October 30 2014 Latest news:
A confirmed traditionalist, Michaela Furney wants to marry before having children, likes to unwind with a hot bath and a spot of gardening and enjoys listening to Van Morrison and Eric Clapton as much as she does to contemporary bands.
A confirmed traditionalist, Michaela Furney wants to marry before having children, likes to unwind with a hot bath and a spot of gardening and enjoys listening to Van Morrison and Eric Clapton as much as she does to contemporary bands. AUDREY BOYLE visits Jimmy's Farm in Wherstead to talk to her about the ups and downs of running the Essex Pig Company and her new life in the country.
“We are just so uncool now! I used to know all the new bands but living here you kinda get out of things!” Michaela, co-director with partner Jim Docherty of the Essex Pig Company, spends most of her day in dirty trainers and jeans but doesn't regret leaving the glamorous London life behind for a minute.
However she does enjoy the occasional jaunt and the excuse to get on a nice pair of shoes. In fact when I speak to her they are about to set off to a London gig to support a young Suffolk band The Runes who work at Michaela and Jim's favourite local on the Shotley Peninsula. “Yeah Suffolk hits London tomorrow! They're a really cool band; a bunch of 19 year-old boys who work at The Butt and Oyster. They played at Jim's 30th birthday here at the Farm. I suppose they play a sort of rock/pop but they'll probably kill me for saying that!”
Despite working in London as a production assistant for the TV company Shine where she enjoyed wearing high heels and 'had lovely painted nails', 28-year-old Michaela's childhood was spent in an altogether more exotic location.
“I was actually born in Hong Kong and was brought up in Nepal as my father was a Lieutenant Colonel in the 7th Gurkhas. It was the most amazing upbringing, running barefoot around the Himalayas. When I was 12 years old I left and went to Bath; to a school specifically for daughters of army officers. It was a great place for army kids whose parents lived abroad. It had a fantastic social life and brilliant support networks and made me independent very quickly.”
After a gap year teaching English in a Muslim girls' school in Malaysia, Michaela studied French at Sussex University in Brighton and gravitated towards London after that. “I really enjoyed working in television and I'd probably still be doing it if I hadn't fallen in love with Jim. I met him while filming Jamie's Kitchen on a pig farm in Cumbria.
“Jim was just starting to think about setting up a pig farm himself and I remember thinking: 'God, you're really weird.' I think he actually fancied my producer at the time so we didn't really get together until we met up again on a book tour for Jamie. We had a good chat and took it from there!”
Michaela says she has never looked back: “I just feel lucky to be getting this opportunity with Jim. There's no one there saying do this, do that. The decisions are ours and the mistakes are all our own. We are together and we can go through it together.”
The Essex Pig Company uses traditional farming methods and aims to return food production back to a time where animal welfare and quality come first. With three years under their belts, the farm business is growing fast - as well as attending farmers markets in London and East Anglia the company despatch internet orders and are about to branch out to Holland. There is now 20 full and part-time staff.
“We have five butchers (but started with just one!), two people in the office, two in the stock room and numerous part time girls that work in the shop at the weekend. We have also just taken on a general manager as Jim and I have probably had enough of struggling through trying to understand things we've never been trained in. Our manager will deal with all the finances and accounting and push forward our many project ideas. Oh yes, and staff management too - Jim and I are just rubbish at it!”
One thing they are not short of is initiative and energy. A series of adult and children activities take visitors through the farm's wonderful natural habitats, including an ancient bluebell wood and wild flower meadow. People can try their hand at sausage making and learn about pig keeping during one-day specials. Plans are also afoot for a guinea pig island, teashop and restaurant - the menu inspired by Jim's nature orientated recipes - and at a later date they would like to convert the old farmhouse into a B&B.
As well as ten types of rare breed pigs including the Essex, Berkshire, Gloucester Old Spot, large and middle Whites, there are Soay and Jacobs sheep and red poll cattle. “I get very attached to them and I once told Jim I'd have to go vegetarian. However he pointed out that they're rare breeds and if they weren't eaten we wouldn't breed them, they'd die out altogether and the gene pool would get smaller. I suppose you just have to weigh things up.”
“There are so many environmental concerns and I am an avid recycler; either it has to go for recycling or be reused in the house. We don't use aerosol sprays either. Sometimes there just seems so much to worry about but Jim will say 'hey let's just start with the pigs! Let's see if we can get some rare breed pigs back into this country and stop them from becoming extinct and we'll go from there.'”
Michaela's varied work routine means she keeps fit without trying but insists that it's counteracted by Jim's tempting culinary concoctions (he's the cook) and the enormous amount of sausages they eat! A typical day starts at 8.30am and it's straight into the farm office - a cramped portacabin crammed with desks, accounts staff Tanya and Linda, filing cabinets, computers and two scallywag dogs.
Jim's vivarium containing exotic fruit beetles (he studied entomology) given to him by Coventry University zoology department, occupies a corner on top of a filing cabinet. “I start with the emails and admin; stuff like dealing with the council about footpaths, our planning agent and Defra - we've applied for farm grants like the single farm payment and entry level scheme. It's not a huge amount of money but it can't be sniffed at.
“At the moment the shop manager is ill so I've also been doing all the ordering for that; then there are quite a few meetings with each department. Jim deals with the butchery as he's really into creating new bacons and different sausage recipes. In the shop I've done lots of sourcing of local producers, which is really hard but Taste of Anglia has been brilliant.”
“Then, in the afternoon it's outside to my show garden - this is my release and it's the best part of the job. I'm growing a whole range of veg, country cottage flowers and herbs. We will be using this as a base to develop our children's gardening courses.” Neat rows of seedlings are boxed up in Michaela's greenhouse and the carefully planned garden, although in its infancy, is artistically designed and offers breathtaking views over the Suffolk countryside.
So what else does she do to unwind? “Well four months ago we just stopped and said 'look this is crazy, we're coming in to work seven days a week.' It's so consuming. So now we've made a point of taking a day or two off together which is great. We've just bought a lovely little cottage down by the estuary near Pin Mill, just a ten minute drive from the farm.”
“But my greatest indulgence must be a bath! Oooh yes, lovely! We lived nearly two years in a caravan and had a shitty little shower tray, which I used to have to fill up with hot water to wash my hair. It used to take all evening then if there wasn't any, I'd have to get up at 4am to heat it up! I'll also potter around in our garden while Jim goes fishing, then we'll head off to the Butt and Oyster and have a really good fish and chips and a pint!”
“I like to read. I love the classics and Oscar Wilde. At the moment I'm reading Mitch Albom's The Five People you Meet in Heaven, which is lovely. Jim tends to concentrate on text books and is reading Farming and Wildlife since the 1950s!”
Michaela and Jim often escape up the coast when they can afford some time off. “Friends have a house in Thorpeness; we love Aldeburgh and Southwold is gorgeous. We also unwind at our favourite restaurant, which is the Galley in Ipswich.”
There are no plans to get married just yet - “we've too many pigs to deal with!” But Michaela firmly believes in tying the knot before having children, which she would love to have. “I'm forever the traditionalist and Jim is too but we'll just have to wait and see what happens!”
Jimmy's Farm Farmers' Markets are held on the first Saturday of each month.