Who'd be a farmer today? We would

Beef bans, falling prices, suspicious press and public - you don't have to be mad to go into agriculture, just very committed, reports Louise Jury
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They are young, bright, and ambitious. They speak of speculating to accumulate, of marketing and knowing your niche; the jargon of modern big business. So why do they want to go into farming?

"It's part of your life," says Jonathan Mills. "I've been brought up with farming from the word go and you either love it or you hate it."

Jonathan is 22 and studying for a BSc in agriculture and land management at the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester, Gloucestershire, the best-known agricultural college in the country. His parents farm in Surrey, and after specialising in dairy cattle until two years ago, they have diversified into promoting the farm as a wildlife park.

When he and five of his fellow students discuss farming, they speak with a passion. Despite all the problems that have befallen farming in recent years - salmonella in eggs, BSE and CJD, the slump in corn prices and coping with the red tape of Europe and its Common Agricultural Policy - they still retain their enthusiasm.

"It's a vocation. People don't realise that," says William Kallaway, 23, from Wiltshire.

All six are staunch defenders of agriculture and the countryside, particularly after the latest body blow to farmers - the banning of beef on the bone. They are angered at the bad press they receive, proud of the UK's animal- welfare and food standards, and determined that British farming will survive.

"The general public doesn't appreciate what farmers do for them," says Natalie Price, 21, who is in her final year of a rural land management degree and wants to be a farm or estate manager when she finishes. "Food is incredibly cheap when you look at the amount the farmers are getting. People think farmers make a fortune..."

So don't they? She tells a story. In the late Seventies her father, who farms in Herefordshire, bought two new tractors. He has just bought two more. They had tripled in price while the price of corn is even lower now than then. "That can't be right," she says.

Scott Hunt, 26, who was a farm manager in Essex before coming to do an MSc in advanced farm management, says money can be made "but you work damn hard for it. That has always been the way of life".

The sense of vocation which each of these young farmers feel is something they share with their parents. But the agricultural world they are inheriting is remarkably different from that experienced by the older generation when they began farming 30 years ago. What has changed is the thinking behind farming. They have to be cleverer these days. "It's no longer just about producing food," says Charlie Browne, 21, who is on the advanced farm management MSc course and will run a family farm in Suffolk one day. "You've got to be producing for a certain market."

Instead of the conventional husbandry of cows, pigs and sheep, these are farmers who discuss the merits of ostriches and worms. Even primroses for primrose oil are crop options for the modern-minded.

Some will not even rise at dawn as generations of farmers have done before them. Victoria Heath's youngest brother is going to take over her family's 1,000-acre farm in Shropshire, so she is looking to combine her farming skills with retailing. Meat-buying is a possibility. "Supermarkets really like somebody who understands the production side of things," she says.

Scott Hunt says that when he was running a farm he shared machinery with a neighbouring farm, thereby cutting costs. Most farmers would not dream of doing this. "When I was last in farming, there was no emphasis on marketing or business strategy or human resource management," he says. "Farmers were never good marketers. They just took what they could get. Now we have to change thinking and look to the future without subsidies."

To the students it is so self-evident that farming is what they want to do that they only really address the question of how they are going to do it, not why.

Scott and William have no family farm, and with today's land prices preventing anyone not already in farming from breaking in they are having to study other options. Scott intends to go into farming consultancy; William may go into agricultural marketing or public relations.

For people such as Charlie and Jonathan, the challenge they face in bringing the most modern practices to bear on land their families have worked for years is matched by a love of the British landscape. They describe its wonders and the debt they believe we all owe to centuries of land management. "If farmers didn't do it, it would go to scrubland," Natalie says.

They are scathing about people's lack of understanding of food production, and all condemn the BSE scare and the latest worries about lamb on the bone as "ridiculous". Natalie says: "There are more farmers killing themselves in worry over BSE than people dying of CJD."

Someone suggests that the subject should even form part of the national curriculum. Questioned on organic farming, they throw the question back to the public.

"Farmers would be the first to adopt these systems if we had the support from the Government and the consumers," Scott says. "If they want organic, we'll do it for them. But it takes money."

None of them underestimates the problems farming faces. It is difficult to persuade youngsters to go into it. It has one of the highest suicide rates of any job. The influx of city types into rural areas creates tensions when they fail to understand country ways. But they feel it is time for the farmer to win some sympathy. "We want people to stop taking us for granted," Natalie says.