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."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
A boy holds a chick during the Russian National Agricultural Exhibition Golden Autumn 2014 in Moscow on October 9, 2014.
news
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson as Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey
film
Sport
Bafetibis Gomis of Swansea City is stretchered off at White Hart Lane
football
News
Jerry Seinfeld Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee
peopleSitcom star urges men to be more supportive of women than ever
Life and Style
Living for the moment: Julianne Moore playing Alzheimer’s sufferer Alice
health
News
Jay Z
businessJay-Z's bid for Spotify rival could be blocked
Sport
footballLouis van Gaal is watching a different Manchester United and Wenger can still spring a surprise
News
The spider makes its break for freedom
VIDEO
Voices
A propaganda video shows Isis forces near Tikrit
voicesAdam Walker: The Koran has violent passages, but it also has others that explicitly tells us how to interpret them
Arts and Entertainment
World Book Day
News
people
Sport
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle v United player ratings
Life and Style
love + sex
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner - Night Shift

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A leading Leicestershire based chilled food ma...

Ashdown Group: Senior Accountant - ACCA, ACA or ACMA - Construction Sector

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Accountant (ACCA, ...

Recruitment Genius: Media Sales Executive - PR and Broadcast - OTE £35,000

£16000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company has an exciting op...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor - Shifts

£17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This European market leader for security...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot