NORTHUMBERLAND farmer and landowner Mark Bridgeman takes over as president of the Country Land and Business Association (CLA) this month at a time when agriculture is facing its greatest challenges in decades.

Mark, 51, who runs the 2,400 acre Fallodon Estate, near Embleton, is due to take over the two-year office at the CLA annual meeting on November 14. He is only the organisation’s second president from the county in 100 years - the last was the Duke of Northumberland in 1920.

He has been committed to the CLA for the last decade, coinciding with his running of the family estate. He has chaired key committees within the organisation, which represents 30,000 landowners, farmers and rural businesses, dealing with issues including the environment and policy, taking on the roles of vice-president and then deputy president.

“It’s an exciting and interesting time to be taking on the role of president when there is such change ahead of us,” said Mark. “As a sector we’re going to see more change over the next few years than since we went into the CAP and agriculture is going to be more affected than any other industry with the changes post-Brexit,” he added.

The Fallodon Estate was bought by Mark’s grandfather Harry in 1946 and while Mark, who worked at home with his father Peter as a boy always knew he would ultimately take over the estate, his father encouraged him to pursue a career outside agriculture.

Leaving Durham University with a Masters degree in politics, Mark spent 19 years at asset management company Schroders as a fund manager, working across the globe. The experience in finance and business proving invaluable when he took on the management of the farm and estate in 2006.

“While I didn’t have qualifications in agriculture, the financial and business experience gave me a greater understanding of financial planning and looking at new ventures - and not being frightened of borrowing against the land to fund projects - something that my Dad’s generation was wary of.”

Mark set about future-proofing the estate, converting the 1,400-acre in-hand mixed farm at Brunton to organic, working with neighbouring livestock producers to introduce rotational grazing of the arable land.

With his wife Lucia, Mark has developed an important income stream for the estate with a holiday let business to capitalise on Northumberland’s burgeoning tourism market.

They converted redundant farm buildings into holiday lets and in 2013 Brunton House was completely renovated to an award winning five-star eight-bedroom holiday house with an 85 per cent occupancy rate. Now the portfolio includes four holiday lets, sleeping 28 people.

The estate also has three AHA farm tenancies and investment has been made in the farm’s properties creating a demand for the residential lettings.

Two biomass district heating systems heat the whole of the hamlet of Brunton and also the main house Fallodon Hall are fed with offcuts from the estate’s woodland. As well as a large HLS agreement, Mark has also started a B&B pig rearing operation.

“Because of our diversification, we are employing more people on the estate than we have done in years - the equivalent of ten full-time jobs, which is double what it was when I took over,” said Mark.

“I’m in a privileged position to visit rural estates around the country and I think there’s huge potential for the future through innovation.

“With the changes ahead, we will see different arrangements with landlord-tenant relationships and I think we will see more opportunities for new entrants to the industry though share farming which is something I would like to do at Fallodon.”

Mark chaired the Housing Working Group that produced the CLA’s housing policy document, which ties in with his investment with borrowed capital in housing development on his farm land on the edge of the village of Northumberland working with a local builder.

“Embleton is a sustainable village which still has all the services and I hope the housing will bring more growth and help support the amenities such as the school where numbers had been dwindling but are now recovering,” said Mark.

The first phase of 39 homes included 15 per cent which were affordable and the second stage, which is under construction now for 16 homes, includes four affordable properties for sale for local occupancy. The 30 per cent off the purchase price is in perpetuity for future sales.

Uncertainties over the future of agriculture post-Brexit are one of the challenges Mark must embrace in his new role. “We’re working with Government to try to make sure that the advice is available to members and that there is support for them.” The phasing out of the Basic Payment Scheme with new agri-environment funding rolled out over seven years from 2021 also marks a major change for the industry.

Mark is chairing a group of farms along the Northumberland coast from Bamburgh to Longhoughton which are taking part in pilot testing and trials of the new Environmental Land Management system (ELMs).

“We have had so many experiences of schemes which look good on a computer in Whitehall and then don’t work on the ground. These farms will be working in collaboration which brings most benefits to the environment as part of the nationwide tests,” he said.

“The shift to ‘public funds for public goods’ is going to be a huge challenge for the industry and the CLA is working closely with Defra as stakeholders in ELMs.

“In this transition from BPS we have got to work out how Government is going to fund productivity improvements and help farmers get ready for the future. As an industry we’re not ready for this.

“A lot of sectors within agriculture are unprofitable without BPS.

“This could be even more critical depending on the outcome of Brexit. The Government must work with businesses that could survive in the long term,” he said.

Also high on the agenda is climate change and how the industry can work alongside Government and the public to achieve the recommendations of the Climate Change Committee report.

“As farmers and land managers we hold a key to the solution with how we manage our arable land, permanent grassland and trees. However, although the recommendation is to plant up to six per cent of the UK with trees, we don’t want to see a repeat of the over-ambitious tree planting goals of the 1970s. We want to see tree planting in the right place along with hedgerows and this should provide a great opportunity for us as farmers.”

Connectivity is another issue the CLA is fighting for in rural areas, to prevent the rural-urban divide with broadband and 4G and 5G services and ensure businesses in the countryside are not disadvantaged.

Outside agriculture, Mark is on the board of two London listed investment trusts, is a trustee of the Weston Park Foundation and two other North-East charities.