31 August 2001

London farmers are getting

cold shoulder

Farming might not be an

obvious occupation for

someone in the city. But

Greater London is home for

800 people who work on

farms. Alistair Driver

reports

TREES and fields covered the countryside when the Kelsey family started farming in the London Borough of Bexley. The borough name, first recorded in 814AD, means "clearing in the box wood". It was entirely rural until well into the 19th century. But today, the Kelsey family are the only farmers that remain.

David Kelsey, now 69, started farming 50 years ago. But relentless urbanisation has brought more people to the area and driven out the other farmers. Woollett Hall Farm has been forced to change. Livestock farming became unsustainable as fences were often broken and animals were terrorised by dogs.

"Until the 1960s we drove cattle through Bexley High Street to our own butcher shop But we had to give up livestock about thirty years ago because we were too near the town," says David.

The 20ha (45-acre) farm lies five miles inside the M25 at the point where sprawling south London starts to turn into the Kent countryside. It once employed 70 people and supplied fruit and vegetables to big supermarkets. That stopped three years ago. These days, David runs the farm with his brother Michael and their wives Maureen and Anne.

The family sell nearly half their produce through a farm shop set up ahead of its time in the mid-1960s to take advantage of the 2m Londoners and suburban consumers on their doorstep. The animals have gone but the farm is still plagued by vandalism and other problems of farming on the urban fringe.

They are not alone. Woollett Hall Farm is one of 385 farms covering 12800 hectares and employing 800 people in Londons 32 boroughs. To compound the difficulties, it appears that London mayor Ken Livingstone is unaware of their existence. The Greater London Authoritys document a strategy for Greater London over the next 15-20 years.

There is no mention of farmers in the Towards a London Plan document even though one of the challenges it sets out is to promote London as a "green city". This has angered the NFU which says Mr Livingstone has failed to consider the benefits farmers offer London and the specific problems they face.

"The urban dimension is of course very strong within the Greater London Authority and farmers have been overlooked," says NFU planning adviser David Glasson. "Our challenge is to convince the mayor that, although there are not many farmers, the area they cover makes them important. He must recognise that farming maintains the green belt and provides a host of recreational pursuits."

The GLA believes it is inevitable that the authoritys blueprint emphasises urban rather than rural issues. But the NFU can still put farming on the agenda, says a GLA spokeswoman. She adds: "These are very outline draft proposals and every response is going to be taken into account."

One London farmer, who asked not to be named, told FARMERS WEEKLY he gave up livestock farming, partly because of pressure from neighbours. But efforts to persuade the local community to back an application use empty buildings for other uses has also proved difficult, leaving him with little place to go.

Other farmers are also reluctant to talk about their situations – a silence which speaks volumes for the pressure they are under. Producers are tempted to diversify to find relief from the industrys problems. Opportunities in London are greater than anywhere for diversification into leisure activities and providing space for business. But they are often stifled because of greenbelt planning restrictions.

Near the Kelseys is a field that was once farmed but now lies derelict. The field is a mess, overrun with Brambles, and no use to anyone. Mr Glasson says: "Farmers are having to get rid of livestock because people complain about the noise and smell. But if they cannot re-use land and buildings they become derelict and turn into wasteland."

But the noise of cars running within yards of the Kelsey farm shop is deafening. The family do not feel safe coming into the nearby station at night any more. And they are constantly troubled by vandals. David says: "I wonder if that is Mr Livingstones idea of a green London. We look after our little bit of the countryside from the small amount of money we make."

Last week a pipe irrigating spring onions was wrecked and not long before that someone turned the whole irrigation system off. David says he spends £200 a year removing graffiti from the farm gates and regularly has to get rid off rubbish dumped on his land. Burnt out cars are now a regular feature of the landscape. "The worst time is always after the pubs have just closed."

But they are not ready to follow the rest of the farmers out of what they still call the village of Bexley. David points to carefully managed hedges on his land: "Why we stay has always been the $64m question, but we have got so many friends here and we do so much. Its a good business weve got here as well." &#42