Telegraph Story

Fields of dreams: Kate Humble’s farm

Kate Humble tells of the obstacles she faced when she set out to save a council-owned smallholding from developers and keep it going as a farm

Every day we hear about the need for more cutbacks, of businesses and entire nations teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, gloomy forecasts of double-dip recessions. We are all being urged to economise, to find money behind a metaphorical sofa. And yet it is precisely at this moment that my husband, Ludo, and I are embarking on the most frightening and potentially expensive project we have ever undertaken. We are starting our first business. A business that is more ambitious than most people would think sensible, that has nothing to do with television, yet he is a television producer (award-winning, but I’m not sure that’s going to help) and I am a presenter.

Personally I blame Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, whose advice to cash-strapped councils is to make ends meet by selling their assets. In areas such as Monmouthshire, the one we live in, council assets include council-owned farms, known as county farms. These tend to be relatively small areas of land – between 50 and 150 acres – that were traditionally rented out to young farmers who had no land of their own. These farms played an important role in the rural economy, keeping land productive and enabling young people to get a start in farming.

In the early 1960s there were more than 16,000 county farms in England and Wales; now there are fewer than 4,000. Over the past few years land prices have risen dramatically. It seems many are heeding the advice of Mark Twain to ‘buy land because they’re not making it any more’. As stocks and shares become an ever more precarious investment option, land appears to be an increasingly popular way for bankers to spend their bonuses. Land-owning councils are sitting on pots of gold. Small farms that, it can be convincingly argued, are too small to be viable, will fetch a very good price, particularly when they are broken up. Sell the house with a bit of land as one lot, put planning permission on old, characterful barns and sell them as another, parcel up the rest of the land for people to use as pony paddocks or to increase the size of their gardens, and suddenly a small farm is worth a large amount of money. It may appear to be a very sensible solution in the short term, but in the long term there will be a lot of landless farmers and an awful lot of barn conversions at a time when populations are increasing and there is more and more pressure on our farmers to produce food.

Last year the tenants on a council farm six miles from where Ludo and I have lived for the past four years in the Wye Valley retired and handed in their notice. As this particular farm wasn’t what the council terms part of its ‘core estate’, it sent a land agent to value it and marked it down ‘for disposal’. Not long later we were introduced to the tenants, Ros and Arthur Edmonds. We had put the word out among our farming neighbours that we were looking for a bit of land to rent so that we could expand our smallholding; a cousin of Ros and Arthur’s told us that they had retired and took us to meet them.

We sat at their kitchen table and Arthur told me how he had farmed the same land for 33 years. The farm is just over 100 acres, the land flat, but high and full of stones. He had raised cattle and sheep and, through sheer hard work and an enviable depth of knowledge and understanding, he had eked out a living. During tough times – and with BSE and foot and mouth, there were many – Ros, who worked as a teacher too, baked cakes and made jam to sell at the WI stall in the market in Monmouth. Practical and realistic, they knew that when they retired it was likely the farm would be sold; what they hadn’t realised when they handed in their notice was how the council planned to sell it. Auctioned off in parcels, it would cease to be a farm at all. The skill and care that had been lavished on that land to make it productive over three decades would disappear with the bang of an auctioneer’s hammer.

So I phoned the council and asked if someone would ring me back about the farm. They didn’t. I phoned again. I emailed. I kept phoning until someone told me that it was too late, the farm was to be sold in lots, and there was nothing that would change that. I asked if I could take it on as a tenant. No, I was told with decreasing patience, it is going to be sold. If I wanted to be a tenant farmer I’d need to follow the procedure and join the list. It is a long list and a longer wait. No council farms have been rented out to new tenants in our area for the past eight years. But I didn’t want to see this farm turned into a few pony paddocks and a housing development. I refused to give up, but clearly we were going to have to come up with another idea, something that would persuade the council to sit up and listen, to convince them that there was another way that the farm could bring in much-needed revenue and still remain a farm.

It took six months of phoning, emailing and driving everyone at the council to distraction before we got a meeting. Ludo and I drove to the offices in Cwmbran, and as we pulled into the car-park Ludo said, tentatively, ‘So, what is our idea?’ In retrospect it is extraordinary that we hadn’t thought to turn up at this first crucial meeting with any sort of proposal to show that we had a rock-solid, money-earning alternative to selling the farm. We had focused all our attention on ‘getting a meeting’ and it had become a sort of game. We had never really considered what we would do if that meeting ever happened. So here we were, about to sit down with the newly appointed head of regeneration and culture, and two people who look after the council’s land interests, with only the vaguest notion of what we were going to suggest, but knowing that this could be our only chance of saving the farm.

