‘Tenants are better off when they stick together’

Stephen Wyrill, national chairman of the TFA.
Stephen Wyrill, national chairman of the TFA.
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Mention of the words tenant and landowner in the same breath can lead to mentally prefacing ‘poor and downtrodden’ for the former and ‘big bad’ for the latter. Back in the early 1980s a new organisation was formed to work on tenant farmers’ behalf and a North Yorkshire farmer is now at the helm.

Stephen Wyrill of Leases Farm, East Appleton just south of Catterick became national chairman of the Tenant Farmers Association (TFA) this month. He farms around 385 acres with his brother Graham and parents Ken and Jean. Their farm is a mix of dairy, beef and arable with the milk from their 90-strong herd sold to Wensleydale Creamery.

Later this year their own acreage will reduce to just over 140 acres as some of the land they have been tenanting is taken back. Stephen is philosophical about the situation that will leave them with 43 acres that they own and another 100 tenanted from North Yorkshire County Council.

“The farm will carry the cows and young stock. We will just have to alter the grazing pattern and put new grass seeds in more frequently. It’s the way we farmed before. We’ve had the additional land, that is going back in hand in October, since foot and mouth year. We won’t have the cereals to feed through to the livestock but then we won’t have the hassle of harvesting either. We will have 20 acres of whole crop and we will still have a reasonable amount of beef from our own cattle.

“Looking on the brighter side we will have less to do on the farm from then, which may well help at the moment as I’d like to get through the first of my three-year tenure as chairman in the right way and then perhaps we can look for more land to grow the farm acreage again.”

Stephen says he is determined to get tenant farmers’ message across in an attempt to create a better future.

“Being involved with the Common Agricultural Policy reform that is set to come through in 2015 is right at the top of our agenda. Stopping short-term tenancies is another. I’m pushing for their abandonment and for longer-term tenancies to be the only way forward because arrangements of anything up to five years don’t give any farmer the right incentive. This only leads to him pushing the land unnecessarily hard as there is no guarantee that after five years he will still have it.”

He is also keen to show that the TFA is more than a fire-fighting organisation for when rents are discussed.

“Farmers know about the TFA but they don’t fully understand all that we do. We started in 1981 and work wholly on behalf of the tenants unlike the NFU that has to work on behalf of landlords and tenants. That means we are the only organisation that concentrates on them.

“The perception is that all of our time is taken up discussing rent issues when in reality that is only around 20 per cent of our workload. We offer far more advice than that.

“I don’t really know why there is more pressure on tenant farmers in the North but it seems to be the case. There is certainly a built-in mechanism up here on getting focussed immediately as a group if a land agent has visited one tenant with a view to a rent increase. If one tenant settles on a new figure it can set a precedent for the rest so they are quick to come together to avoid being picked off one by one.

“I’ve just been down to Cheshire where a huge rent increase has been proposed. The tenants are standing firm and it isn’t settled yet, but there is definitely a strength in being together and having the backing of the TFA.

“It’s not always rent issues with landowners and agents. The land may be needed back in hand if there are plans for a caravan park, business park or other forms of diversification.”

Stephen is concerned for upland tenant farmers over pressure to reduce stock numbers. The idea is fundamentally flawed, he says.

“It is a fallacy to reduce the numbers of sheep and cattle on the hills in the name of protecting the environment. If you reduce them, as is happening at the moment, then bracken and everything else grows like mad. The only result of that will inevitably be to put more cattle back on to trample it down and more sheep to eat it.

“The reasoning is to create a better environment for the public’s benefit as tourism seems to far exceed agriculture from the Government’s point of view, yet people still need to eat and we are not producing enough. You only need to look back at TV shows like Heartbeat and All Creatures Great and Small to see that the countryside worked very nicely when it was all about livestock, stone walls and hay meadows all created by farmers not environmentalists. They have a part to play and I’m not against them but it’s farmers who create the landscape.

“If stock numbers in the hills continue to reduce what hope is there for the next generation of young farmers? And if we don’t look after these farming areas we will also end up with even more rare breeds as numbers fall. Talk about over-grazing is a load of rubbish. There’s a balance and local people know what that is.”

The Wyrills moved to robotic milking three years ago and have two Lely Astronaut robots which help to relieve pressure during milking times, and they will be invaluable as Stephen spends more time away from the farm, travelling the country as TFA chairman.

Stephen was one of those involved in the Dairy SOS campaign nearly two years ago that has led to better prices and renewed enthusiasm in the sector.

“All dairy farmers were struggling at the time and this was a prime example of how the TFA and other organisations can all work together.

“I would urge every tenant farmer to join us. That way we can put even more pressure to bear on issues such as short-term tenancies and bring about greater stability for the future of tenant farmers.”