Keeping the dream alive on Jimmy's Farm

'Celebrity farmer' Jimmy Doherty lives life in a goldfish bowl. STEVEN RUSSELL joined him for a few circuitsA VISITOR from Kent requests an autograph for little Sammy and Jimmy Doherty is happy to oblige.

'Celebrity farmer' Jimmy Doherty lives his life in a goldfish bowl. STEVEN RUSSELL joined him for a few circuits

A VISITOR from Kent requests an autograph for little Sammy and Jimmy Doherty is happy to oblige. It's a sign that pig farming's answer to David Beckham – he'll cringe and tut, but it's true – is back in the public eye.

A new fly-on-the-barn-door TV series has just started, chronicling 2005's highs and lows for the folk at Pannington Hall Farm. And there's a new book that combines favourite recipes with interesting personal reflection.

Taken together, they rather neatly sum up Jimmy's world. His passion for wildlife, free-range farming and wholesome British food leaps off the page. The documentary, meanwhile, highlights some of the hassles and heartaches involved in chasing your dream.

The opening programme showed how staffing issues can sap energy – with the boss confessing it “makes me feel older than I am, sometimes”. The stockman moving on to another job was a setback, but the departure of long-time lieutenant Ricki Spriggs took its toll emotionally.

It was Ricki who had backed Jimmy's enthusiasm and come early to the then derelict farm at Wherstead, outside Ipswich, to help build fences with his bare hands. His young family even moved from Nuneaton to live in a caravan on site.

Most Read

Last week's episode showed that nothing's forever, though. There was tension over stock control, with thousands of pounds worth of unsold perishable food having to be ditched. Then Ricki handed in his notice, explaining the job wasn't what he envisaged: he was spending most of his time in the butchery, which wasn't what he wanted.

“Dealing with staff: that's something I've really never had to do and that you have to learn. Animals are simple . . .” says Jimmy, sitting on a picnic bench in the barn. (“Ten quid from B&Q. We have to watch the pennies!”)

“When I was doing my PhD I supervised his final-year project, and we got on very well and had very similar interests, and I like Rick a lot. But I think the job got too much for him, really.

“I suppose he was following my dream, and it's not always going to turn out how you expect. I think that when we started we were both in the butchery, then outside, and backwards and forwards, and he wanted to be more outside. I suppose if you're not really into your butchery then you get fed up with that. But what do you do? You can't end up moulding a job around someone.”

Happily, says Jimmy, his friend still lives nearby, has a job and loves being in Suffolk. “He's got a lot of passion has Rick, and whatever he does he'll do well.”

After the resignation, the pair's meeting in a pub was captured on screen. It was brave thing to do.

“It was very emotional and very hard,” Jimmy confirms, “but it was part of what happened and I think it's important they (those tuning in) see that. If the crew says 'Can we film that?' and I say 'No', the viewers are not getting the whole picture.”

Experience, he adds, is a great teacher.

“You've got to have your dreams in life. That's what's pushed me through all the bad times. You've got to think 'This is where we want to get to,' and keep that in mind. It can be an uphill struggle to get there, but, if it were easy, everyone would be doing it,” he grins.

The good life certainly seems to be agreeing with him. Jimmy seems thoroughly at ease, laughs a great deal, and doesn't duck any questions.

The BBC series mentions monthly overheads of £40,000. Is that right?

“You've got wages, you've got all the fuel costs, you've got the feed bills – which are huge – but also you've got stock in the shops as well that you have to buy.

“The problem we had when we needed money to build the track – it cost £10,000 – was that then we don't necessarily have the immediate money.” (It's a one-way route to take cars back to the A137 and thus avoid the congestion that last Easter saw the access road to the farm blocked by traffic.)

“Then your van breaks; that costs money. Things accumulate and build up; then what you're desperate for is a good Christmas and a good Easter to clear the decks again. It's all peaks and troughs.”

There are 12 employees, some part-time. That responsibility would probably stop me sleeping at night.

“I often don't! It's everything, really, from dealing with red tape onwards. But it's a life-changing thing that I went into and I'd never go back on it. It's great, really. Even being able to sit here on a lovely day in this quiet barn: it's a privilege.”

Jimmy's in it for the long game. His lease has a couple of years to run and he's hoping to sign a lengthy new agreement.

“The farm has turned out how I wanted it to. It's great to be part of something exciting. We have a farmers' market first Saturday of every month and it's really buzzing.”

This – a popular return to quality food – is his Big Theme. He reckons the tide is turning for producers, but recognises that farmers are pulled in all directions. They're being urged to diversify but are having to run fast to meet existing commitments.

How does the industry convert the masses, who appear to vote with purse and wallet, to locally-produced, free-range food?

“It's priorities, I suppose. I've had catering students in and I've said 'This free-range chicken here; how much do you think it's worth? What would you pay for it?'

“They've said 'Three quid; three-fifty.' And I've said 'No. It's at least £10 – to give a chicken a decent life, to have it grow naturally, and for anyone to see any amount of profit out of it and cover their costs it's got to be 10 quid.'

' No, no; I can get it for three quid . . .'

“So I say 'Do you go to the cinema? How much does it cost?' 'About £3.90.' Popcorn? 'About £4.20 – and a jumbo Coke.'

“'So, by the time you've finished, 15, 20 quid?' 'Yeah.' 'So, you're willing to pay £15 for an hour or so's entertainment; you're not prepared to pay £10 to give a chicken a proper life. And on top of that, you're going to get the best chicken you've ever had!'

