Alex James: The Great Escape

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The Independent Online

When this farm was built in the 1800s, agriculture was lucrative, booming like the music business of the 1980s. The money generated from farming was sufficient to finance huge construction projects. Sumptuous stone and slate barns flew up left, right and centre, to house and process all kinds of crops. Back then, the value of the farm was its output, not in its buildings. Nowadays, a small-to-medium 200-acre farm like this generates trifling amounts of cash and those resplendent but redundant outbuildings are its most valuable assets.

Perhaps you can tell I've been to see my accountant. I had to go and see both of my accountants, actually, the country one and the London one, a duplicate whammy. It wasn't a meeting I've been looking forward to. Recently, the annual visits to the bean counters have bordered on humiliation. "Busted have had six number ones this year, I can get you the songwriter's phone number if you like," the year before last; and last year, nodding towards a newly installed Gorillaz multi-platinum disc, and suggesting: "It's a shame that Blur don't re-form and do a few shows – why, that would net millions!" The thought has crossed my mind.

This promised to be a particularly tricky meeting, because the farm is struggling to make a profit. Farms have to make a profit every five years or the enterprise is deemed to be a hobby by the taxman, rather than a business. It's quite serious. They can take away your tractor if they think you're just messing about setting cheese on fire and staring at sunsets. The problem has arisen because every time I sell a few sheep, I start converting another outbuilding into a space-age cheese station. And as the accountants explained carefully and slowly, cheese isn't farming. It's cheese, which is different.

Still, it didn't take us long to work out that by the same token, renovating farm buildings isn't an agricultural expense, either, and the figures all looked remarkably healthy again once the building figures were removed from the bottom line.

Looking at the row of figures that represented actual farm income, most of them grants, caused me to reflect on how far the pendulum has swung. It is difficult to make money from agriculture in the 21st century. Turning the decaying farm buildings into usable things seems to take endless negotiating with planners, building regulators and accountants, but I'm winning and I fairly floated out of the offices, in higher spirits than I ever did during the Britpop gold rush, feeling like a bona fide farmer. Haven't heard much from Busted lately, either.

a.james@independent.co.uk a.james@independent.co.uk

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