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Tenants explain the opportunities for enterprise on the Norfolk County Farms estate

PUBLISHED: 15:00 22 October 2017 | UPDATED: 15:53 22 October 2017

Livestock farmers Steven and Jacqueline Hope at the Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserve at Hickling. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Livestock farmers Steven and Jacqueline Hope at the Norfolk Wildlife Trust reserve at Hickling. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Archant Norfolk 2017

After Norfolk County Council invested £3m in its 16,000-acre County Farms estate last month, we asked tenants what opportunities the publicly-owned land resource had given them.

Michael Jones with his family, Anneke and two-year-old Harry, outside the home converted for them by Norfolk County Council at Mautby. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY Michael Jones with his family, Anneke and two-year-old Harry, outside the home converted for them by Norfolk County Council at Mautby. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Branching out on a new farming venture can be daunting – even if the right land is available and affordable, it may not come with the right buildings and facilities.

So when former pig farm manager Michael Jones decided to take the plunge, he said the only way to rent the complete package he needed was to apply for a 10-year tenancy with the publicly-owned Norfolk County Farms estate.

As well as space to breed his new herd of 350 sows under contract, he was able to secure arable land, buildings – and, crucially, a newly-converted barn as a family home.

Mr Jones, 47, took over the tenancy at the 240-acre North Barn Hall Farm in Mautby, Great Yarmouth with his family two years ago, just after the birth of son Harry.

Michael Jones at his Norfolk County Farms Estate pig farm at Mautby. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY Michael Jones at his Norfolk County Farms Estate pig farm at Mautby. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

“This is my first business,” he said. “If not for this, I would still be running outdoor pig units for somebody else.

“When you rent bare land somewhere you have got to buy or rent your house locally, and that’s not easy to come by. So it made a lot more sense to take it as a package.

“Living on site means we can tend the livestock properly on the farm, and look after the ‘youngstock’ (Harry) at home.

“The big appeal was the house and the buildings and being able to rotate the pigs as we see fit.

Pigs at Michael Jones' farm at Mautby. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY Pigs at Michael Jones' farm at Mautby. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

“We use contractors to carry out the arable work. I have always had an interest in arable farming, but never pursued it because the pigs were always the passion. But this farm came up and it gave us an opportunity.

“It is a farm of two halves – the lowland area has marshes and, over time, we want to try and develop a suckler herd there.

“We have got room to grow and experiment. That is the great thing about county farms. They are an important asset for council tax payers. It is a tremendous land bank and it is one of the few opportunities for people who don’t already have farms to rent or sell.”

Another successful tenancy belongs to Steven and Jacqueline Hope, who have rented 30 acres of arable land at Bergh Apton from the council since 2012. The farm supports a herd of about 40 Dexter cattle – as well as other mixed native beef breeds – which are used for conservation grazing on Norfolk Wildlife Trust properties including Hickling Broad.

Mrs Hope said the major attraction for the couple was the support offered to allow the business to grow – and they hope to upgrade to a bigger council property in the next round of lettings in 2018.

“If you are with a private renter you are out on your own,” she said. “But there is a support network now on County Farms. The other week we had a marketing person come round to see if there was anything we could do better to sell our meat.

“They are coming out to see us twice a year on site visits. We started off by doing a course on soil compaction, funded by the council. At the end of the day it is their land and they need to make sure it is looked after efficiently and correctly.

“Steven has always been a farmer in Caistor St Edmund, but it is a small family farm with a lot of siblings, so the opportunities there were very limited. We were very fortunate that some land came up close by.

“Our 30 acres is arable. The straw goes into winter bedding and where we can we do our winter feed from that land as well. We try to keep everything totally in-house. The animals are either out conservation grazing, or at Steven’s family farm.

“We are just 30 acres, but we have been given as much support and care as someone with a bigger holding, and that has allowed us to build our herds and we have created a business that could get bigger quite easily.”

ABOUT NORFOLK COUNTY FARMS

Norfolk’s County Farms estate is currently the third largest in the UK, behind Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire.

The £3m purchase of a 440-acre agricultural property in Marshland St James, near King’s Lynn, took its size to 16,738 acres – well above the council’s constitutional requirement of 16,000 acres – which is split into 70 smaller estates ranging in size from seven acres to 3,094 acres.

Keith Kiddie, chairman of Norfolk’s business and property committee, said: “From our perspective, the farming function has to make a profit. But we see it as a method of encouraging people into farming who may not necessarily have the advantage of having inherited a farm.

“As they become more experienced they can develop within the County Farms system, or perhaps move out into the open market, with the expertise they have developed.”

With successful tenants looking to retain their property or expand to a bigger one, it can be difficult to free up tenancies for new entrants, said Mr Kiddie.

“If people are becoming successful and doing a good job we like to keep them wherever possible,” he said. “But success can bring its own problems. While we would like to have more tenancies to get people on the bottom rung, it is harder than it looks.

“In 2018 I think we have got four tenancies across the estate, which doesn’t sound like much, but farming is a long-term proposition, which is why we have long tenancies.

“We are sympathetic to people’s needs but we are not running a charity. It is a business and it is our aim to get the best out of it for the taxpayer, while encouraging our farmers to do the best they can.”

Jim Major is a land agent and partner at the King’s Lynn office of Brown and Co, which previously managed the western part of the estate for five years.

He said the estate would work very differently if in private ownership.

“If you took the 8,000 acres from this part of the estate and treated it just like the rest of the market, you would probably end up with four farms,” he said. “You would get a corporate private investor who will acquire it, the houses and the barns get sold off, the units get amalgamated and the commerciality of a hard-noised investor comes into play, That is not what Norfolk County Council is and I’m not sure it is what they would want to be.

“What the county farms estate can offer is opportunities for people who otherwise might not get them. That is part of the council’s regulated strategy, but equally there is a requirement to make the best of a public asset, That could mean letting to existing tenants.

“It is all about circumstances, but I don’t see the county council ever having been driven purely by material factors. So you would have thought that after 10 years there is every chance that a well-established tenant with a family might get the opportunity to re-apply.

“The other thing to consider is that the value of agricultural land has gone up by two or three times in the last ten years, so it is decent place to hold money.

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