County Farms Project

In its report ‘Reviving County Farms’ the authors, CPRE, state that ‘County farms are smallholdings owned by local authorities and originally intended to be let out to young and first-time farmers, sometimes at below-market rents. They are a vital ‘first rung on the farming ladder’ for newcomers to a sector that has high up-front capital costs; by providing the land and buildings, the public sector is helping get fresh blood into an industry where the average age of farmers is 60.’

Originally established in the 19th century to help aspiring farmers learn the trade, there were over 426,695 acres of county farm land across England in 1977 but since then 10,000 farms and over 220,000 acres have been lost from county farm portfolios. As financial pressures on councils have increased many have been forced to sell land in order to fund other services.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, there are almost no county farms at all in the South East of England. Herefordshire sold most of its land a few years ago to raise £40m. Since 2010, Somerset County Council started selling off its 62 farms stating that: “We have no statutory obligation to provide County Farms and, as with any properties that we sell, the money generated is used to fund valuable and much needed capital projects that benefit the entire County such as the building of new schools.” Today the number of county farms in Somerset is in single figures and the latest farms to be sold were annouced last year.

By contrast the Hampshire County Farms Service has been growing and comprises more than 30 farms, across 4,600 acres of land and is one of the larger providers of council farm tenancies in the country.

As a documentary photographer and someone who spent many happy school holidays on the farm of a relative, I am curious as to why anyone would want to get into farming these days. Afterall, we are a nation of people that demands cheap food without any comprehension of what is involved in producing it.

With that in mind I am following at least three Hampshire County Farm tenants throughout 2024 to see what challenges they face and what life on the farm is like – it’s over 35 years since I was hauling bags of crushed barley into troughs and wrestling with sheep that needed dipping.

What a revelation it has been so far.

In a world of selfies, social media envy and instant gratification it is easy for someone of my age to generalise about the ’20 something’ generation with disparaging phrases, but then one frosty Sunday morning I met Alice and Billy on their County Farm near Winchester.

They’ve had their county farm for about two years, it took them 12 months to get on their feet and now they have a sizeable flock of sheep and a small herd of calves. They are both in their early 20s, and they can only afford to invest in the farm by working full time jobs, which are topped and tailed each day with work on the farm. Weekends are not for sitting around relaxing after a hard week, they are for farming and catching-up on all the jobs they didn’t get around to doing during the week. This couple never rests, the list of jobs never gets shorter and yet they love it. They care passionately about the animals and they learn something new every week.

Following Alice, Billy and the other County Farmers throughout the year is one project that I’m looking forward to.

Hampshire County Farms
Andrew Cameron