Follow your dream, don’t sit and wonder “what if” says farmer and TV presenter Jimmy Doherty of Jimmy’s Farm
Some 14 years have passed since Jimmy’s Farm sprung to life. Wayne Savage talks to the farmer and TV star about the highs, the lows and the importance of educating future generations about the food they eat.
September 11 had a profound effect on Jimmy Doherty, who was sitting in a basement lab of Coventry University’s zoology department, counting flies as part of his entomology PhD, when the tragedy struck.
“I thought: God, if you don’t follow your dream, something you really want to do, you could end up sitting there going ‘what if’. All those people who died that terrible day had dreams and never got to do them.
“I thought all that would be left of me would be a skeleton and some flies, so I’m better off doing something and failing at it than never doing it at all. So I set out advertising for land.”
Growing up, he had loads of animals, from terrapins and birds to snakes and lizards, and recalls how proud he was when the bantams he’d bought from a schoolfriend when he was 11 or 12 produced their first egg.
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“I thought ‘wow’ and I made it into a fried egg, obviously, and cut it into four for my family. I was always obsessed by wildlife and nature.”
Another friend’s father kept Gloucester cattle, which sparked his fascination with traditional breeds. Reading John Seymour’s The Complete Book of Self Sufficiency, Jimmy – who started growing veg at university and had a little produce patch – realised his passion for nature was never going to be a “weekend thing”. His friends and family must’ve thought he was mad...
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“I think my mum’s always thought I was mad,” he laughs.
Fourteen years have passed since he set up Jimmy’s Farm in Wherstead, outside Ipswich. There have been many stumbling blocks, the first being finding land.
“I was living in London at the time, renting and sharing with a friend in Walthamstow, living in a flat above an undertakers. Actually, renting this farm – 100 acres to start off; it’s bigger now – with two caravans worked out cheaper than renting a flat in London. It wasn’t as nice, the caravan.”
The farm now encompasses 160 acres, with some more land in Waldringfield. Starting out was a whole new world for Jimmy, famously documented in the BBC Two series Jimmy’s Farm, which has seen him make a name for himself in the world of TV.
“Animals are one thing... It’s the running a business. Farmers aren’t just somebody who sits in a tractor and brings in a crop. You’ve got to be the engineer, the mechanic, the vet, the scientist – all these things. Today you’ve got to be the shopkeeper, salesmen, accountant too.”
The father-of-three, who works with many colleges, wouldn’t go back even if he could. Farming, he says, is one of the most exciting jobs around and youngsters thinking about going to university could do a lot worse than considering it, food science or food manufacturing as a career. “It’s a remarkable industry that’s still alive and kicking in the UK.”
We’re talking over a much-needed cup of tea, tired from a tour behind the scenes of the farm. He’s a very busy man these days (our chat has been weeks in the making). There’s the farm to run, his many TV projects, including Food Unwrapped, and Jamie and Jimmy’s Friday Night Feast with childhood friend Jamie Oliver; books, a number of free-range food products and his four-month-old daughter.
“My mum always said the more you do the more you can fit in. I think that’s right but you have to be very sparing with your time and be quite organised. Having really good people around you is really useful. Being a TV presenter and running this business can be very separate things and it’s juggling those two that’s the difficult thing. Juggling family in between is a whole new experience,” he smiles.
Jimmy’s love for the farm is evident during our walk. He’s constantly stopping to talk and joke with staff and visitors. There are a lot of school parties visiting the day I stop by. One long line of youngsters wave as he walks past, followed by a chorus of “hello Jimmy”. When he asks if anybody wants a photograph, one of the mums chaperoning the class is straight in there. My wife is more than a little jealous when I recount the story later.
There’s no difference between the devoted dad-of-three you see on TV, campaigning about food waste or our prejudice against wonky veg, and the man himself.
Stopping to readjust wonky birdboxes perched in trees, moving dying timber teeming with insect life off the path, he pats the cattle who nuzzle up against him, chatting to them like old friends. He talks passionately about the farm’s diverse flora, insects, cattle and other animals, the importance of sustainability and where we’d be without food producers and regular supply in our supermarkets.
Then there’s the work that’s gone on, and still does, into maintaining such a harmonious eco-system that families want to visit.
“We’ve a little video screen and we show some of the old series on it. Every now and then I have to stop and look at it and think ‘jeez’.”
Gone is the old tool storage barn, replaced by shops. So is the caravan they lived in just around the corner. Pigs once snuffled around here and there; the first litter was from a British long called Ethel who lived where the Joules shop is now.
“We lived in a tent for the first couple of weeks. I got the well water and used to leave it in these big tubs. I made a shower and it was quite nice because it was naïve and idealistic and ridiculous in so many ways. But you do a lot of work, put some music on, drink a glass of red wine and it’s all bucolic and sun on the grass and ‘oh this is great’.
“That was for the first month. Then lots of rain, winter, the realities of actually making the business work, actually kicked in. Without the naïveté we would never have done it.”
Trying to get a return on what you’re producing, the sheer amount of work that goes into it, trying to make the equation balance was a challenge. They weren’t just producing a commodity and going into a larger market at the start.