An hour later we walked back to the car-park in a state of shock. ‘Did she really say she liked what we said?’ I asked. Ludo nodded mutely. ‘What did I say?’ He laughed. ‘I can’t really remember, but you talked a lot and sounded very convincing.’

It began to dawn on us both that we were on the cusp of something potentially far bigger than we’d bargained for. ‘The way I see it,’ Ludo said, opening a bag of Maynard’s Sours in lieu of lunch, ‘we have two choices. Back out now or go for it and see what happens, but we need to work on that plan.’

Over the next few months we had dozens more meetings with the council. The farm began to dominate our lives, in the way that choosing the right school or the progress of a loft conversion can, and become almost our sole topic of conversation. We bored our friends, endured sleepless nights, subscribed to the Farmers Guardian and tried to learn about single farm payments and grant schemes. Our plan – which had started as a few disjointed phrases such as ‘outdoor education’, ‘reconnecting people with where their food comes from’, ‘commercial farming that works for wildlife’ and ‘green energy’ – started to become more substantial, concrete and workable.

Our main objective – and my unspoken promise to Ros and Arthur – was to keep the farm a proper working farm. But Ludo and I knew that having a few sheep and a couple of pigs, Duffy and Delilah, didn’t qualify us as proper working farmers; we simply don’t have the expertise to take on a hundred or so acres and make a living from them, so we put the word out once more among local farming friends. When discussing tenancies with Andrew, our ever-patient lawyer, I assumed that the sort of opportunity we were offering would be one that anyone would jump at. He laughed. ‘You must be joking! Most tenants want to take on their farm, pay their rent and be left in peace. You and Ludo are going to be on site most of the time, trying to run an ambitious business, while they are trying to run a farm with you scrutinising everything they do. You’ll be lucky to find anyone.’

But when we were introduced to a couple called Tim and Sarah Stephens, we knew we had fallen on our feet. They currently rent land just down the road, but have to rent a house separately elsewhere – not very practical and certainly not ideal financially. They have a herd of a dozen Hereford cattle and 200 Welsh mule ewes – ideal livestock for Ros and Arthur’s type of land – and have been on the waiting-list for a council farm for so long they can’t remember when they joined it. Not only that, Tim recently won third prize for fencing (not the Olympic type) at the All Wales Ploughing Match, so the farm should boast some of the finest fences in the country. But most importantly they approved of us and what we want to do, and despite the risk of failure they made it clear that they were up for the adventure of it all.

Our idea, now that it has crystallised, centres on the old farm buildings that are no longer practical for modern agriculture. Two stone barns sit either side of a sort of courtyard, self-contained yet at the heart of the farm. Here we plan to run a centre for people who want to learn rural skills and animal husbandry. We’ll set aside a few acres for the kind of livestock suitable for small-scale production or personal use. Our teachers will be local experts, some of whom helped Ludo and me take the leap from keeping an animal or two as pets to having them for more practical, pragmatic reasons – to breed, sell and eat.

We want to have a community apple press, for those apple-glut years, and honey-extracting equipment – a pricey and bulky outlay for beekeepers with just one or two hives. They can come to us instead. We want to have a shop to sell our farm produce and other stuff produced locally. We want schoolchildren to come and get their fingernails dirty, muck out pigs, jump in wool sacks at shearing time and help with lambing. We want to plant more trees, establish an orchard, put up bird boxes, keep goats, dig a pond. We want to rebuild drystone walls, lay hedges, install solar panels on roofs. We want people – locals, city dwellers, anyone – to come and help us make all this a reality, and take away the skills they have learnt in the process to apply elsewhere. We want it to boost the local economy, make local people proud, and we want it to attract visitors to the area. In short, we want to create a rural utopia that is still a practical, viable farm – but is that really possible?

The council had insisted that, if the plan were to go ahead, they would retain 30 per cent ownership of the farm as an insurance policy (so that we couldn’t just turn around after a couple of days and, quite possibly realising that we’d bitten off more than we could chew, sell it to the highest bidder). But the not inconsiderable financial burden, the initial outlay for the farm, the potentially enormous costs of redevelopment and all the financial risks thereafter, would be ours alone.

