WHEN James Standen became director of Newcastle University’s two farms, he knew how much money he wanted to turn them around.

Ideally, £5m. But realistically, well, he really wasn’t going to get that.

While he is able to tap into income streams your bog-standard farmer can’t, he does have to trim his cloth – after a fashion.

He told the packed Northern Farming Conference, held recently at Hexham Mart: “When I joined, there didn’t seem to be any cost control or any budget that I could find. There wasn’t a plan.

“The mindset was all wrong and people weren’t directed correctly to deliver what Newcastle University wanted.”

The two farms, at Nafferton, near Stocksfield, and Cockle Park, near Morpeth, were running up heavy losses before he started, and it appeared there had been no investment in them since the 1980s.

James farms himself, in partnership with his wife, on a tenanted arable and livestock farm with a holiday let and fishing lakes.

However, his ‘other’ career is in farm and estate management and a management plan was the first thing needed for Nafferton and Cockle Park.

“They hadn’t looked at the whole picture – nobody had looked at the farms together as an asset,” he said. “They were run as two separate businesses and the information coming out of them was fragmented.

“But if you don’t measure what is happening in your business, you can’t control it or plan for the future.”

The customer was king and at the university farms, there were three sets of customers – those buying the produce, a cohort of research scientists and the university students themselves.

It beggared belief that what was designed to be a centre of excellence for teaching and research should in itself be a failing enterprise financially. “I needed to set some objectives,” he said. “And if we considered ourselves a demonstration farm delivering best practice, then it had to be a profitable business.”

The 500 or so hectares of Nafferton Farm are primarily devoted to dairying and arable cropping.

In contrast, the 307 hectare Cockle Park is a mixed farm supporting pigs, arable crops, grassland and a heifer-rearing unit. It also boasts a purpose-built Centre for Innovation Excellence in Livestock, responsible for ground-breaking research into livestock production and product quality.

James began by setting up four business units – headed dairy, pigs, operational and research – that brought the two farms together as one.

Next he closed the dairy herd at Cockle Park. “I couldn’t go to the university to ask for £2.5m each to deliver two world-class dairy herds, so I chose the best 300 cows and put them at Nafferton.

“In the long term, I do want a new dairy. I think that will cost around £3m to £3.5m, which is more reasonable than asking for £5m – see, I’ve saved the university £2m already!” he laughed.

That highly laudable exercise in cloth-cutting was supplemented by his practise of hiring some of the equipment they needed, rather than buying, and by reinvesting the money earned from the surplus cattle sale.

He expected the farms to break even in 2019 and then after that they would be “driving hard” for outright profitability.

Priorities in the five-year business plan now in place included increasing student involvement in modern prerequisites, such as farm performance reviews, and improving how the results of the research carried out there were used.

“Newcastle University is a world-leader in diagnostics and particularly agricultural diagnostics,” he said,. “But the farms need to be aligned with the university to make best use of that.”

“My overriding aim is to create a model multi-disciplinary farm renowned for its world-leading research and development.”