The future of Smallholding in many counties of Britain is under a great deal of scrutiny and many would say it is an industry opportunity that is being decimated by tenancy Smallholdings and farms being sold off to developers or anything less than 10 acres with a modest house in any rural county finds itself marketed as a desirable residence only or second home.
The rising number of people wishing to engage with a smallholding practice and agri-business outweighs supply, with some counties having no desire, nor interest in offering county owned tenancy smallholdings. The issue on closer inspection is going to have a catastrophic effect on nationally grown and produced “local food”. Food with better ecological resilience & credentials, provenance ; and offers a broader range of sustainable businesses in the sector.
So, what can be done for the short and long term success of the British Isles rural food and farming sectors?
Almost every farm has something it could be doing to diversify..
There have been many articles written and infinitely more conversations had over the metaphorical farm gate that Farmers and Landowners should look at their farm as a collection of revenue generating opportunities, rather than as a whole, when looking to diversify their income, farmers often concentrate on the part of the business which interested them most when there could be a better opportunity for investment and a return.
It is far too easy to suggest that those with properties on the fringes of towns and cities would only consider one of two options: Selling to a developer or renewable energy initiative. Despite a still-faltering residential market in many areas, there is strong demand for smallholdings with anything up to 50 acres. The issue is common sight around the small Peakland town I call home. There has been a community outcry and a Borough & County Council issue over two sites acquired by a land brokerage company. Both these sites would easily offer excellent Smallholding opportunities to both mixed and forestry agri-business. Since the issue of the two debated building sites are still being fought from each side of the equation since 2012; I believe in the time it has been rapped up in laborious and undemocratic paper shuffling both sites could have become very healthy Smallholding enterprise sites by now. Both would have managed the land better than adding c.250 new executive homes over two sites to an already stretched community, made much more of a positive ecological impact to the land and with suggested tree planting secured the soil and potential flood issues in winter.
In addition, a site in North Yorkshire agreed the sale of three holdings for 12-acre, 19-acre and 20-acre holdings around Thirsk and 40 acres in the Walden region of Wensleydale. Buyers are diverse – the prospective owner of the Wensleydale holding is retired professor of science who wished to build a home on the site and use it as a private green field estate.
With the growing number of enquires and an increase in people wishing to spend an excess of £1m for a plot of farm land, this has driven up the cost of an acre and as a consequence made tenancy farming in my county less attractive. Is some areas of the country £12,000/acre is quiet the norm.
Increasing land prices for “Grand Designs” are pushing up the value of land and pushing out the opportunities of a smallholding, exacerbating the cost of any start up to be out of the reach of anyone in the market for a tenancy smallholding.
So why would they not consider being more of a pioneer or part of the community which they play such a huge part in and address the balance of land availability? The much easier planning laws linked to rural and farming properties offers a much more versatile way, but certainly not unique to this country. Why not develop a site for a start-up smallholder, this tenancy would be regular income through rental and with some land owners in more southern counties accepting this as a much more viable option for many crumbling buildings, barns and semi derelict buildings, many rural business incubation centres and smallholdings; Smallholder co-ops [ such as the successful enterprise in Essex – The Ecological Land Co-Op ], forestry, tourism and community farms have grown in some areas, only to be shunned in others.
Many of these tried and tested methods offer an excellent way to free up cash to invest in the farm. Farm diversification was recorded to be worth £560million in 2016, and having worked in and with the agri-sector, mainly from the view of a photographer for many years; I do however, have experience working with local mixed farms. Notwithstanding having hill farming in my family for a number of generations, it stands to reason that I agree that I am yet to visit a farm that does not have something it could be doing to diversify.
I understand that the core business of any farm or agricultural estate is the most essential part of the business, therefore the enhancements of any value to its assets is often considered only by impact, any further development or restoration; re-use or re-purposing land / property may have a debatable effect on the core activity of farming.
I have spent the past 3 yrs speaking to farming communities in the north of England and they agree and enforce that if any diversification is governed by desire to enhance their land and the community, it will only enhance their enterprise with income and investment for there own future expansion plans.
