Jimmy lauds farming heroes

ONE of Suffolk's most famous - if not most wealthy - farmers is Jimmy Doherty who introduces us to his farming heroes in a terrific new BBC TV series which started earlier this week.

Lynne Mortimer

ONE of Suffolk's most famous - if not most wealthy - farmers is Jimmy Doherty who introduces us to his farming heroes in a terrific new BBC TV series which started earlier this week.

He's an Essex boy who counts campaigning chef Jamie Oliver among his friends… along with an assortment of chickens, pigs, sheep and other livestock.

Television viewers first met him five years ago when he gave up life in the city and took on the tenancy of a farm at Wherstead where, starting from scratch, he set out to make a go of his new venture. “It's been a steep learning curve,” he acknowledges.

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It began with his enthusiasm for the Essex pig, a rare breed he wanted to re-establish. As we followed his struggle for economic survival we also met his girlfriend, Michaela, who was to become a vital component of Jimmy's Farm.

Reflecting on his decision he says: “I think one of the reasons I started this whole farming venture was that I wanted to produce food I want to eat.”

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And, maybe for the first time on television, Jimmy shows the first signs of acquiring a Suffolk accent with the word “food” almost gaining that second syllable to become “foo-ed”.

In the new six-part series Jimmy Doherty's Farming Heroes, Jimmy takes viewers on a journey around the UK to discover and celebrate the best of British farming.

As the world food crisis grows, what happens to farming will affect us all. So in this timely series, Jimmy's travelling the country to meet the people shaping the future of British farming. He looks at whether farmers can deliver food we can trust at a price we can afford, and how they are responding to the challenges of the twenty-first century.

Rooted firmly in the here and now, he'll meet the innovators and forward-thinkers. From high-tech agribusiness, to organics, to remote family farms, he's on a search for those striking out in new and original ways to keep Britain at the forefront of agricultural innovation.

He says the world food crisis needs farmers to produce “food we can trust at a price we can afford” and sets out on his journey to see if it can be achieved. Along the way he meets “the innovators, the obsessives and the mavericks”.

“What happens to farming affects us all,” he says.

In the first episode Jimmy starts his journey in his own backyard - the East of England and this proves to be an uplifting programme for anyone who lives in and loves East Anglia.

When it comes to investment in infrastructure and national recognition, the region often languishes at the bottom of the charts - often ignored completely or lumped into a nebulous assortment of counties and called East Midlands.

But, for once, we see East Anglia in all its glory and significance as Jimmy explores its agricultural prominence and excellence.

He says much of the food we eat comes from East Anglia, calling it “the breadbasket of Britain”.

He sets out to meet the large-scale producers who are using all the latest equipment that science and technology have to offer. He wants to challenge his own preconceptions about whether big does mean bad.

East Anglia produces a quarter of all our wheat and cereal crops but Jimmy has time to take in the glorious landscapes and skyscapes of his adopted county as he first visits a farm “just down the road” from his modest 150 acres.

It is a huge 6000 acre arable farm managed by Ali Kerr. All the farm machinery can be computer controlled and yield rates and fertiliser-use are monitored using satellite mapping. This is the story of modern-day arable farming - super efficiency and high productivity. Any romantic notions of methods being better in the old days, when people relied more on skill and muscle than technology, are quashed when Jimmy has a go on a traditional horse and binder.

But first he is invited to drive a £300,000 harvester.

“Have you ever crashed it?” he asks Ali.

There is a definite worried pause before Ali responds: “No,” and then adds: “Don't crash it.”

As they work they discuss how yield has been increased both by precision farming methods and by getting the wheat to be all ears rather than stalks (straw).

Jimmy's enthusiasm for all he learns is infectious and unforced. He may not be the wealthiest farmer in East Anglia but it would be hard to find a more fervent one.

Having a go on the horse drawn binder he asks: “Do I look like Ben Hur?” He doesn't but it would be a shame to deflate him.

It was not so long ago that farming was dependent on horse power.

