16 April 1999

Subsidy push keeps grasskeep price up

GRASSKEEP is still making more than 12 months ago, as the letting season draws to a close.

"I was surprised," says Jeremy Bell of Somerset-based JH Palmer & Sons of the prices seen at the firms collective offering last week. The Highbridge auction returned an average of £60.70/acre, slightly up on last year. And all but one of the 86 lots on offer changed hands.

Prices are likely to rise more next spring, says Mr Bell, as farmers look for more land under the new Agenda 2000 rules.

Three lots at the Highbridge event topped £100/acre, with a high of £107/acre. "Prices depend on location, location and location," says Mr Bell. At the bottom end of the scale, land with poor access, in the wrong location was in the £20 to £40/acre range.

Bernie Hutchinson of Barber & Son also expressed surprise after the firms collective auction at Market Drayton, Shropshire, saw an average 22% up on 1998 at £95/acre. Values ranged from £54 to £130/acre, with the highest price paid for a 19 acre block with good silage potential.

A key factor behind the demand was the drive by farmers to increase acres and subsidy entitlement. "Make the most of paper farming," says Mr Hutchinson.

Some optimism, meanwhile, has crept back into some sectors of the business. "Theres not a lot of optimism yet – but things are looking slightly better. Its a bit more upbeat, a bit less downtrodden.

"Store cattle, for example, are making a bit more money – and the people buying them need land to put them on," says Mr Hutchinson.

Richard Turner of RTS in the North West has seen a "colossal" range in what people are prepared to pay for keep, with farmers talking figures of between £15 and £100/acre. "It can be very patchy – it depends on whether neighbours want it."

But hes not all that surprised values have risen this year. "The recession in agriculture means the livestock farmer is getting a derisory price for stock – so many are choosing to keep, rather than sell, it – and if they retain it, they need more fodder.

"So grazing prices – like milk quota – often run in a different direction to stock prices."

Values were also up at TW Gaze & Sons annual Haddiscoe marsh letting in Norfolk. The event saw an average of £68/acre for the 910 acres, marking a 13% increase on last spring. Top price was £104/acre.

Demand was brisk from beef and sheep graziers – plus dairy producers looking for summer keep for heifers, according to auctioneer Jeffrey Bowles. Higher finished cattle prices from late 1998 into 1999 was also a factor. &#42