Farmer earns pounds 19,000 a year for growing nothing: For five years, the only 'crop' on 215 high-quality arable acres has been grass. Nicholas Schoon reports

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The Independent Online
IT'S SPRING and once again no crop pushes up from Bill and Lieselotte Loyd's fields. For five years they have grown nothing on their 215 acres of high-quality arable land. In return for this inaction, the Government has paid them nearly pounds 19,000 a year.

Non-farming suits them. They plan to sign up for the same deal with the Ministry of Agriculture to cover the next five years. They will be paid a little more.

'One feels very slightly like a welfare scrounger,' said Major Loyd, a former Lifeguards officer. 'I don't think one can ever feel entirely happy doing nothing with the land.

'Something's wrong when there are so many people starving in the world and we're being paid not to grow food.'

The Loyds are among some 1,600 British farmers who took the European Union's set-aside policy as far as it could go, moving all their cropland out of production.

It began six years ago as an experiment in trying to bring down crop surpluses. Farmers could volunteer to stop growing crops in return for direct payments. Now set-aside is at the heart of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), with the majority of British lowland arable farms compelled to cease growing on at least 15 per cent of their acreage. This year, an area the size of Surrey will be out of production.

The Loyds' secluded Oxfordshire farm is green (grass everywhere, no ploughed fields) and peaceful. Major Loyd does some shooting and gets on with his writing job - he is the Daily Telegraph's polo correspondent - for non-farming is not his main source of income. Austrian-born Mrs Loyd looks after two horses and the 17 organically-reared cows which roam the quarter of the farm which was never cropland.

They bought Pink Hill Farm for approaching pounds 1m in the late 1980s because they wanted to do serious cereal farming. Major Loyd had inherited a small farm from his father in the eastern, suburban end of Berkshire which he worked for 17 years after leaving the Army. A neighbouring landowner's unrefusably large offer for this land allowed them to sell his inheritance and buy a larger spread out west. 'We did proper farming for two years,' Major Loyd said. 'Wheat, barley, oilseed rape . . . the thunder of combines and so on.'

But with the CAP in disarray and security dwindling because of surging crop surpluses, his professional adviser told him set-aside was the safest medium-term bet. 'It gave us a guaranteed minimum income from farming for five years.' As these first five years draw to an end he is once again receiving that advice and intends to take it.

Having no farm workers to lay off or machinery to sell made the decision easier. The Loyds' land had been worked by contract labour. But hundreds of farm workers lost their jobs across the country thanks to set-aside.

And so, since 1990, nothing but grass and wildflowers - weeds, if you will - have grown at Pink Hill Farm. Contractors are hired to mow twice a year, in early and late summer, which keeps the fields in order. The mown hay has to lie and rot, for using or selling it would infringe set-aside rules.

Sitting in their handsome 300-year-old farmhouse they betray only the slightest signs of unease at taking the pounds 88 an acre taxpayers' subsidy. Like most farmers, the NFU and the agriculture minister, Gillian Shephard, they think set-aside is a Brussels fudge which must, eventually, collapse.

But it suits them, so they take advantage of it and make unusable but profitable hay while the sun shines.

They are proud of the farm's wildlife. Birds like the partridge and barn owl, in decline across the country due to intensive agriculture, are thriving. They point out that the farm also attracts humans: ramblers and bird-watchers.

Mrs Loyd adds: 'I take the view that we've put the money into purchasing the land so we're entitled to a return. Set aside isn't a sound policy, but at least we'll have survived with our land intact.'

(Photograph omitted)

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