The Mormon church has become the biggest foreign landowner in Britain, using the income from its vast holdings of prime farmland to spread its fundamentalist teaching in the Third World.
The latest purchase is the 2,000-acre Stubton Estate near Grantham, Lincolnshire, which it bought last month for around £5m. The deal has brought the amount of agricultural land the Mormons own to 15,000 acres – an amount so large that the church ranks alongside the Crown Estate, the Duchy of Lancaster, and Railtrack as a major land holder. Estate agents estimate the church has spent at least £30m on prime British farmland in the past six years.
Its fast-growing agricultural investment mirrors the growth of the church, officially known as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. Although mainly based in the United States, it now has 180,000 members in Britain, based in 40 regional centres or "stakes". It first began buying land in Britain in 1995, and has since snapped up some of the most productive farmland in East Anglia.
The Mormons say they are buying land to produce income for the church as a long-term investment. Chris Jolliffe, general manager of the church's farming company, Agreserves, said that the crops it grows, such as wheat, provide food for the Third World. Other crops such as sugar beet are sold, with profits funding other humanitarian projects. In the past three years, £2.5m has been made from the farms and used to support Mormon work in Ethiopia and Kenya.
"Our interest in farming is a very practical one," said Mr Jolliffe. "Food is a necessity, a hedge against adversity. When there are natural disasters we help our own first as a priority, but we do try and care for others as well."
Agriculture has a special place in Mormon history. The Mormon church was founded in New York in 1830 by Joseph Smith after he claimed to have discovered a religious text buried on his parents' farm. His followers drove westwards and settled in Utah in 1847.
Among the British landholdings the Mormons own are farms near Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire; Sleaford, Lincolnshire and Wiggenhall, Norfolk. Five church members help run the holdings, with the help of lay staff. Worldwide, the church owns thousands of acres of land and uses its farms as part of its welfare programme for the unemployed. In Britain, however, this has not happened, and the church has concentrated on investing in the best possible quality land.
However, its farming methods have been criticised by organisations such as Friends of the Earth, which attacked the Mormon church for not choosing organic farming methods. Mr Jolliffe said that organic farming is too costly, and its chief concern is growing as much corn and wheat as possible for needy countries.Reuse content