Defra Secretary Michael Gove has promised to announce a new package of support for beleaguered county farms owned by councils.
The promise, which Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Efra) Select Committee member Kerry McCarthy MP mentions in her latest article for Farmers Guardian’s Brexit hub, was made at the Oxford Real Farming Conference at the start of the new year.
England’s county farms, which covered almost 173,000 ha (427,000 ac) in 1977, now make up just 87,000 ha (215 ac) of the country’s land, as councils have been selling off their estates in a bid to raise cash for public services.
This near-halving of the overall county farms area has prompted massive concern, as these farms have traditionally provided opportunities to young and first-time farmers looking to get a foothold in the industry.
Farming Minister George Eustice has previously told the Efra Committee the Government is considering using cash earmarked for productivity under the Agriculture Bill to ‘refresh’ the county farm model by helping councils to reinvest in their estates.
But Ms McCarthy believes the new support to be announced in the coming months by Mr Gove, which could include funding, will cover new county farms and not just the existing network.
She said: “I very much welcome the Secretary of State’s support for county farms. With land prices so high, many new entrants to farming are finding it ever harder to get a secure, affordable tenancy which would allow them to get a foothold on the farming ladder.
“In a sector where the average age of a farmer is 60, we need to encourage young entrants and I hope to see the Government come forward with plans soon to help councils do just that.”
Vicki Hird, food and farming co-ordinator at Sustain, also welcomed the news, but said Mr Gove’s promise was ‘too vague’.
“We need a concrete legislative commitment, ideally in the new Agriculture Bill, to ensure a viable and exciting future for existing county farms and to encourage growth,” she added.