Star-studded countryside

Farmland prices are soaring amid signs that a new breed of celebrity farmer from Madonna to Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich seek to till the land. But is the rise of the lifestyle farmer good for the countryside? Shaun Lowthorpe reports.

Farmland prices are soaring amid signs that a new breed of celebrity farmer from Madonna to Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich seek to till the land. But is the rise of the lifestyle farmer good for the countryside? Shaun Lowthorpe reports.

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After years in the doldrums life is looking rosier for farmers. Wheat prices are soaring and land prices are booming - with average prices up from £2,988 an acre to £3,805 within a year.

But just as the good times look set to roll - a plot is unfolding which is seeing more and more green and pleasant farmland being bought up by the so-called 'lifestyle farmers'.


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Stars such as Madonna and Blur bassist Alex James are among those opting for the rural idyll. But the boom is also being fuelled by city workers keen to invest their huge bonuses or escape the rat race.

And in East Anglia there is a third type of landowner seeking to work the soil - the overseas investor.

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Nationally, 15pc of all farmland is bought by overseas buyers and Norfolk has proved fertile ground for investors from Ireland, Denmark and Holland, but there is strong interest from a mix of farmers and lifestyle farmers.

Christopher Miles, a director at Savills in Norwich, said there was a new found confidence in agriculture fuelled by a combination of rising commodity prices and interest from investors.

“In the east it's a slightly different picture than the west of London,” he said. “Lifestyle buyers are a big part of the market but there are more international buyers up here.

“We are seeing a lot of overseas interest, of which there hasn't been the like for many years,” he said. “I was recently involved in sale which involved an Englishman, Irishman, a German, Italian and a Dane, it was like a joke.

But the key point was that, despite the sales, the land was still being farmed.

“People are contracting English farmers to farm the land for them,” he added. “The majority of overseas buyers are not looking to live here but to invest. Most of them are attracted here because there is less regulation and the land is cheaper. We are getting a lot of people who have made money in the city coming up as well.”

However, he admitted that while land was still being farmed, changes were occurring to the landscape.

“The biggest difference isn't with the investment buyers from overseas,” he added. “It's the lifestyle farmers who often make the noticeable changes because they are non-commercial farmers.

“They will look at organic farming or planting hedges and trees. They can make quite a major difference to the landscape quite quickly. A lot of lifestyle buyers also want livestock because it's pretty.

Alastair Brown, from Strutt and Parker, said demand was high and particularly intense along the coastal strip of Norfolk, where properties were difficult to come by.

The firm was recently involved in the £2m sale of a 200-acre farm at Witton, near Brundall, which included a partly renovated Georgian country house with gardens, woodland, pasture and meadows.

“Norfolk is seen as unspoilt and attractive countryside and there are no motorways. There are two ways of looking at it,” he added. “Some would argue that it's putting money into the rural economy. There is a strong demand for residential farms which offer both a practical farmhouse and also sufficient commercial farmland to go with it. It's not as if they are looking for bare land, they are looking for buildings. Undoubtedly a lot of these people will offer opportunities to local farmers to contract farm their land.”

Bob Young, Norfolk NFU chairman said the local market was strongly influenced by international money.

“There's no doubt that non-farming people are coming in and have had a difference on the market, which has had a knock-on effect. But in the main, the land has still got to be farmed so you still need people to deal with the fields and crops. You can't buck the market - it's something you have to live with really.”

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