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Down on the farm - how will celebrity owners cope?

Friday 24 November 2006

Countryside and rural affairs commentator John Sheard takes a light-hearted look at the new trend for celebrities and city slickers to buy working (?) farms as the latest status-symbol for the millionaire lifestyle

BACK in the 19th Century, the upper echelons of rural England was split into warring factions between the traditional land-owning families and nouveau riche arrivals who wanted to buy their way into the gentry with money made in industry.

yorkshire dales farm at storiths large
Land: latest celeb “must-have”

Dozens of weighty novels, the soap-operas of the day, were written about this class war between land and trade but in the end the new arrivals won. Families like those of Earl Peel, who hailed from Skipton but made his money in the Lancashire cotton trade (and became Prime Minister) bought huge estates in Yorkshire and have been for generations leading members of the landed gentry.

Now, in the early days of the 21st Century, this trend is being re-enacted. The only trouble is that the millionaires who are now snapping up thousands of prime acres are not the type of person you would expect to roll up their sleeves - unlike Victorian mill owners - and submerge them up to the elbows in mud and muck, still very much a part of real, as opposed to hobby, farming.

And even worse, in a sentence I use with the deepest dread, many of them are … celebrities.

It was reported this week that money-men from the City of London, who are being paid millions of pounds in annual bonuses for their part in undertakings that are completely beyond my comprehension, are buying farms for anything up to £5 million with cash from takeovers, hedge funds, or manipulating money made by other people from honest labour.

From my country cousin perch in the Yorkshire Dales, the only result of such deals seems to be that thousands of employers of companies traded like marbles in the school yard get made redundant. If only these city slickers had managed my endowment policy better, for I would have been just as well off keeping it under the mattress: any profits made seem to have gone into their back pockets.

I assume these new "farmers" will have the financial nous to discover ways of making a farm profitable, a skill which is rapidly disappearing in this once pioneering agricultural nation of ours, thanks to the criminal lack of understanding - nay, the total lack of interest - by this Government of ours.

Another forecast a week or so ago suggested that Britain will become a net importer of milk in four years time after most of our dairy farmers have been bankrupted by a lethal combination of government inertia and the greed of major supermarkets driving the price they pay for milk down through the economic floorboards.

However, I cannot feel optimistic about the other breed of millionaires also snapping up farms at present: the celebrities from the media or (God help us) show biz. How will they cope, having made their brass out of froth, smoke and mirrors, when it comes to calving a cow in the early hours of a freezing winter's morning?

It is easy to remember Madonna, for instance, strutting the stage in a shiny metal bra, but can you see her with her arm up a heifer's you-know-what? Yet she just fought and won a battle to keep ramblers off her massive farm.

Even Liz Hurley, whose talent as an actress is hard to discern, recently declared that she was opening a small organic farm in the Cotswolds. Can you imagine her lifting turnips in a long red dress fastened (barely) with safety pins from armpit to thigh?

How will they cope, having made their brass out of froth, smoke and mirrors, when it comes to calving a cow in the early hours of a freezing winter's morning?

These show-biz characters, who are mostly famous for being famous, are lagging behind the big media names who, it would appear, have tried farming - and learned the hard way. Radio Four presenter John Humphrys, the King of Political Correctness, tried to run an organic farm in his native Wales and has publicly admitted failure.

And in the latest issue of Countryside Voice, the magazine of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, the broadcaster Jonathan Dimbleby writes lyrically about his small farm (of course) in the Cotswolds. But the magazine points out, enigmatically, that he lived on the farm "until recently." Does that it man he has also packed it in, like tens of thousands of real-life farmers in the past decade?

Although I have never run a farm, I have spent much time on them and in the company of farmers to research hundreds of articles I have written on the subject. And I know that it is bloody hard work - much harder than whipping up a few hundred words for an article or (I assume) prancing round on a stage in a metal brassiere.

Back in the 19th Century, those mill and factory owners who bought land took with them a tradition of hard-work, long hours and a respect for innovation. The new machines, crops and husbandry they pioneered made England the agricultural showpiece of the world. I wonder what legacy our show-biz farmer will leave?

Your views:

  • All these over compensated, underworked people buying farm land at inflated values makes it impossible for young people to get started in true farming operations. Will all these celebrities be capable of growing the food and fiber the general population depends on.

    The inflation of land prices is great for the people who own land and want to sell. But movie stars should look at the long term social consequences of how they use their money. If they want to own land, they should at least work out a plan to let a true farmer operate the land and make a living from it. And the celebrities shouldn't meddle in the operation.

    Jerry - Missouri, U.S.

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