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British youth seek farmland, as beef prices rise

Rising commodity prices are boosting the British farming industry, attracting young farmers to enter the profession.

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By 2016, British farmland prices will increase by 37 percent, beating forecasts for gold, government bonds, and London property, according to research published last month by Oxford Economics, an economic forecasting consultancy, and the research arm of Savills, a property consultant.

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The growth has been fuelled by a scarcity of land on the market: less than a half-percent of the total land farmed in Britain was up for sale in 2011.

Investors, looking for a safe haven for their cash in troubled times, are also helping to push up prices. Grain, a non-governmental organization that promotes the sustainable use of the world's resources, estimated that between $5 and $15 billion of pension fund money was invested in global farmland last year, a figure it said would double by 2015.

Many investors prefer developed markets, sensitive to possible incidents of "land grabs" in Sub-Saharan African states and other developing countries. For independent investors, British farmland is an especially attractive option because it can offer relief from burdensome taxes. 

Land agents, however, report that farmers still constitute a majority of the buyers of farmland. “It’s that age-old thing of wanting that field just over the hedge,” says Mr. King.

Rising prices affect farmers in less positive ways as well. Arable farmers are quick to cite the cost of fertilizer, while livestock farmers complain about the price of feed. But banks are quicker to give credit to farmers than they are to almost any other business.

“Farmers are one of the very few primary producers to which banks are happy to lend because they see land as a safe bet,” says Giles Wordsworth, partner in Smiths Gore, a rural property consultant.

Career option

Young people, who only a few years ago would have laughed at the idea of going into farming, now see it as a serious career option. Over the last two years, agriculture courses saw the biggest increases in university enrollments, according to the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

But if you don’t come from a farming family that either owns or rents land, getting started is far from easy.

“We knew we wanted to farm but [also] knew we had no prospect of buying land with prices so high,” says Camilla Puzey, who recently took on the tenancy of 250 acres in Oxfordshire, where she and her husband Roly raise sheep.  

After a long and fruitless search for some land to rent, the couple was lucky to be offered cheap land for rent by an environment charity. “Getting the land is the real struggle,” says Ms. Puzey.

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