In a grain store Ali and Jimmy are surrounded by mountains of wheat - all of it essential to feed us. “We can produce one of the highest yields in the world in East Anglia,” says Ali which gives Jimmy pause for thought. “Am I trying to turn the world into fairyland?” he says, questioning the way he runs his farm.

Jimmy then moves on to Wicken Fen, one of the last remaining areas of the original marshland, to wonder at the wildlife but also to acknowledge the achievement of turning this into highly productive land.

Also in the fens he goes to G's Marketing. G's produces much of our salad crops including 75% of the celery we eat in this country.

The celery has to be hand-picked and G's employs 2000 agricultural students from Eastern Europe every year to bring in the crop. Jimmy joins the workers and tries his hand at picking and packing celery on one of Gs specially designed mobile factories. He finds out what motivates the workers to come over here and take jobs that we don't seem to want.

A fast worker can get around £100 a day and Jimmy learns how to cut, trim and stack the celery, earning 3p for each one he does right. The schedule for this particular day is to harvest 40,000.

The guys look a bit fed up with Jimmy as he initially holds back their speed but they cheer up mightily when he is pulled out of the line.

The crop goes from the field to being packed in six minutes and it's on the supermarket shelves the same day.

From Cambridgeshire to Essex, Jimmy is on the turkey trail.

East Anglia is also traditionally the home of mass produced poultry; nine million turkeys are produced in the region every year. Intensive production methods have come in for criticism.

In north Essex, Jimmy's friend, Paul Kelly, tries to combine large-scale production with ethical farming - he breeds 10 per cent of our Christmas turkeys and all his birds are free range. He even keeps 1,000 turkeys in the woodland where they scrape around eating worms and berries.

Jimmy is impressed by his willingness to challenge conventional wisdom.

Paul's favourite turkey is the bronze but it was less popular for many years. He explains that people didn't like the turkey's skin being flecked with the remnants of black feathers so the white-feathered birds became more common.

The birds that roam the woodland are protected from foxes by their own canine bodyguards - dogs reared with the turkeys.

Paul says he hopes that, within five years, all his birds will live out in the woods.

Just outside Lowestoft, in Suffolk, there's a group of smaller farmers who have found a way of making it work - by joining together. Anglia Pea Growers is a co-operative of 220 farmers who are one of the main suppliers for Birds Eye.

Harvesting peas is one of the toughest challenges in farming. It all happens at breath-taking speed. The peas have to be picked, delivered to the factory, and frozen all within 150 minutes. Jimmy lends the team a hand in a race against the clock.

But Anglia Pea Growers have to wait for the man from the frozen food company to give them the go-ahead to pick.

We meet Andy Beach, who is one of the pea tasters for Birds Eye. After inspecting the peas he says “yes” and the machinery that picks and shells the crop springs into immediate action.

Jimmy is given the job of getting the peas to the factory - 21 miles away. It's a close call, but he makes it with moments to spare, helping to ensure that our peas are frozen within two and a half hours of being picked.

His final stop is in Norfolk where Jimmy visits the British Sugar factory at Wissington - the biggest processor of its kind in the world - which pumps out large amounts of the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide.

But at Wissington, they've set-up an industry that thrives on its waste. The carbon dioxide and hot water from the factory is reused to produce 10 per cent of the UK's tomatoes.

These by-products are zapped along more than a kilometre of pipeline into what is described as “the biggest glasshouse in Britain”. There, the fee supply of heat and CO2 means nursery manager, Nigel Bartle, can double his yield making it more cost effective to produce tomatoes on a large scale in the UK.

While it is a massive operation, parts of it remain steadfastly low-tech and Jimmy is roped into the job of twisting the tomato vines (clockwise) on to their wires. Bees are also vital to the process as they are needed to pollinate the plants.

When it comes to defeating the ghastly white fly that attacks the plants, Jimmy is in his element as he trained as an entomologist. “I know my insects,” he says.

Nigel knows his tomatoes and, for best flavour, advises us not to keep them in the fridge.

- Jimmy Doherty's Farming Heroes is on BBC2 on Tuesday nights at 9pm

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