East Anglia: Hard work and passion ‘key to living the good life’, says Michaela Doherty

Michaela Doherty, the woman behind Jimmy's Farm.

Michaela Doherty, the woman behind Jimmy's Farm.

It’s hard to believe it’s been 10 years since Jimmy’s Farm first burst onto our TV screens but over the past decade the farm has certainly come a long way. Claire Holmes talks to Michaela Doherty about how things have changed.

Michaela Doherty with husband Jimmy.

Michaela Doherty with husband Jimmy.

Michaela Doherty is a busy woman. Juggling the responsibilities of being a mum to two children under the age of four with running a business and managing a farm is by no means an easy task, but for Michaela and her husband Jimmy being busy is how things get done.

Michaela and Jimmy shot to fame in the BBC 2 series Jimmy’s Farm which charted the highs and lows of their adventures in setting up a rare breed pig farm on the outskirts of Ipswich.

And now, 10 years on from when the programme first aired, much has changed. In this time, the pair have opened a restaurant, expanded their farm shop, created a nature trail, started offering wedding parties and launched a number of successful events – and that’s not mentioning the numerous TV series that Jimmy has been involved with and the two children they have had along the way.

When the pair initially saw the site, it hadn’t been used as a farm for 13 years. There was no running water and no electricity. The farmhouse was uninhabitable and the outbuildings were derelict.

But Jimmy and Michaela – with their infectious energy and enthusiasm – weren’t fazed and instead set about a substantial renovation project, which is still going on today.

Looking back, it’s hard to believe that Michaela wasn’t worried about taking on such a risk– especially considering she had only met Jimmy one or two years before they started the project.

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“It just really felt right,” she says. “I think we have complementary personalities. He is slightly bananas and full of ideas and passion and doesn’t necessarily see all the implications of everything all the time. I’m more cautious than him so we work well together.”

And, it was the right time of their lives to do it, she adds.

“When you’re 23 or 24 and don’t have children you don’t have much to lose except potentially a bit of pride and the love and investment you put in.

“We were both grown-up, educated people so we always thought we could hopefully get another job if we had to.”

More than a decade later and the farm is nearly unrecognisable from its former derelict state.

“It definitely feels like it’s been 10 years,” Michaela says, laughing. “It’s been such hard work.”

Hard work, indeed. The couple – who married in 2009 and live near Woodbridge – have thrown themselves into the business.

“We absolutely grew organically. We grew to what our customers wanted and I think that was the right thing to do,” Michaela says.

“It’s probably 10 times more stressful now than when we started – we have to support more people and look after more animals - but these are all the right problems. If I was sitting here and saying that the business wasn’t expanding and increasing this would be a very different interview.”

Today, there are six main areas of the business – the restaurant, the farm shop, the agricultural side, the open farm, the events and the butchery.

Despite diversifying and expanding their offerings, Michaela is clear about the fact that they are farmers at heart and it’s this which is their main focus.

“The agriculture side is the main part and our business wouldn’t work without it but that’s not to say it’s the part that brings in the most money,” she says.

“We’re farmers at the end of the day and that’s regardless of the fact we have expanded to make the best of the business.”

Michaela is pragmatic about the success brought by the TV series, and describes their initial involvement in television as a bit of a double edged sword.

“At the beginning, after the TV programme, we had a glut of customers and that’s very dangerous for any business, and we didn’t really know how to manage that.

“Growth was born out of that busy run but we knew it wouldn’t last for ever and we knew that whatever we did at the farm had got to really resonate with the people who were visiting. The key has been listening to the customer.

“Telly is a double edged sword,” she adds of the personal experience. “Jim’s naturally good on telly but I did find it very hard.

“It can be very stressful. It goes out on national TV and people take a measure of you from it.”

And, while early critics dismissed the pair as simply ‘playing’ at farming, Michaela is keen to dispel this notion.

“We’re not doing this on a whimsical idea,” she asserts. “We’re focusing on the demands of our customers. It’s not just a great big folly – we have to make it work. The decisions we make are not taken lightly. There’s got to be a financial return to it.

“Jim and I have always said if it doesn’t work we will stop.”

And she strongly believes that they would have made the business work without the fame that the TV show brought.

“I think we would have done it anyway,” she says. “I think we would have made it work. It might not have been at the speed we would have wanted but we would have done it.”

Michaela certainly is a grafter. As Jimmy is regularly away filming, the main running of the business often falls on her shoulders.

“It all makes for a really colourful life and I really enjoy being busy,” she says.

“I think what needs to be pushed is I don’t do it alone. I have a very beautiful husband and we support each other and we also have our family who are very supportive. Our team are great and there are all the businesses around us too.”

She is quick to praise all her staff, including her general manager Tanja Sadler who has worked there for many years.

“I think everything we see is testament to the people who work here,” she says. “You can’t work without them. We have got some very loyal staff who have been with us for a long time and we all make it work.”

However, it’s not all fun on the farm and Michaela admits there are plenty of challenges to work with.

“I think the recession has been one of the main challenges and the weather,” she says. “We are a weather-based business and we have had the worst floods in the UK and the hurricane force winds last year.

“The damage then was just terrible. We didn’t have electricity for four days – all our meat stock got ruined. There was no heating in the restaurant either and it was October.”

Then there are the problems of barley prices to contend with and livestock issues.

“It’s a challenge, agriculture is a challenge. Any farmer will tell you that,” she says. “Last year we broke even which after all that hard work can be frustrating. But that was with the bad weather and the recession, so we’ve got hopes for a good year this year.

“It will never make us millionaires but we never expected that. It’s just a lovely way of life. It supports people locally and gives a lot of joy to people.”

Looking ahead to the next few years, Michaela is confident about the future of the farm.

In recent years, the pair have started to work closely with more businesses and this has resulted in an exciting partnership with Adnams (which has a Cellar shop on site and supplies drinks in the restaurant) and Red Rose Chain.

“I think we had our heads down for so many years just working, working, working and then we put our heads above the parapet, and we started to meet some really great people,” Michaela says.

She and Jimmy also have plans to develop some of the remaining outbuildings at the farm and the pair are hoping to extend the nature trail too.

And, in the more immediate future, preparation is well underway for the farm’s annual Sausage and Beer Festival which will take place on July 26 and 27 and will feature a range of live music, family-friendly activities and cookery demonstrations.

“There’s a good vibe around,” Michaela says. “There’s a good feeling in Ipswich - the high street is picking up and there’s confidence in the air.

“I think we are on the brink of really grounding ourselves locally and really grounding ourselves nationally.”

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