25 MARCH 1995, Page 20


Ross Clark investigates a strange fact: the Utah-based Mormon Church is now one of the top ten landowners in Britain APART FROM the odd dust-storm and agricultural depression, the fens of Cam- bridgeshire have little in common with the American Midwest. Or at least they did until last summer when an unexpected buyer began to snap up some of the area's most productive farmland. In August, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, better known as the Mormon Church, bought three farms — a total of 2,768 acres — of cereal land from the BBC Pension Trust. The asking price was £6.5 million.

Six months later the Church is expand- ing into Norfolk, Suffolk and Lincolnshire: last week it agreed on the purchase of three farms near King's Lynn, Sleaford and Saxmundham from the Kleinwort Benson farmland trust. When the deeds are transferred the Mormons will own a total of 15 square miles of England, becoming one of Britain's top ten landowners, following the Crown, the Duchy of Lancaster and Railtrack. Never- theless, the Mormons are keen to buy more.

The Mormons' takeover of East Anglia is a quiet affair. I visited one of their farms, at Wood Walton, below the embankment of the Great Northern Rail- way line north of Huntingdon, and failed to find anyone who would admit to being a Mormon. The only evidence of a new regime is a shy green and white sign at the point where the tarmac lane from the vil- lage evolves into a concrete track leading to the farmyard. 'Manor Farm, AgRE- SERVES LIMITED,' it said. 'Private track'. Whether inspired by the Mormons' love of privacy or not, this is something Cambridgeshire County Council may care to correct the company on: the track, according to the Ordnance Survey, is a public footpath. Because the Mormons have done noth- ing but take over the farmland as a going concern, there has been little local anxiety about the sect. One villager, though, did ask, 'Don't they baptise the dead or some- thing?' — a reference to the Mormons' unorthodox custom of welcoming into their Church those who have already passed on, on the grounds that their souls can still be converted.

On this somewhat shaky theological basis, Winston Churchill is now said to be a Mormon. And it is not just the famous who have undergone a posthumous con- version. The Bishop of Chester, the Right Reverend Michael Baughen, recently had to refuse the Mormons permission to pho- tograph the diocese's birth and death records, which he feared were being used for posthumous baptisms. However, he had no power to stop the Mormons seeing the records and from copying down the details by hand. The Mormons should find plenty of material to please them in Wood Walton, where the gravestones lie broken and untended around the abandoned church. The picture of neglect, so common in the Church of England, is in stark contrast to the brand-new local Mormon church, which with its shiny, red-tiled roof resem- bles one of those modern 'mediaeval' barn- style supermarkets. The church lies five miles south of Wood Walton, on the Old Great North Road as it passes through Great Stukeley — the adopted village of John Major. The Mormons' choice of loca- tion, however, probably has less to do with wanting to convert our living Prime Minis- ter than with the fact that American ser- vicemen are stationed just down the road at RAF Alconbury.

There is no question that the Mormons are a growing Church: there are now said to be 170,000 of them in England. Given that the membership has grown 30-fold in 30 years and that less than a tenth of the English population still regularly worship, it may not be long before there are more Mormons going to church in England than Anglicans.

That still doesn't explain why the Mor- mons are investing so heavily in English agriculture as opposed to commerce or industry. According to John Creer, the president of their farming wing, the Farm Management Company, they simply see agriculture as a good investment at present. Moreover, he says, they are 'comfortable' with agricultural investment because their roots are in farming. Their founder, Joseph Smith, who claimed to have dug up the gold plates upon which the Book of Mor- mon is written from a hill near New York, was a New England farmer. He was not a great land speculator, however: he joined in the feverish rush to buy land in Ohio in the 1820s. In order to pay for it he began to indulge in a folly worthy of Nick Lee- son: he started up his own bank and began to print bank-notes with only minimal cap- ital to back them up. When the authorities withdrew his licence to operate a bank he simply renamed the venture 'The Kirtland Safety Society Anti-Banking Company'. It folded; Smith was tried and fined $1,000.