A business plan would give us an idea of our level of delusion, but here too we faltered. We produced a document, which thanks to Ludo’s computer wizardry was rather beautiful and full of pictures of happy-looking farm animals and people enjoying delicious, wholesome food. ‘It is very pretty,’ conceded Phil Cooper, of Venture Wales, who had become a regular at our meetings and was there to advise us on the wherefores of setting up a new business. ‘In fact, I called my colleagues in to have a look at it and we all agreed it is the prettiest business plan we’ve ever seen. It’s a bit short on numbers, though.’

Phil was being kind. Our business plan wasn’t just short of numbers, but devoid of them altogether. Now, thanks to the world’s most patient accountant, we don’t just have numbers. We have cash flow projections, we have tables and columns, and we know the eyewatering amount we have to spend and what we have to make to avoid a debtors’ prison and a life of prostitution. We now know that, if all goes well, with no glitches, building work is finished on time, animals stay healthy and people are prepared to pay to take part in this venture, we, the sole investors and people responsible for getting the business up and running and keeping it that way, doing everything from feeding and mucking out livestock to rebuilding barns to doing the accounts and emptying the bins, will make, according to Tony’s forecasts, a profit of £137 in our first year. ‘No question,’ Ludo said sarcastically, ‘it’s all absolutely worth it.’

But however glossy and number-crunched our business plan, however utopian and community-minded our vision, it didn’t disguise the fact that we were left with one pretty major stumbling block – the council had yet to officially agree to let us take on the farm. Everything we had done, months of meetings, hair-pulling, agonising and slog, was hypothetical until the council cabinet met to discuss whether this was the right thing to do with this particular farm. But it appeared to be impossible to fix a date for this to happen. Anyone who has ever had any dealings with their council knows that even Job would have been driven to stamping on his mobile phone or hurling his computer out of the window. In the ‘trash’ section of my laptop are several draft emails, often written at 3am after lying awake for hours, sleepless with frustration, which are sprinkled with irate capital letters. ‘i am not prepared to waste any more time!’ ‘how hard can it be?’ ‘what do you mean the meeting can’t be organised this side of christmas?’ ‘i give up!’ Ludo banned me from sending any of them. If this thing ever works it will, in no small part, be down to his rigid control of my outbox. Finally, lawyers for both sides were brought in to agree heads of terms. More weeks passed. Statements were drawn up. Business plans were polished. Eventually a date was set: the cabinet would meet at the end of July and we would know our fate.

Cabinet meetings are open to the public, so we would be allowed to attend, but not speak, though we were asked to come in early to answer questions and clarify anything to any councillor who wanted more information. We were ushered into a large chamber, with semicircular rows of banked seats, filled with intimidating faces and suits. We were both terrified, so terrified that Ludo managed to knock a freshly filled glass of water over my crotch. I stood up and explained that although I was nervous I hadn’t actually wet myself. No one laughed. What followed was a gruelling two hours of questioning. What did we intend to do? Who would farm the farm? Would they be local? How would we support local businesses and producers? Why had we blatantly flouted clause 416/7a? At this point I had to concede that I wasn’t entirely sure how councils worked and didn’t know the clause they were talking about. ‘Neither do we,’ quipped someone from the back, and that did get a laugh. Ragged with exhaustion and with no idea what their reaction was, we emerged and had an agonising two hours to wait until the cabinet sat.

‘I, too, think this is a good idea, that will bring benefits to the community and the county as a whole. I give it my support.’ Tears dragged black lines of mascara down my cheeks. The seventh and final member of the cabinet had given our idea her approval. Seven out of seven. Ludo and I couldn’t look at each other. He squeezed my fingers, whispering, ‘They could still object.’ Council members have two weeks after a cabinet meeting to raise an objection. ‘I know,’ I said, ‘but it was unanimous. They all like it. Surely, surely it’s going to happen.’

We know, of course, that this is just the start of a long, long journey, and that there are many more hurdles and sleepless nights to come. Until we have the signed documents in our hands, there is no certainty that the sale will be allowed to proceed, that our plan will ever be more than pretty pictures and columns of indecipherable numbers. And if it ever does get past that stage, we don’t know whether anyone will be interested in helping to build our vision, in teaching our courses or, indeed, attending them, or buying our produce. We have to track down experts in everything from cider-making to pig husbandry. Our future feels as unpredictable and stomach-churning as a fairground attraction. In 2011 no one goes into farming or starts a new business because they think it’s going to be an easy ride – but it promises to be fascinating, surprising and bizarre.