Bunhill: What the BBC does down on the farm

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AS anybody who listens to The Archers and Farming Today knows, running a farm can be a tricky business.

So, it should come as no surprise to learn that a farm in Cambridgeshire has lost millions of pounds in the past eight years. What is a shock, though, is that this farm is managed by those people who bring us The Archers and Farming Today - the BBC.

In case you should get the wrong idea and imagine that this is some sort of set for shooting farming and country programmes, let me explain: this is a working farm, designed to make money for its owners. Sadly, the attempts of the BBC mandarins to emulate farmer Phil Archer have been an unmitigated disaster.

In 1984, the trustees of the BBC pension scheme acquired 3,700 acres in fertile East Anglia. A company called Ariel Farms Ltd was set up to run the venture. Its shareholders have included Michael Checkland, the former Director-General of the BBC, and Alasdair Milne, another former D-G, has sat on its board. The shares were held by the Corporation's great and good on behalf of the BBC's 40,000 pensioners.

The farm has 14 people on the payroll, all of whom are described in its accounts as 'employees of the BBC'. No expense has been spared in trying to make the project work. In 1989, the farm spent pounds 199,000 on machinery and vehicles and put up some extra buildings at a cost of pounds 45,500. Unfortunately, it does not appear to have been money well spent. In the year to the end of March 1992, it lost pounds 516,893. The previous year, it lost pounds 586,482. In fact, in every year since the men from Auntie took over, the farm has lost money - adding up to a total deficit to date of pounds 2.5m.

A spokesman for the BBC confirmed that the farm is owned and managed by the Corporation's pension fund. The pensioners lend it money which is repaid, with interest. 'The repayments account for the major portion of Ariel Farms Limited's losses,' he maintained.

Yes, but the farm has never made a profit, and wouldn't the pensioners be better off putting their money in something else?

'Ariel Farms is a small part of a large, diversified, successful investment portfolio,' he replied.

That may be so, but in The Archers, Ariel Farms might have thrown in the towel by now. On the other hand, as we all know, The Archers is fiction.

(Photograph omitted)