Page last updated at 00:01 GMT, Saturday, 14 June 2008 01:01 UK

The foreign fields of England

By Mark Broad
BBC News, Lincolnshire

A tractor at work in a field
The value of farmland has more than doubled in some parts of the UK

The Cereals 2008 trade fair in rural Lincolnshire is buzzing with farmers from all over Europe.

They have come to look at the newest technology in the agricultural industry and to plan what crops they are going to sow for next year.

But this year is no ordinary year for the UK farming industry - it has been 12 months full of new records.

Land prices have more than doubled in some parts of the country while returns on many crops have been hitting new highs almost every day.

And judging by the prices of the tractors and combine harvesters on show, the 22,500 farmers at Cereals seem determined to spend some of their new-found wealth.

The new investment?

While the stock market and housing market have both seen big falls in recent months, new investors have begun to look at farmland as a new destination for their money.

The value of farmland has been rising at rates which make the residential market gains of the last decade look pedestrian.

Farmer Brian Hammond in a field with his tractor
My opinion is that the party may well be over
Brian Hammond

According to research from land agents Savills, the average value of prime arable land in the East of England has risen 26% in the past three months.

And that rise in land values has been accompanied by agricultural commodity markets that have soared after failed harvests in many parts of the world.

The new records are now not just attracting UK farmers, but also overseas buyers and investment companies.

Foreign fields

Tom White's family has been selling land in Lincolnshire for three generations and he has seen the influx at first hand.

"Over the last two years I've sold just 12% of the land on our books to UK farmers.

"The rest has gone to overseas buyers, mainly from Ireland and Denmark, and the rest to investors who have made their money outside agriculture," he says.

And judging by the accents around Cereals 2008 many of those new investors are in Lincolnshire to see what is on offer.

Irishman Brian Hammond manages 1,000 acres for a partnership of Dublin-based investors near Spalding in Lincolnshire.

And while he inspects the rows of tractors lined up by the manufacturers' tents, he reflects on the factors that have given a new allure to arable farming.

"It is 12 months to the day since we started the see a very significant increase in the price of wheat.

"And with bad weather in the US at the moment the prices are continuing to go up," he says.

Investment opportunity

Foreign buyers are not the only group to have noticed the improving returns from fields across the UK.

Fresh from the pain of the sub-prime crisis and the credit crunch, banks and investment companies are beginning to add farms to their more traditional portfolios of stocks and shares.

A combine harvester and tractor harvesting a field
The cost of running farm machinery has risen considerably

The investment firm Braemar was one of the first on the market, while Blackrock, a company part-owned by the investment bank Merrill Lynch, has also begun to buy up land.

Braemar has seen interest in their farmland products soar since they were launched earlier this year, and the company has so far raised about 5 million to buy farms in South and East England.

Individuals invest in one the company's two agricultural land funds which then go out and buy land, contract out the farming then take the profit from the crop sales.

Seeds of trouble

With land values still increasing and commodity prices seemingly remaining high, there is a feeling of optimism amongst the farmers wandering around the promotional tents.

But not everything is going in one direction. Rising prices in other commodities are beginning to take away as well as add to farmers' bottom lines.

The diesel needed to fuel the huge combine harvesters and tractors has almost doubled in price in the last two years.

Meanwhile the rising cost of oil has sent fertilizer prices soaring, with farmers paying roughly three times as much in just over a year.

As the cash keeps rolling in from crops like wheat, these increases are forcing many in the industry to adjust their ambitions for the year ahead.

Bust after boom?

Mingling amongst the wellies and Barbour jackets at Cereals is the besuited figure of Michael Summers, an agriculture manager at the bank HSBC.

As an expert in farming finance, Mr Summers has seen the effects of a boom in land values and crop prices through the experiences of his clients.

Over the past two years I've sold just 12% of the land on our books to UK farmers
Tom White,
Land agent at Brown & Co
And while the HSBC tent at the fair is doing brisk business, Mr Summers remains cautious about the outlook for the industry.

"If you look closely at the numbers, it is less easy to reconcile the size of the increases in land value back to farm profitability," he says.

Mr Summers believes rises in land values may well be reaching a peak, and says that farmers should not assume the increases of the last few years will necessarily continue.

'Party over?'

As the fair draws to a close and the mud splattered 4x4 vehicles head for the exits, some of the farmers weighed down with promotional leaflets and gifts seem equally uncertain as to whether the boom of the last year is sustainable.

For farmer Brian Hammond the new entrants into the industry seem to herald what he sees as the high water mark for the agricultural community.

"It is always the case that when someone is making a quid, someone else wants to make one too.

"And it is my opinion is that the party may well be over."

Hear more about this story on the PM programme on Radio 4 on Thursday 19 June between 1700 and 1800 BST.


SEE ALSO
Wheat prices down 40% from peak
25 Apr 08 |  Business
How to grow your own wheat
10 Mar 08 |  Magazine

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