“It's skewed priorities: everyone's got a mobile phone; everyone's down the pub – drink three or four pints of Stella at £2.90, there's not a question about that. DVDs, CDs – no-one questions it. But ask people to pay the real value of food . . . It's outrageous.”

Changing the emphasis isn't hard for consumers, according to Jimmy.

“If you do go to the supermarket, look for the free-range eggs, look for the free-range chicken or pork. That will start a change, and the supermarket manager will say 'Oh, we need to buy more of those.'

“Or, if you're buying online, OK, fair enough, buy your washing-up liquid – but you're only a couple of clicks away from a farm shop that will give you the same service and fantastic meat or a box of vegetables.

“I'm not saying you've got to live like a hippy, but buy stuff that's well produced.”

So, how has Jimmy, now 30, changed in the past two years?

“In some ways I think I worry a bit more than I did. More responsible, I suppose – and also a lot more optimistic: after being through some real harsh periods, optimistic for the future. There are lots of people out there who support you and there's a fantastic future for our food culture.

“There's still the same amount of stress” – compared to a job in London, say – “but the rewards are greater. With spring coming up, you can have a walk around the woods with a glass of wine and see the bluebells – it's amazing.”

Ever come close to chucking it in? “No.” He grins. “You'll see on the third programme!

“But no. You could never walk out. Walking away is too easy. I'm not only fighting for what I believe in and Michaela (his girlfriend) believes in, I'm fighting for everyone that works on the farm as well.

“I think there's a part of the British character that's at its best when times are at their worst. A lot of people might say 'Piffle!' but I think that's true. As long as you've got your sense of humour and your health, you can get on with most things.”

In the early days Michaela seemed quite wary of the hoo-hah attached to a project starting from scratch under the gaze of national TV. Now, judging by last week's episode, she clearly relishes her life and is confident in dealing with the challenges thrown at the business.

“She's really taken up the gauntlet and cracks on with stuff. She's extremely resourceful. She's not prepared to back down and is willing to fight for things,” confirms Jimmy.

“She's a worker as well, and that makes a hell of a difference. I think a lot of it is related to her family: her mother was an army officer and her late father was colonel of the 7th Gurkhas. There are a lot of Gurkhas in her family, and they're very tough and resourceful. That comes through, really.”

The nature walk is established and the ponds sorted, but there's always another part of the dream to make reality.

“Sometimes we're pushed along a bit faster than we want to be,” says Jimmy. “I'm guilty of that, because I have lots of ideas and say 'Let's do this. We must do that.'”

There are hopes of turning the back of the barn into an oak-framed building housing a tearoom and kitchen, using wood harvested locally. It would look out at a herb garden created recently by Michaela.

We stop to admire a posing peacock, silhouetted against the sky atop a wire run. Jimmy's got three peacocks, which he concedes don't serve the farm much beyond decoration.

“I'm terrible for things like that. I went off to buy a couple of chickens from a lady just outside Saffron Walden and came back with 25 chickens, a couple of ducks, six doves, a crateful of quail, three peacocks and two kittens! Michaela just looked at me as though I was an idiot.”

He does seem very content. If he were still here at the age of 65, enjoying the wildlife and the land, would he be happy with the way things had gone?

“Yes. It's lovely,” he says softly. “All the dreams I had have, I think, been fulfilled. But there's still a long way to go. Twenty-odd years might just be about right!”

JIMMY Doherty's new publication, A Taste of the Country, is a bit more than a cookbook. Complementing the recipes are insights about the business, his farming methods, and information about pork, beef and lamb.

It honours traditional British food – “stuff that I found warming, like toad in the hole. My dad cooked a lot and I do most of the cooking at home. But also there are cooking methods I like, like using a dustbin lid as an oven – spit-roasting a salmon and using a fire. Once it's burned down, you can put a bit of fish on a log and cook a fillet. That's the adventurous side I like”.

A Taste of the Country – A traditional farmhouse cookbook by a very twenty-first-century farmer is published by Penguin at £20

Sausages and Ham with Red Cabbage (serves four)

“This is an old Suffolk recipe that dates back to 1823,” says Jimmy. “I love dishes like this – simple, honest and full of real flavour.”

1.5kg/3.5lb red cabbage, very finely chopped. 115g/4oz gammon rashers, cut into 2.5cm/1-inch strips. 30g/1oz butter. 300ml/0.5-pint stock. Two apples, peeled, cored and diced. Two teaspoons caster sugar. One teaspoon salt. One-quarter teaspoon white pepper. 450g/1lb sausages (good herby ones work well, says Jimmy.)

Preheat oven to 160C/300F/gas mark 2. Put cabbage into a casserole with the rest of the ingredients except the sausages. Bring to the boil, then cover tightly and cook in the preheated oven for three hours.

Remove from oven and stir well, checking the seasoning. Most of the stock should have been absorbed. Keep cabbage warm while you fry or grill sausages. Heap the cabbage on a serving dish and arrange the sausages on top.

How it began . . .

In 2003 Jimmy Doherty, who hailed from Clavering in Essex and had a degree in zoology, leased 100 acres between the A14 and A137 and set up the Essex Pig Company – helped by a £55,000 loan from childhood friend Jamie Oliver. He dreamed of rearing free-range pigs, selling his produce in his farm shop and at markets. But Pannington Hall needed much TLC. There was no power or running water. The outbuildings were derelict. Everything had to be done from scratch . . .

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter