I once went on a farm management course with 14 other farmers and, in conversation, I was astounded to find out that I was the only one who had bought his own house.
Everyone else had inherited their home or were living in it as part of a farm tenancy.
Buying a home is the single biggest purchase that most people make, and many farmers have the privilege of being spared that concern. Maybe I should be grateful that I wasn’t.
I scraped £39,000 together to buy a little cottage in the late 1990s and developed a passion for building improvements. I have been hobbling my way up the property ladder ever since.
See also: Matthew Naylor on succession planning
Having a renovation project on the go diverts my mind from the stresses of growing crops profitably and trying to keep supermarket customers happy.
It has also been a helpful way of building a bit of personal wealth outside our business, allowing me to invest the farm profits into expansion.
I’m rattling around a big country house with a huge number of sash windows to paint – the residential equivalent of maintaining the Forth Road Bridge
My advice to anyone scaling the property ladder is to know when to stop climbing. In 2018 I made my final jump to buy a local house that I had loved since I was a child.
Consequently, I’m rattling around a big country house with a huge number of sash windows to paint – the residential equivalent of maintaining the Forth Road Bridge.
My Mastermind specialist subject would be “The paint colours of Farrow and Ball”.
Recently I put down my brush to work with a local historian to find out more about the history of Leaden Hall, and it closely reflects the fortunes of agriculture in this area.
The land it sits upon was drained and reclaimed in the 1600s under plans drawn up by the Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden, and the first records of the house show it was bought with a mortgage by Nathanial Garland in the early 1700s.
Local legend has it that the house, equidistant between the customs houses of Boston and King’s Lynn, was built for smuggling.
The huge locks and strong lime ash floor in the attic, and the secret stairwell to the cellars, would certainly be ideal for hiding contraband goods.
This activity, and the farming prosperity of the time, would almost certainly have funded the new Regency façade and the addition of a big staircase.
Early census results paint a picture of a hive of industry, regularly showing families with eight children and a great number of servants, horsemen, tradesmen and labourers.
The most extraordinary thing is how frequently the occupants of the house changed through the 1800s – the house never passes to the first-born son.
Following the repeal of the Corn Laws and the advent of cheaper shipping, ambitious entrepreneurs clearly focused their energy on more prosperous industries than agriculture, and Leaden Hall wasn’t lived in by its owners for nearly a century.
My small part in this tale made me realise how ephemeral the individual roles of farmers are. Only the landscape and buildings are truly permanent. We are characters with a minor role to play in the bigger story.
It also painfully highlights how international trade has governed agricultural prosperity for centuries. The stability (or torpor) of farmland occupation in the UK that we all know is a relatively new phenomenon.
As the government forges new international trading relationships, we may face the same dynamic market conditions as our forebears.
Looking to the past may be the only way to predict the opportunities and risks ahead.