Tied to the Land

Faced with rising costs and falling incomes, who could blame Britain?s farmers for wanting to throw in the towel? Yet, contrary to expectations, this simply has not happened. Many thought the introduction of the Single Payment Scheme would lead to many more farms being sold, especially in the eastern counties, but despite the recent surge in the volume of farmland being offered, ?it remains unlikely that there will be a flood of land coming onto the market this year,? says Ian Hepburn, head of farm agency at Strutt & Parker. ?In our experience, people who own land continue to believe that there are many more reasons for doing so than pure financial gain,? Mr Hepburn adds.

This is certainly so in the case of the Baker family, who have farmed large tracts of land on the Northamptonshire/ Warwickshire borders since the 1950s, and had built up one of the largest meat- packing companies in Europe before the recent BSE crisis hit their business for six. In late 1982, the family bought the historic Ashby St Ledgers estate once owned by the Catesby family of Gunpowder Plot fame?from the Bri-tish Airways Pension Fund, and turned it into a thriving dairy, beef and arable unit.

Now, following the death of one of the Baker brothers, the 2,336-acre estate is back on the market?at a guide price of £10 million through Strutt & Parker (020?7629 7282)?in the biggest farm sale of the year. But that is by no means the end of the Baker farming dynasty as other members of the family will carry on farming other substantial holdings in the area. The estate, which surrounds the pretty Northamptonshire village of Ashby St Ledgers, is being sold as a whole on a lock- stock-and-barrel basis (the preferred option) or in up to 11 lots.

The core of the estate is the 681-acre Chapel Farm, a noted, 120-cow organic dairy unit with a three-bedroom Victorian farmhouse, a cottage and livestock buildings with planning consent for a second, four-bedroom farmhouse, plus a notable pheasant and partridge shoot created in 1998. Bramleys Farm, with 447 acres, has a four-bedroom farmhouse and a modern dairy unit for 320 cows. The Ashby farmland comprises some 1,191 acres of arable land with a mix of modern and traditional farmbuildings, with a further 16 acres of paddocks, another farmhouse and six semi-detached cottages in and round the village.

There is no longer a main house at Ashby St Ledgers, the original manor house having been sold off separately by British Airways, but the site of a former mansion demolished in the 1930s does offer the possibility of building a new one at some point in the future.

The decision to sell a farm which has been in the family for 50 years is never an easy one, as Michael Johnson, owner of the 1,360-acre Bilsby estate (Fig 2) on the edge of the Wolds, near Alford, Lincolnshire, readily admits. Having devoted himself to the farm for more than 25 years, Mr Johnson has decided to seek a fresh challenge in other areas. ?It is not so much a mid-life crisis as a decision to concentrate my energies and capital in a new direction,? he says with a wry smile.

Strutt & Parker and J.H. Walter (01522 504304) quote a guide price of £5m for the estate as a whole or it can be sold in two lots. It has a handsome, Grade II-listed, five-bedroom manor house, built in 1740 and extended in 1906, as well as a four-bedroom farmhouse. The farm itself is ?a highly efficient and profitable unit which in the last six years has avera-ged nearly four tonnes to the acre of first and second wheats,? says Natalie Price of Strutt & Parker.

For most farmers, the land is their life, and, as George Wade of Cluttons? farms department explains, his father?s decision to sell his 550-acre Townsend Farm at Poyntington, near Sherborne, Dorset?an area where he has farmed all his life?is based on a desire to move to something smaller and ?perhaps wilder? somewhere farther west. The farm is a mixed livestock and arable unit in impeccable order, with a modern three-bedroom farmhouse (there is planning consent to extend), and a good range of farmbuildings including grain storage for 1000 tonnes and a covered yard.

Cluttons (01225 447575) quote a guide price of £2.25m for Townsend Farm as a whole, and?encouragingly for the future?many of the potential buyers who have come to view so far have been farmers accompanied by their sons.

This article was originally published in Country Life magazine, July 14, 2005. To subscribe click here.