Brigham Young, responsible for leading the Mormons to their homeland, Salt Lake City, pioneered farming in that rather dif- ficult terrain. Young also started that other Mormon tradition from which cur- rent members of the Church are quick to distance themselves: polygamy. He was survived by a total of 17 wives; I notice that the Mormons have been very careful in buying their Cambridgeshire and Hunt- ingdonshire farms to avoid owning one with a postal address of St Ives, home of the polygamist in the nursery rhyme.

English farmers have apparently proved good fodder for conversion in the past. When the Mormon Church was only ten years old in 1840, it sent one of its brethren, Wilford Woodruff, to England on a recruitment drive. He found success in the village of Castle Frome near Led- bury in Herefordshire, where, by a pond, he is said to have preached to 600 farmers. According to the story, 599 of them were willingly baptised into the Church; why the other one refused is unfortunately lost to the record. But the Mormons have not for- gotten their Herefordshire triumph: one morning eight years ago, the wife of the current owner of the pond pulled her cur- tains aside to see a coachload of Mormons who had come from America to see the pond for themselves.

The agrarian roots are celebrated every- where: if you wish to become a Mormon yourself, you may be baptised in a huge font decorated with life-size, kitsch, illumi- nated sculptures of oxen at the Mormons' English temple at Lingfield in Surrey. Amongst other agricultural triumphs the Mormons are responsible for much of the irrigation in modern-day Iran, having sent engineers there in the 1930s. Eisenhower was so impressed by their work that he appointed a Mormon, Ezra Taft Benson, as his agricultural secretary. Benson retired to become leader of the Mormon Church until his death at the age of 94 last summer.

The Mormons once had a plan to buy English farms for a purpose other than straightforward investment. In 1979 they planned to buy a whole range of farms upon which they could set their unem- ployed members to work. There was going to be a dairy and pig farm in the Midlands, a beef farm in Devon, market gardens in Lincolnshire and a soft fruit farm with beehives near Bristol. On top of that they were planning an arable farm in East Anglia, a bakery and meat-cooking plant in London and several warehouses throughout the country. The idea was to create an entirely self-sufficient food pro- duction system for the benefit of the Church's members.

The Mormons got as far as buying a 300-acre farm in Worcestershire, then stopped. They found it too expensive to transport unemployed Mormons from all over the country to work on the farm. Their latest purchases represent a change in policy towards purely capitalist agricul- ture, the profits going straight into the cof- fers of the Church's welfare scheme. According to the Mormon's British spokesman, Bryan Grant, welfare for unemployed Mormons is the only purpose of the new farms. But it still seems a huge investment. The Cambridge-based land val- uers Bidwells reckon that well-managed prime Cambridgeshire farmland will give a profit of around £140 an acre. Now that the Mormons own 10,000 acres they should soon be raking in £1.4 million a year.

About 48 per cent of that will come from the public purse. But the Mormons claim they are not investing in British farms for the subsidies. On the contrary, their farm management company believes that the comfortable arrangements between Euro- pean farmers and their governments are doomed. As John Greer explained, 'Farm- land is a productive asset whether prices are good or bad and it can support life. We're looking not just at the short term but for results 100 years from now.'

If you fear global economic collapse but believe self-reliance may pull you through, good farmland has obvious attractions as an investment. And it is surprising how cheaply you can buy large tracts of a devel- oped nation. Nowhere in Britain will prime farmland cost you more than £2,000 an acre. More typically it changes hands for half that. At this rate you could buy all the arable land in Britain —15 million acres for about £15 billion. This might sound a lot for an individual to contemplate, but it is only 1 per cent of the value of Britain's housing stock, in which the British lock up so much of their capital. An arable county such as Cambridgeshire, meanwhile, will cost you well under a billion.

As we are warned in chapter ten of the Book of Alma, in the Book of Mormon:

If it were not for the prayers of the righteous .... ye would even now be visited with utter destruction, not by flood as were the people in the days of Noah but it would be by Famine and by pestilence and the sword.

Rationale, perhaps, for the righteous to invest in 10,000 acres of finest quality fen- land while the going is good.