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Saturday, 29 September, 2001, 01:15 GMT 02:15 UK
Landowners asked to help farmers
Sheep in Cumbrian field
Farmers have had a very tough year
The National Farmers' Union is calling on landlords to help prevent tenant farmers going bankrupt.

It wants them to bear in mind the difficulties their tenants face when renegotiating rents on Saturday - which is Michaelmas, the day when rents are traditionally re-calculated.

Foot-and-mouth disease has had a devastating effect on the rural economy this year.

Combined with a bad winter, many previously profitable tenant farmers have been driven into the red.

The NFU says four out of five tenant farmers have been forced to borrow to keep their businesses afloat.

And it says rent rises could put even more farmers out of business, adding to the 55,000 who have left the industry this year.

Diversifying blow

It asked landlords to remember that the average farm's profits have fallen by 80% in the last 10 years.

The NFU is also calling for increased flexibility in tenancy agreements, to allow farmers to pursue alternatives to traditional farming.

Suggestions include farm shops, tourism and organic farming.

But the process for organic accreditation takes years, and events in the US have dealt a serious blow to hopes of increasing rural tourism.

One of the country's largest landlords, the Crown Estates, has already agreed not to raise rents.

But many other landowners are pushing ahead with rises.

Vulnerable sector

About 18% of all full-time farmers are tenant farmers, according to recent figures from the NFU - about 23,000 people.

Many are small family farms, while others work temporarily for groups such as the National Trust, which relies on farming to graze and maintain their landscapes.

But the sector is one of the most vulnerable within agriculture.

Tenant farmers must meet regular rent payments even if their returns are falling.

And as they do not own the land or buildings they farm, if they lose their livestock - or if the value of their livestock plummets - they potentially lose everything.

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The BBC's Quentin Somerville
reports
See also:

29 Aug 01 | UK
A countryside in crisis?
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