Agricultural land becoming more expensive; some blame government
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Agricultural land becoming more expensive; some blame government

Photo by Helen Lyons / The Brussels Times

The cost of agricultural land in Belgium went up by more than 10 percent last year, the largest increase in half a decade, according to figures from the Agricultural Barometer of the Federation of Notaries (FEDNOT).

Family farmers are being squeezed as a result.

“A family farmer can rarely pay more than €45,000 for one hectare of land, while other players have no problem paying more than €100,000,” Anna Verhoeve, researcher at the Institute for Agricultural, Fisheries and Food Research, told De Tijd.

“They’re not doing anything that isn’t allowed under current regulations, but the pricing is so high that the difference with the agricultural value of that land is huge. This makes access to land one of the biggest bottlenecks for agriculture.”

FEDNOT’s Agricultural Barometer has been tracking the prices of agricultural land in Belgium since 2018, defining such land as any on which crops are grown or animals are kept, which includes meadows but not forests or orchards.

In the first half of 2021, the average price for one hectare of agricultural land in Belgium was €53,760.

Groene Kring, the largest umbrella youth organisation in the Flemish agricultural and horticultural sector, says access to agricultural land has been one of its main concerns for years.

They say that all kinds of new players have been entering the land market in the last few years, driving up prices and taking farmland from the hands of farmers to be used for other purposes instead, such as to keep horses or a garden.

“Agricultural land is once again rising in price, and access to land for young farmers is down again. The link with agricultural reality has long been lost,” said Bram Van Hecke, chairman of Groene Kring.

Open VLD and Boerenbond are pinning at least some of the blame on the Flemish government, saying their purchases of land are driving up prices for everyone else.

The Agency for Nature and Forest (ANB) bought 1,090 hectares of land in 2020 and the Flemish Land Agency (VLM) another 523 hectares, according to the Flemish infocentre for agriculture and horticulture (VILT).

These account for one-third of the surface area acquired by ANB and almost two-thirds of that by VLM.

Together, the Flemish public services therefore purchased 684 hectares of agricultural land for around €74 million.

Steven Coenegrachts, who requested the figures from Flanders’ Minister of Environment Zuhal Demir (N-VA), says this is contributing to the rising prices.

“Agricultural land is already so scarce and then the government itself pushes up the price,” he told Het Belang van Limburg.

Sonja De Becker of Boerenbond called the purchasing policy “aggressive.”

“Agricultural land in Flanders is extremely scarce and is under severe pressure as ‘residual land’ for all sorts of other initiatives,” De Becker said.

“On top of this, in recent years ANB has been pursuing a very aggressive acquisition policy, as a result of which agricultural land has had to make way for forest expansion, a bidding war for Flemish parks and compensation of all kinds. By doing so, the Flemish government itself drives up the price of agricultural land to a level that is impossible for farmers to make profitable.”

Translation: The Flemish government itself is also partly responsible for this phenomenon through a very aggressive purchase policy of agricultural land.

There are strong regional differences when it comes to the rising prices. The price increase in the first half of 2021 was 10.7 percent in Flanders and eight percent in Wallonia. In the period 2016-2021, the average price after inflation rose by 27.2 percent in Flanders and 21 percent in Wallonia.

This means that the average price of a hectare of agricultural land in Flanders is €63,082 and €37,283 in Wallonia.

“The price difference between Flanders and Wallonia is therefore increasing. Today, an average hectare of agricultural land in Flanders costs €25,800 more,” said FEDNOT.

Even within regions, there is a disparity between provinces, reports VILT.

West-Flanders and Antwerp are the most expensive provinces, with agricultural land costing €73,304 and €72,522 per hectare, respectively, and the price increases are greatest in Flemish Brabant.

In Wallonia, land in Liège is the cheapest at €33,461 per hectare (an increase of 10.1 percent over five years) and Walloon Brabant is the most expensive at €47,705 per hectare (a 25 percent increase in the same period).

“Agricultural land is a very specific market with large price differences per province and even per municipality,” Bart Van Opstal, spokesperson for Notaris.be, told VILT.

“Non-leasehold land, for example, is worth much more than leasehold land where the lease is still long. Moreover, location, environment, soil structure and quality of the land also play a role.”