9 November 2001

CANLIPSERVICETOFARMTENANTSBETRANSLATEDINTOPOSITIVEACTIONS?

THREE things British farmers dont expect: A dry harvest, a fat milk cheque and contrite government minister. A least one of these wonders came to pass last week when DEFRA secretary Margaret Beckett admitted that the government had "overlooked" the problems of tenant farmers.

Aside from the astonishing spectacle of a minister admitting that any government policy on food, farming and the countryside achieves less than total perfection, Mrs Becketts admission is remarkable for another reason. It reveals a degree of sophistication in the way government perceives UK farming that, until now, has been noted only for its absence.

If nothing else it reveals that this government acknowledges there is a difference between owner-occupiers and tenants who represent 40% of the UK agricultural area. For, as all tenants know and some politicians are beginning to learn, when times are tough in farming it is the tenanted sector which is the most vulnerable.

With the security of land ownership, tenants assets are often few and liable to depreciate more rapidly in difficult times. Admittedly, there has been some good news for traditional rents recently which have fallen by about 12% for arable land, 15% for dairy units and 10% for mixed farms. But the Tenant Farmers Association rightly believes another 5% should be shaved off rents next year.

If the government truly wants to help remedy the problems of tenant farmers it should also help farmers to diversify. If diversification is to be anything other than a euphemism for a policy of "sort-it-out-yourself", government should make it a practical possibility for tenants.

Too often, tenants risk a notice to quit if they branch into agri-environment schemes, or non-core farming diversification. Also farm business tenancies should be made available on longer lets with fewer restrictive clauses at more realistic rents.

Only then will government have turned the lip service Margaret Beckett paid to tenant farmers last week into an enduring reality.