27 July 2001

Jeremy Courtney practised

before he preached about

making money by maximising

existing farm assets.

Tessa Gates saw his ideas

at work on his Sussex farm

DIVERSIFY is the universal cry that reverberates round struggling farmers – but into what and at what cost? And if the farm is already taking up all the hours God sends, how can there be time to run another business?

Sometimes, it needs a fresh eye to see the ways in which farm assets can be maximised and Jeremy Courtney seems to have the knack for this.

"Most farmers want to continue living in the farmhouse, they want to be able to continue with their animals and crops but need something to support their way of life – just running a farm costs a huge amount. In all cases I am able to help them to go forward with non-agricultural incomes," says Jeremy, who specialises in advising on the conversion and management of farm buildings. His own Sussex farm was the proving ground that led to his consultancy business.

&#42 1968 arrival

Back in 1963, Jeremy and his wife came to Crouchs Farm, East Hoathly, Sussex. It had 25ha (63 acres) but by 1978 they were farming 81ha (200 acres) plus another 162ha (400 acres) that they rented. They sold the farm and leased it back but had the chance to re-purchase it in 1988, which they did.

"By then the acreage had risen to 345 acres but proportionately our outgoings had doubled. It didnt matter what we did on the farm, when we looked at the figures over a five-year budget, we would be on the breadline," he explains. So, he began converting his farm buildings and letting them for non-agricultural purposes.

Today, his buildings house a financial consultant, homoeopathic consultant, an electrical engineer, a trouble-shooter, PR consultants, PA systems installer, a silversmith and an artist. There is a cake bakery employing 28 workers that has grown as extra buildings became available, and a pine workshop. In fields nearby, rows of caravans, masked with rows of young trees, are stored – for a fee of course. And Jeremy hasnt stopped there. When he rented more land he told the owner he would let the buildings. "He didnt believe me but I had the old cubicle shed gutted and let it for £20,000," says Jeremy, who gets a real buzz out of seeing his plans realised in profit.

He has been doing consultancy work now for the past decade, and his wife Ann is in charge of the day to day running of the farm which has 200 Friesians and 100 young stock, grows 243ha (600 acres) of cereals and takes in 1000 ewes on winter keep.

"The stock benefit from extended grazing across a neighbouring stud farm. "It gives us a degree of flexibility when we need to reseed here. There is always a way with land nearby that you can think of it being useful for your business."

He is a practical man and looks for practical solutions that bring good returns without heavy investment, for his clients. He will also carry the job through from research and planning permission to finding the tenants for converted buildings and managing them, too, if required. His initial consultancy fee is £400 (in the south-east) plus 45p/mile expenses.

"If people are concerned about paying my fee I will say – if you do everything I say and you cant get my fee back then I will repay it," he says confidently.

During a typical consultation Jeremy spends a third of the time asking clients what their aims and objectives are, how much money they need from it and how much money they want from it. "Some expectations are incredibly low, sometimes its just enough to prop up the main business, others need £40,000/year. Before I leave I have a look around the farm and then I insist they wait a week and then come and have a look around here. I show them everything, warts and all."

&#42 Warts and all

The warts include the fact that he started his own conversions without planning permission. "I thought we wouldnt have got it. The sparks flew, but by the time we were discovered we had proved the need. We reckoned if we had been closed down that the income we already had from tenants would have preserved the buildings for many years. Since then planning regs have changed for the better."

Action plans for clients look for a return of 50% – "but in most cases they will get 100% return on investment. I dont advise borrowing a lot of money. I can help from a zero start but it helps if the client has £5000 to kick start the project.

"What my wife and I have done on our own farm has been a low-risk, low-borrowing exercise. It works here," says Jeremy.

Inquiries: Jeremy Courtney FRAgS. 01825 840242