Monday, 17 July 2017

Is external investment in farms such a bad thing?

External investors in farms and farmland are frequently viewed with scepticism, and sometimes contempt, by the farming sector, particularly when they are perceived to have pushed up local land prices, or excluded a keen new entrant from farming. Sometimes this sentiment is warranted, but, increasingly, I’ve seen some positive examples of welcome change with the influx of ‘outside’ money.

Andrew Reid owns land in north west London. He’s not from a farming background, but he loves the sector and has turned over some of his farm buildings and land to a childrens’ farm called Belmont. His young, enthusiastic team, many also not born to agriculture, have a passion for education and sharing their knowledge with inner-city children, young adults and charities.

Belmont’s contribution to London’s complex society, and to the communication of UK farming, is a pocket of wonder. Observing Jewish and Muslim teenagers, with absolutely no farm experience, laughing and working side-by-side, without any antagonism shows the power of green space and animals in healing divides.

Larger-scale acquisitions with ‘outside’ capital can also bring unexpected local, as well as potential industry-wide benefits. I was intrigued earlier this week to attend a Worshipful Company of Farmers’ visit to Beeswax Dyson Farms in Lincolnshire.

The farm is owned by the serial inventor Sir James Dyson who is putting meaningful investment into the land, soil and farm infrastructure. Sir James now owns 33,000 acres of farmland in Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire and Lincolnshire. He has employed some of the best farming and land managers in our sector to produce food, biodiversity havens and energy.

His desire to farm is driven by his passion for farming – but not just the chocolate-box image of what agriculture should be – but rather a proper, prospering farming business. Of course he has capital to invest, but he is doing so with a view to creating an efficient, profitable business.

As you might expect from someone so ingenious, he is challenging the agricultural status quo, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible and exploring how technology could improve farming. He instils an intense curiosity and attention to detail amongst his team, to make his farmland more productive and at the same time make a greater contribution to the environment. He’s introducing livestock back into the rotation and giving new entrants opportunities.

I’m fascinated by how a pioneer like Sir James Dyson can help to progress farming practices and thinking – sometimes the best advances in any industry come from outside thinking.

I’m certain that both men I’ve outlined in this short feature will bring important gifts to our sector, such as encouraging a better public understanding of what we do to produce food and why, investing in tired infrastructure, inspiring bright ‘young things’ to build their future within agriculture’s wide employment offering and to keep farming’s potential front-of-mind with policy-makers and the business leaders important for the countryside’s fate.

So, whilst outside investment isn’t always good news, perhaps as an industry we should embrace those who want to keep farming relevant, progressing and pioneering.

Jane Craigie
Jane is a marketer with a background in farming. She lives near Aberchirder, is British representative for the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists, a Scottish Enterprise Rural Leader and undertakes marketing and media work for clients including The Oxford Farming Conference, ABP, Harbro, Agrovista, BASF and diversified farm businesses.

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