang and I was told I was too late: Tom was dead.

I will see the old farm from the river when I am fishing this weekend. There are For Sale notices outside offering five luxury conversions which have been made of the house and outbuildings. And the final sting in the tail: the price of land, which had remained largely unchanged for 30 years, has suddenly shot up.

Good bottom land in the Yorkshire Dales is now fetching £7,000 and more an acre, which means that Tom would have been a millionaire twice over had he been able to hold on. His son, expensively educated at agricultural college, would be working the family land as had been intended since he was born.

And I shall move further down the river so that I can no longer see the For Sale signs and be sad for the memory of a friend who could have been a millionaire when a million was as fortune beyond most people’s wildest dreams. But he wasn’t a greedy man, you see. He was that much derided caricature, a true son of the soil. And he is a great loss to the English countryside.

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