*TARTU, Estonia A few years ago, around the time British agriculture was about to embark on a dizzying economic free fall, Ken Noble, a burly English farmer, saw a chance for a fresh beginning - 1,750 kilometers to the east.
He bought land for a few thousand pounds in Estonia, shipped big John Deere tractors from England, reclaimed more land from the brush and began to build a life, and an empire, far from England's tired fields.
"All this," said Noble, 61 years old, on a recent afternoon, standing in a field of green wheat near the city of Tartu in southern Estonia, "as far as you can see, from here right across to the forest, is ours."
Noble, who bought his first Estonian fields in 1997, is one of a small vanguard of farmers from Western Europe who have sought opportunity in the new, formerly communist, eastern reaches of the European Union.
Their presence is a measure of the tough conditions in British farming, an industry tainted by mad cow disease and shaken by a precipitous drop in food prices.
But it also reflects the coming together of Europe as borders have fallen and East Europeans have begun to integrate with the West.
Farmers are not the first Western entrepreneurs to go east to carve profit from the ruins of the Soviet Union.
But their migration perhaps marks a more indelible turning point: Their possession of the soil, their exposure to cold and rain are deep and intimate commitments to their new world, just as the surrender of their Western farms is a more final farewell to the old.
"We thought there was a hard time ahead for farming and we had to do something different," said Clifton Lampard, a farmer from Leicestershire who bought a bankrupt dairy farm near Turi, an hour south of Estonia's capital, Tallinn, in 2002.
A year later, he bought two more Estonian farms with a group of Norwegian and English investors and, with his wife, helps to run them alongside the farm they still rent in England.
"I came out here and thought, this all adds up," he says.
The reason it added up can ........
........ be seen today in the green countryside around Turi and Tartu. Dilapidated Soviet barns and lines of pine forests, home to storks and wild boar, punctuate vast stretches of land, most of it untouched since the collapse of the old planned economy.
The newcomers discovered that if they cleared the soil and worked it, the local government would give it to them more or less for free. The land is so plentiful and cheap that many of the foreigners cannot always even say exactly how much real estate they own. For them, it was a pleasing contrast to Britain's crowded and expensive isle.
"I was selling land in Scotland for over £2,000 an acre and buying it in Estonia for £25 an acre," said Neil Godsman, from Aberdeenshire, who owns a dairy and grain farm in central Estonia.
As well as cheap land, the farmers got cheap labor - the big collectivized farms brought with them work forces of hundreds. The soil was perhaps of poorer quality than back home. But once the Westerners had installed modern equipment, added hundreds of cows to the herds and introduced new working practices, production costs came down to just over half those in the West.
Vivi Norma, 55, and the two other women working in Lampard's brightly lit barn near Turi, milk 100 cows an hour compared with 12 under the Soviet system. "Our farm in England is not nearly as profitable," Lampard says.
In the late 1990s, when Estonia became a candidate to join the European Union, the country's farms began to attract hefty pre-accession development aid from Brussels. This provided an advantage that many of the canny outsiders had foreseen was inevitable when Estonia regained independence in 1991.
The subsidies paid for around two thirds of the farmers' new machinery. On top of that, they got hundreds of extra euros for every hectare they put under the plow. More broadly, EU membership offered the prospect of a developing, stable democratic society, increasing land prices, and of an expanding consumer market.
A further boost to agriculture came when early restrictions on foreign investors, making it compulsory for them to work with a local joint-venture partner, were lifted. With new money, the outside investors began to rejuvenate an industry in which employment had shrunk from 115,000 jobs in 1992 to 32,000 by 2000.
"It has come a long way in the last nine years," says Nevil Hewitt, who left a job making bank cards in Britain to buy a dairy processing business near Estonia's Baltic coast in 1997.
He buys milk from Estonian and Western farmers like Lampard and sells dairy products to supermarkets or ships them across the Baltic to Finland. "Not everything is simple all the time," he says. "But it is a good country to do business in." Its business climate, he said, is "more Scandinavian" than Russian.
Despite the young country's advantages, life has not always been easy for the new immigrants. Noble had four good harvests but fell out with his local joint-venture partner; then three successive harvests were ruined by rain and he posted big losses.
The Estonian work force proved another challenge for the foreign overlords. Cheap but hard to motivate and easy to offend, the local farm workers were used to an easier pre-capitalist life where - as Lampard describes it - one person tended the farm dog, another's sole role was to fix electric fences, another's was to lead the cows.
Lampard had to spend weeks persuading some of his workers not to kill his best cows (with a hammer blow to the head) when they felt hungry. When he blocked villagers from entering the dairy where they had helped themselves to milk, he was lambasted in the local newspaper.
The transformation was a struggle for the workers, who found the new practices hard. "The big change was the technology," said Volodja Ivanov, 48, an ethnic Russia who drives tractors for Noble. "It was not very easy from the beginning to adapt because everything was done quite differently."
There were other tussles with the local council and punctilious veterinarians. The vagaries of the EU's subsidy system meant that Brussels' checks took longer to arrive than expected. Some of the new immigrants discovered that they had overstretched financially or they disagreed among themselves. Lampard is trying to sell his Estonian stakes and return to Britain.
Last October, Noble also decided to give up. But when he sold his lands to a Scottish farmer, he stayed on as farm manager. His new bosses are a second wave of investors who, despite the first generation's problems, still see profit in the East.
Under his new bosses, Noble is diversifying away from traditional crops like wheat and experimenting with carrots, potatoes and rutabagas to see if he can please Baltic consumers.
"We will grow them and see if they sell," he said, standing in a field of rutabagas. He crumbled the brown Estonian earth between his fingers.
"It is good soil," he said ruefully, "as long as there is enough rain."