London's financial community falls in love with life down on the farm

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Nicola Horlick of SG Asset Management, Adair Turner of Merrill Lynch, Nick Finegold of Execution and Richard Wyatt of Schroder Salomon Smith Barney are just some of those with a penchant for dirtying their hands down on the farm.

Justin Marking of FPDSavilles, the estate agent, says financiers' interest in buying farms has risen to unprecedented levels.

Last year 22% of UK farm sales handled by FPDSavilles involved purchasers from the City of London. Justin Marking of FPDSavilles says: 'In the 1970s it was popstars who were buying up the country estates. Ever since the 1980s it has been financiers.'

Philip Augar, former head of Schroder Securities and author of the book The Death of Gentlemanly Capitalism, traces the link back further still: 'People who had made money in 'trade' often bought land in pursuit of acceptance into old-style England. This was as true of stockbrokers as of other businessmen,' he says.

High London property prices have contributed to the recent boom, making it easier to afford a country pile. The dream of a rural idyll also seems to be exerting an appeal.

Andrew Shirley, of Farmers Weekly, says: 'The number of farmers who are in it for the lifestyle is rising. The idea of owning a little bit of England is as strong as ever.'

Earthiness does not appear to preclude business logic. Marking of FPDSavilles says: 'City of London farmers are usually very shrewd. They are more than able to assess a farm's potential by looking at its balance sheet.

'They will look at things other than the agricultural components of the business, because they offer the highest growth prospects.'

Farm buildings that can be converted into offices, or land that may gain residential planning permission, generate the highest returns.

Working farms are also free of inheritance tax and present numerous opportunities for making a loss which can be offset against a City of London salary.

The number of financiers who physically spread muck may be fairly low, however.

Marking says that many purchasers from the Square Mile are more entranced by the idea than the reality of farming and that most hire a business partner to manage their land.

Shirley of Farmers Weekly agrees, adding that changes to the law covering tenancy agreements in 1995 made it easier to take on short-term tenant farmers. It is only now that these changes are starting to trickle through.

Well-heeled business types buying up tracts of countryside could fuel feelings of animosity between town and country, but the reality is probably less insidious.

Not only are City of London farmers' properties small (often less than 100 acres), but their presence can benefit the surrounding area.

Marking of FPDSavilles says that an outside income means that financiers have the money to run farms properly it makes them better able to undertake costly environmental best practice, as well as tree-planting and improving the aesthetic appearance of their land. The influx of outside money has also helped to bolster land prices, helping to maintain the value of assets for existing farmers.

Horlick, Turner and Wyatt are organic farmers. Wyatt, deputy head of equities at Schroder Salomon Smith Barney, owns a few hundred acres of mixed arable land in East Anglia, where he is currently converting the soil for organic use.

'At the moment we are growing organic clover to fix the nitrogen,' he explains at his desk in London.

Mike Collins of the Soil Association, which monitors organic farming standards, suspects that downshifting is contributing to the move into organics: 'A lot of people take up organic farming to escape from the rat race,' he says.

Wyatt is keen to emphasise that organic farming is far from the easy option. Although he employs a manager in his absence, he plays a role in the day-to-day running of the farm.

He says: 'Some people look at farm ownership as an opportunity to play the squire at the weekend, but it's really not like that.

'I have had to learn a lot about organic farming to even get started. It is an interesting form of therapy from banking,' he adds.

For many, farming is the perfect complement to a career in finance. It may even have become a part of London's psyche.

'The City of London has always liked the hunting, fishing and shooting life,' says Augar.

Now, tending organic vegetables must be added to that list.

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