Traditionally Multi-genrational Farms often need to ensure ownership and efficiently managed before going down the route of diversification or land & property leasing, however with growing fragility in the industry and types of land that is no good for one use is potentially good for another – this is where I stand in this debate.
What is there to offer Farmers and large Estate Owners who are able to offer a modest home and >10 acres to a growing number of start up smallholders on their land, who will add to the estate rather than compete with the land owner?
Co-Op’ed sites are popping up across Europe and even a couple are gathering momentum in the South East of England, so what will it take to engage with the larger county wide farms and estates, who are very much missing out on an ecological and sustainable business boom?
Initial examples that have been staring in the press recently have been:
For many this is far less attractive and viable, yet with a little imagination and further understanding of just how much forestry has been traditionally part of the industry and how it has been enjoying a renaissance, much more than that of the industrial revolution. Biomass is one sure fire way of utilising poor value timber and commercial forest waste. With recent news of Willow plantations and borders becoming grant attracting diversification methods, where applicable, it is driving up the abilities of using UK grown fuel for industry and housing. Not forgetting the current Gov. grants for felling and replanting of indigenous broadleaf and evergreen trees to offer a chance to make a positive return on assets ad bring woodland management back into productivity.
With construction still being the largest market for timber, UK softwood has increased in value to approx. £44/cu.meter, enjoying a 13% increase on the year. Plus, the UK Timber production is still increasing its numbers and since 2007 has sold a further 1.2million cu. meters. Much of this is down to un-grazable or unfit land for arable crops to be put aside for Forestry.
There is also the production of indigenous fruit to the UK, Apple Orchards are lost or in a decayed state, other fruiting trees that have a value and high survival rate in our climate not only increase the revenue but add to many biodiverse habitats for pollinating insects and ultimately bees and the plight of the British Honey Bee come into the equation.
Tourism and Diversification
Traditional tourism ventures on farms are mainly focused on holiday cottages and farm shops, but many have recently looked to make use of their farm’s unique characteristics in more innovative ways. Examples such as Wedding venues, Music Festival sites, Outdoor pursuit centres, Micro Breweries / Cider Farms and and the incredible successes of supporting the community at the growing number of Farming Life Centres. Locally, we have seen over the past five years an up surge in successful rural events, such as the now world renowned Eroica Britannia vintage cycle festival. In the first few years it was staged and held at the Bakewell Show Ground, this year it is to be held at a sprawling farm in the south west heartland of the Derbyshire Dales. I have recently been asked if I know of anyone in the Peak District with a Barn that they wish to have repurposed into a Recording Studio for a record label based in Manchester.
Tourism-based diversification has grant funding available through the Rural Development Programme for England’s growth programme. However, Grants are locally led and have local priorities which differ throughout the country. This has highlighted the areas of the UK, region by region, that offer unique attributes and the individuals running the sites; it has by process ruled out those who are just after funding to develop an old building, however, it does not protect our rural business sectors from larger agriculturally viable plats being used as multi million “dream home” concepts or poorly designed estates of commuter homes.
Barns and traditional buildings
With relaxed planning laws on rights to convert agricultural buildings (GPDO – 2014), they have effectively permitted conversions of unused farm buildings into dwellings and commercial use property. Granted these do not apply in SONB or National Parks, but with the recent increase in sq. m. allowances in January 2017, it now enables many unused, unloved or unaffordable buildings to see a new lease life for generations to come.
All these options have one underlying opportunity to the thousands of people seeking a career change, expansion or start-up enterprise to call home as much as there place of business. Sustainable, with ecological credentials, viable and offering something new to the area. Ultimately producing hyper-local food for a growing and demanding population and sites of rural and farming business incubation, creating sites that attract SMEs and Micro Business with specialisms in this sector and encourage future generations to consider this as a viable career future.
If there was a magic wand to waive in the county of Derbyshire it would be used to highlight the issues of vacant and unused land that could be utilised and managed well, with bio-diversity and ecological methods at the very forefront of its use, property that could be best used to develop much needed affordable tenancy smallholdings for families who wish to develop their own agri-business.
The need to live and work in the countryside should not become the reserve of the economically well off, nor should it be wasted on linear building projects to benefit the few.
Our search continues.