Factors and land agents have always received a bad press

It’s never easy being the man, or woman, in the middle of an argument between two opposing sides. Ask any football referee.

Or a land agent dealing with landowners and their tenants. On reflection, that’s not such a good analogy because land agents – factors in Scotland – are usually acting for the landowner, the equivalent in football terms of a “homer” referee. Their main function, as seen from a tenant’s point of view, is to squeeze as much rent out as possible while doing as little in return as they can get away with. As such, they’ve always had a bad press and given some of the factors and land agents I’ve known.

As always there have to be caveats. Organisations such as the Tenant Farmers Association in England and the Scottish Tenant Farmers Association find it difficult to admit, but there are some good landowners who try to deal fairly with co-operative tenants. Improvements, discussions on who pays for what and how that will affect the rent are discussed, not imposed. Nor can these organisations admit that there is such a thing as bad tenants, when we all know there are. There have also been cases, such as a new Duke of Northumberland taking his inheritance, no matter our view on one man owning quarter of a million acres or so, a few years ago and trying to bring historically low rents up to date, creating crocodile tears from tenants and bitterness all round.

In short, tenants are not always downtrodden and persecuted. The number of successful farmers who got a start as a small-scale tenant and have gone on to become large-scale owner-occupiers shows that the tenancy system can still work. There are many others who have been happy to stay as tenants, often extending their holdings with a co-operative estate.

The fact remains that factors/land agents in general are unpopular with tenants. Anecdotes abound of their high-handedness and ruthlessness. They might have got away with trying to treat tenant farmers as a lower life form a century or two ago, but not now surely?

Yet just occasionally, as when studying the present efforts in Scotland to review agricultural holdings legislation, I have a little sympathy for land agents as the fall guys. I’m reminded of the debt collector in Dickens’ ‘Little Dorrit’ who collected the hovel rents, forced evictions and got all the abuse while the landlord employing him, unknown to the tenants, posed as Mr Benevolent and was loved by all.

I can’t offhand think of a landlord who would qualify as Mr Benevolent, but can think of a number of factors who would fill the debt collector role.

March ended much the way it began as far as weather was concerned, that is badly, and so much for ‘in like a lion, out like a lamb.’ Cold winds, gales at times, have also kept a check on crop growth. But lambing has generally been good and some time we’re going to get two warm days in succession. I hope.