Era of ‘super farm’ edges closer

* Review of 2012

A funny old year — the economy struggling but farming in the ascendant, and a wry twist on the old biblical saw, “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares”.

Instead of swords, read development land and the ploughshares are now cutting through ground that was supposed to raise bountiful crops of houses.

All changed, changed utterly, and while the Barons of Ballsbridge gave way to Nama and international carpet baggers, down the country we were growing our own, newer version of baronetcies.

Holdings of 500 to 1000 acres, once rare outside of landed estates or marginal land, are now more commonplace as are the owners of such land, some of whom raised their own profiles this year. Witness the accumulated fines of €34,700 given to one south Cork farmer for bulldozing ring forts in a matter of a few days on land which he’d recently acquired. Apart from the fact that the farmer concerned broke one of the oldest and long lasting taboos in the countryside — he was prepared to clear the national monuments, (he termed them ’scrub’), for a few extra perches of ground.

That’s the real story — our modern, expanding farmers are using every last inch of their lands and are keen to wring every ounce of economic benefit from their holding — and hang tradition. The trend is very much farming as a business and that approach is what’s sorting the emerging major players from the last of a pastoral peasantry.

Nostalgia no longer enters the market place and farms are productive units, which means the trend to bigger estates will continue, at the expense of the remaining, old fashioned holdings.

Those that aren’t worth the effort for the larger enterprises are being subsumed into forestry with, in some cases, fairly good land being planted as the returns per acre are better.

So, will we see the beginnings of a new, Irish landholding class in the line of the great estates of long ago?

It has been forecast for some time, and we need only look over the fence, so to speak, to see factory farming at work in Britain.

And there, the land mass is so much greater, but here, we have upwards of 7m cattle, (almost two head to every head of population). And they need grazing land — so the quiet consolidation of Irish farmland continued throughout the year, but there was a pronounced boom in early spring. Price inflation looked dangerously similar to the Tiger years, but demand levelled off mid-term and by autumn, the €10,000 per acre mean held. However, sales continued late into the year, a phenomenon in itself as late autumn is a slow news time for farm property.

It was as good an indication of the appetite out there for land, and by inference, it also shows an ability to pay for that land. In a market that staggered in residential terms, farm sales were fluid and well funded, with banks willing and buyers also prepared to raise smaller mortgages and to dip into their own funds. Like the property market overall, the cash buyer was a pronounced phenomenon and while in farming terms it’s hard to quantify the amount of money borrowed, it’s a belief amongst most of the specialist auctioneers that borrowings have been kept to a minimum.

And also, the point is made that with land making a consistent, €15,000 per acre for quality parcels, the economic justification can only be modelled in a situation where there are economies of scale. In other words, only large-scale farmers can afford to purchase top quality land, because they can wring its value, even when paying over the odds. Those odds being a flat line average of €10,000 per acre with mixed ground making less, in the region of €8,000 per acre, depending on potential, and forestry making up to €6,000 per acre, with a number of sales of ready made forestry logged throughout the year. Demand for this sector was healthy and strong and reflected the growing trend for investment in carbon, for offsetting and as a petrol chemical alternative fuel.

However, in the overall cut and thrust of the market, this was still a small segment of transactional activity.

A sustained flow of farm sales meant the agricultural sector was the star of the property scene, as well as the overall economy with unlikely scenarios arising throughout the year, not only including the sale of development land back into agricultural land, (and a seismic shift in values), but also the anomalies of golf courses being mooted as grazing ground — another case of the plough share analogy.

THE BIG SALES: The strongest, if not the biggest sale of the year has to be the unprecedented, €24,000 per acre paid for 30 acres of tillage land at Knockanemore, Ovens, through Killian Lynch of Killian Lynch and Co.

The property, which adjoined major gravel deposits, was given a guide of €360,000 but sold at auction for €720,000 to a local farmer, Jeremy Dineen. A record price for the year made in early February and it may be a record for some time.

Coming to final contract at the end of January, the sale of the 280-acre Caherduggan Demesne in Leamlara, east Cork, with auctioneer Christy Buckley, went through for variously rumoured sums, with the top price said to be €4.7m paid by tillage farmer and owner of over 1,000 acres, Denis Crowley.

But in a complete turnabout that will mark this sale out for years, the purchaser then sold on the farm to the underbidders, the Cremin family, in a quiet off market move that is said was done for values less than the original purchase price, but again, unconfirmed.

The 99-acre, Carriganear farm on the banks of the Ilen River at Skibbereen also drew a lot of attention and sold by tender in one lot for €1.2 million. Local farmers used their heads here and combined together to purchase the property, rather than bid against each other, a co-operative venture that netted them the farm at just over €12,000 per acre, still a fair price for land that, it’s said, is subject to flooding. The property was farmed for generations by the Applebe family and recognised locally as an exemplary holding.

The next, and most outstanding market offering this year is, surprisingly enough, still on the market. Going from nought to 60 in a week was Orchardstown Farm, in Butlerstown, Co Waterford, which drew the attention of every dairy farmer in the south. A state-of-the-art, model farm, it went on the market at €2.5m, but within a week, had crested the €3m mark and was expected to be sold. However, in the dying days of the old year the property is still on the market and auctioneer Michael Guiry is quoted as saying that he will take his time, as the family wish to remain in situ until February.

Other top sales included the disposal of lands for the Sisters of Mercy at Ballindeasig, Nohoval, which made a very strong, €13,000 per acre or a total of €1.5m for 115 acres of top quality land.

John Hodnett of Hodnett Forde who handled the sale is believed to have sold lands at Compass Hill for sums in the order of €20,000 per acre for 27 acres — Hodnett withdrew the property at auction at €16,600, on the presumption that the land was worth a lot more. It appears he was right. Ernest Forde of the same firm hit the jackpot for smaller amounts of south coast tillage land, which he sold for per acre prices of €15,000, the highest values for land in an average sale this year. Paddy Murray of Paddy Murray Auctioneers also made strong money, €13,500 for 70-acres of tillage ground at Ballinadee, (sold to a very large operator) and Christy Buckley sold 92 acres at Cahir for €12,600 per acre, but hit an exceptional, €15,250 per acre for a small holding at Donoughmore.

Joe McCarthy of Irish and European made a top price of €14,375 per acre for 24 acres of land at Crookstown, Cork.


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