County set decamps to Hungarian plain

When Richard Merriken told farming friends in the UK that he planned to take on the running of a vast farm on the edge of the Hungarian puszta they thought he had taken leave of his senses. "Can't say I envy you, old boy," was a typical response. "It will never work."

Tilling the fertile black soil of the great Hungarian plain has thrown up challenges that Mr Merriken never encountered as the owner of a modest- sized farm in Bedfordshire. But after almost one and a half years in Hungary, he at last feels that he is getting on top of things. He also believes he is sitting on a nice little earner.

"Look at the scale of this place," he says, pointing to the state-of the-art satellite map of his 3,500 hectare farm close to the Hungarian village of Kiskore. "It is much bigger than anything I could have got back home with just a fraction of the running costs. In the long run it has got to be a goldmine."

Mr Merriken, 32, is one of a growing number of British farmers who, despairing at the high prices and low supply of quality land at home are beginning to set their sights further afield: to Hungary and elsewhere in central and eastern Europe.

As with most of the industrial sectors in the region, the British have left it late, following in the wake of their more astute Austrian, German and Scandinavian colleagues who were quicker to sniff out the opportunities for farmers following the collapse of communism in 1989.

Although many of the prize plots have long since gone there are still some bargains to be had and over the past few months convoys of British farmers have been flocking to attend agricult-ural "study tours" in the region.

"There are possibilities here for all sorts of farming: arable, dairy, poultry and pigs," said Peter Bennett, a British agriculture and property consultant who last year arranged a study tour for British farmers. "Hungary already boasts a highly developed agriculture industry and with the country likely to join the EU within the next decade, it is an attractive proposition."

Setting up as a farmer in Hungary, though, is easier said than done. For are start, although good agricultural land here is currently selling for around pounds 250 an acre compared with between pounds 1,500 and pounds 6,000 an acre in the UK, foreigners are not allowed to buy it following the passage of a 1994 law aimed at preventing too much of the country falling into non-Hungarian hands. Legally, the only way in is through buying shares in a firm to which farming land is attached or, as in the case of Mr Merriken and his three UK partners, by taking out a lease (currently for a maximum period of 10 years).

However, there are a host of practical problems, as Mr Merriken discovered when he took over the running of the Kiskore farm in September 1995.

"When I first came here I did not have a clue," he said. "On my first day at work I suddenly found myself having to address a crowd of suspicious- looking people without knowing a word of Hungarian. I simply did not understand what was going on around me.

Like most of Hungary's former state collectives, the Kiskore farm, which specialises in wheat, had become grossly over-manned and inefficient. Idling and drinking on the job were rife while removing diesel fuel from tractors or fertilisers for private plots were considered perks of the job.

"Under communism, Hungarian agricultural labourers were paid so little that there was no incentive to work and stealing was considered fair game," said Mr Merriken. "Changing that mentality has been - and still is - our greatest challenge."

The introduction of several state-of-the-art tractors and combine harvesters helped convince an originally sceptical workforce that the British farmer with his red Land Rover and labrador meant business. So too did Mr Merriken's unconventional tendency to roll up his shirt sleeves and drive the combine harvesters himself, his decision to up the general wage level to 50p an hour (20 per cent more than local competitors) and to reward employees with bonuses and promotion.

New technology and working methods have resulted in the sackings of many of the older workers at Kiskore who either would not or could not adapt, but new workers have been taken on as a result of the dramatic increase in the farm's output and expansion of its dairy section.

Agriculture ministry officials in Budapest acknowledge that the introduction of Western farming methods can only raise overall standards in Hungary ahead of its hoped-for entry into the EU. "It's good for us and it's good for you too," enthused Sandor Oravecz, a senior figure in the ministry.

On a good day, Mr Merriken shares those sentiments. On a bad day, when the icy Siberian wind comes shooting across the puszta, he admits to feeling somewhat isolated among his thousands of hectares.

"There's not much of a social life here," he concedes. "Occasionally I go down to the village and drink a few beers with the men. Sometimes we resort to chess. Hungary is a far cry from the Home Counties."