The high cost of entering Northern Irish agriculture…

There’s a great programme by Jimmy Doherty who’s been looking at the way farmers have been turning their hand to new ways of earning money in one of the UK’s most tightly squeezed industries. There’s the Jimeson’s up near Limavady, who are harvesting top grade turf for lawns. One fascinating snippet though is the fact that agricultural land in Northern Ireland is twice as expensive as anywhere else in the UK. This, he suggests, is because since the land reforms of the 1880s (which brought in the three Fs), families have been reluctant to give up their land. As a result, land is not and never has been a commodity. As a result farming is almost impossible to buy into, and the kinds of big aggregate farms you find elsewhere are simply not a feature of the Ulster landscape. Which even with the demand for food increasing, may have implications for what is and what is not economically sustainable… H/T Ciaran.

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  • DK

    I have a farmer relative who has also gone into growing turf in a big way. I blame Monty Don.

  • eranu

    i didnt see this episode but i thought previous ones were great. it was interesting to see how farmers are using technology and the knowledge of how nature works to make farming into the management of a complex and balanced system. its a bit like gardeners world meets tomorrows world.
    the episode featuring the guy in england who was growing tomatoes under an enormous green house comes to mind. he was using insects to manage the environment rather than lots of pesticides and so on. We might think farming was crude in previous centuries, but our use of tons of chemicals may seem just as crude in the future.

    (i wish the beeb would make iplayer accessible outside the UK. come on beeb!!)

  • Rooster Cogburn

    Without seeing its particular provenance, I still wouldn’t trust the statistic you quote (about ‘agricultural’ land being twice as expensive in NI as it is in the rest of the UK) for a variety of reasons.

    First of all, it isn’t. If you’re in the habit of either buying or selling land on both sides of the Irish Sea, this rapidly becomes apparent. Second, ‘agricultural’ land per se in the Province is rarely of the first rank. Put briefly, most land in NI is middling to poor for farming purposes. But, and this is something important to understand about the landmass of the UK, most land full stop in Highland Scotland is, despite heroic efforts to clear it in centuries gone by, virtually worthless for agricultural purposes (most Highland estates being, of course, amenity estates, not farms). The effect of this, if you simply compare Northern Ireland to Great Britain is of course to artificially distort the overall, averaged out value of land in NI as compared to GB (there not being a wealth of moors, highlands or etc in Ulster). Since, as we can readily appreciate, this (NI:GB) is an absurd comparison, we turn instead to the only sensible one. Which is a direct comparison of like-for-like land, ie comparing equivalent farmland. Without going into boring detail, and admittedly relying more on impressionistic, anecdotal evidence than anything else, I see no serious basis for the claim that farmland in NI is 100% more valuable that farmland on the mainland.

    Now where I will say something madly counter-intuitive (being seemingly anti-market theory, which I would normally zealously subscribe to) is that, land in Northern Ireland is actually over-valued precisely because of a lack of demand hitherto, not because of a lack of supply. What has kept mainland values consistently high has been a wealth of rich private buyers willing to buy farmland. With very few exceptions, that class of investor has not extended itself to NI. That, I believe, is now very slowly changing, but, because NI simply lacks the social and cultural distractions virtually every area of mainland Britain has to offer, our farmland will never quite have the appeal to land-hungry millionaires the rest of the UK’s has.

    Put bluntly – sectarian urges to one side, farmers would all sell out for the right price, were there someone (whose income would necessarily have to come primarily *other* than from farming) to offer that money. Those conditions do not (yet) apply in NI, or for that matter, even in the newly rich South (plenty of millionaires, but equally, a very low density of population – meaning every where the urge there, which it ain’t, there simply aren’t enough millionaires to go round for all the acreage available). I suspect such circumstances are unlikely ever to prevail here, unless NI actually becomes an appealing place for people to want to live. Our great problem is a lack of sense of proportion – why do we think rich people (the motor of land price growth) would want to own a chunk of Ulster? Compared to most places where rich people can spend their money buying land, with a very few exceptions, nowhere much on the island of Ireland is worth is owning. This is a geographical fact of life – like why (and how) Manhattan’s population (and tastes) can sustain, oh, Balducci’s, but Dungiven can’t.

  • Rooster Cogburn

    For ‘every’ (in the last par.) read ‘even’. (And still more despicably, ‘were’ for that atrocious ‘where’): “… meaning even were the urge …”

  • Mick Fealty

    It might just turn up on YouTube some day eranu. You never know!

  • Rapunsel

    This was a great and quality programme with Jimmy engaging with some very passionate local people. I already knew about black bacon and dry stone walls in the Mournes but rediscovering an old irish cider apple and undertaking the dna analysis and the turf farming – great . We watched it and both remarked that you could tell that BBC NI didn’t make it

  • Glencoppagagh

    I suppose one reason why farmland might have become relatively expensive compared to the rest of the UK is that here you were able to flog bits of it regularly for building. You can’t do that elsewhere.