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?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Kim Wilde began gardening in the 1990s when she moved to the countryside
peopleThe singer is leading an appeal for the charity Thrive, which uses the therapy of horticulture
Alexis Sanchez celebrates scoring a second for Arsenal against Reading
Life and Style
An easy-peel potato; Dave Hax has come up with an ingenious method in food preparation
voicesDave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Japan's population is projected to fall dramatically in the next 50 years (Wikimedia)
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own