George Eustice© Tolga Akmen/LNP/Rex/Shutterstock

Defra minister George Eustice says he is keen to reinvigorate England’s system of tenanted county farms so it offers new entrants a “real option” to carve a career in agriculture.

Acknowledging that the government was powerless to stop cash-strapped county councils from selling off their farms, Mr Eustice said the 1970 Agriculture Act nonetheless gave Defra scope to work with local authorities to help them to “refine” their plans.

See also: Land workers protest in London at county farm sell-offs

“We cannot block them from selling those assets – they have a statutory right to do that – but we have a role to play in working with them on any plans for reorganisation of their county farms,” Mr Eustice told MPs during a Westminster Hall debate on Tuesday (10 May).

Concern about county farms, particularly in Herefordshire, has already prompted Mr Eustice to set up talks with local authorities. “I am keen to have discussions with them about how we can try to refresh the model and make it a real option for new entrants to the industry.”

The debate was tabled by Wealden MP Nusrat Ghani to discuss the length and security of farm tenancies. Mr Eustice was responding to a question by shadow Defra minister Nick Smith, who asked what the government was doing to help tenant farmers.

Mr Smith said: “County council farm estates are an increasingly painful issue for tenant farmers that the government needs to address. Herefordshire Council has become the latest to sell off its estates – land that provided a good entry point for young farmers.”

Herefordshire Council agreed to sell off its 50 county farms totalling some 1940ha last December. The local authority said the annual gross revenue from the estate was about £400,000, but the net income value was negligible after maintenance and support costs were included.

Some 42 tenant farmers are affected by the Herefordshire sell-off. But the local authority said it needed to realise the value of its assets. “It is not a requirement for the council to manage a farm estate and there are many other agricultural landlords who may be better placed to do so.”