“I was doing six farmers’ markets a week to make it work. We had to travel offsite to sell our wares, so it was juggling running the butchery, curing all the bacon, going to market, taking the pigs to slaughter, rearing the pigs, building new paddocks, doing all those jobs at once – a lot of times it felt like spinning all those plates. At one point I had two vans on the road. I remember a friend who worked for us had to go all the way down to London’s Alexander Palace every Sunday, that was a very good market to do and I used to cook there as well, selling hot food. I remember he turned up one day and totally forgot his whole marquee,” laughs Jimmy. “He just turned up with a fridge. I remember turning up at Hadleigh, in Essex, asking ‘where’s the farmers’ market?’ to be told ‘there’s never been a farmers’ market here’.”
He has good and bad memories.
“It’s great watching the kids. When Molly’s in guinea pig village she’s almost a guinea pig herself and wants to show off to all the kids. Michaela and I got married in the village church and then came down here and had the reception. Now other people get married here and I love that,” says the big Chas and Dave fan, pinching himself that they’re playing this year’s Harvest Festival.
In terms of sheer amount of work and determination, he recalls coming back from the pub one evening and looking through the old farm shop window.
“Everything looked really blurry. I thought ‘I didn’t have too many pints’ but we’d had so much rain the whole shop was flooded. We got into there about 11pm and worked the whole night through. I had a digger out back and dug a trench to stop more water coming through but it was open again for 9am and pristine; that sticks in my mind.”
Being away from his family is a downside. “I do a lot of travelling, which is the hardest part because you’re neither there or here; that’s always a frustration, but I’m very lucky. The fact that I can plan here what I want to do, the kind of farming I want to do here, and the next week I find myself in Italy, looking at rice farmers, or Kenya looking at green beans, or Argentina looking at beef production.
“I bring simple little ideas back all the time.” Jimmy wishes more people had the chance to follow their dreams the way he did; acknowledging it’s difficult in a world with lots of rules and regulations.
He thinks there should be more schemes for youngsters to follow in his welly-steps. “There should be more out there really get their passions going and create businesses.
“If you look around Ipswich, Woodbridge, Bury St Edmunds; all these businesses starting up. These independents are so important to keeping the region diverse, otherwise the high street tends to be quite boring.
“There are lots of rural businesses now, little farm cafés that have sprung up, great restaurants... When people start these businesses, the more encouragement that’s given to them the better. It’s easy to slam lots of legislation on them but what we should do, especially after coming out of one of the worst recessions the country’s ever seen, is to stimulate that.
“You go to town centres and see lots of empty shops and think ‘why not give it to some young inspiring people rent free for six months’.
“The idea is after that you’d give them a percentage of their turnover and make it easy.”
Understanding where food comes from is a natural part of his children’s lives. They’re excited about what they eat. Jimmy believes that should be the case for everybody.
“What goes on out there,” he says, pointing out the window of the restaurant, “ends up in here, on the plate. That’s very important.”
The further the distance between consumer and producer, the poorer our health becomes, he thinks.
“The connection with how an animal lives, what it’s been fed, is very important... Where the meat, where the vegetables, come from; the work it takes to produce all that adds to the appreciation and respect for the food and also for the countryside. The idea that pork turns up in a packet in a supermarket...
“When it’s all tucked away, I think it’s wrong. I’ve got a bit of a bugbear with meat-eaters who go ‘oh I don’t want to know where it’s come from’.
“I think ‘well, be a vegetarian then, because it’s your responsibility’. Take abattoirs. People go ‘I don’t want an abattoir near me’. Actually they’re the lynchpin for all the livestock you see in these fields... The actual process of welfare is equally about the abattoirs as it is about the animals in the field and how they’re reared. It’s about honesty when it comes to food production.”
Jimmy says people get so tied up with food fads and what’s healthy these days. He thinks it’s really quite basic, talking about portion sizes and eating a balanced diet.
“You don’t have to be eating this new ultra weird bran... I look at my grandad’s generation: meat and two veg, food that’s grown with integrity and healthy soil is always going to be good for you.”
There are no hard and fast rules. Travelling the world, he’s visited Iceland, where they just eat dairy, meat and hardly any vegetables and are super healthy. He’s also been to Ethiopia, where the inhabitants have wholegrain and hardly any meat.
“Both were produced from very good, simple, farming techniques that produce healthy soil and it’s simple. Just think about what you put in your body. We care more about the clothes on our back and what kind of phone we’ve got than the kind of food we put in our mouth. Actually the food we put in our mouth dictates our happiness, our health, our wellbeing, everything...”
Education is at the heart of the farm’s ethos. With three young daughters - aged five, three and four months - he knows how difficult it is for parents to find something that’s fun too.
“Everyone knows kids have got to get out in the open and play around. As a kid I used to run through the cow parsley and pretend I was Robin Hood swordfighting,” he says, perched in the branches of a massive den. “I know it’s difficult. I want to have that (here). It’s very important play and discovery aren’t hindered, so you’re not totally fenced in; you can run around, (there are) open spaces.”
The work at the farm never ends, he admits; shifting focus to the constantly rolling programme of additions and future improvements. A new play area is planned, new animals including meerkats and wallabies are arriving, there’ll be a walkthrough aviary, the butterfly house has been reskinned, the woodland walk refurbished, a zoo licence in the pipeline...
“I’ve even got a yeti coming,” he smiles. “I’m writing a story about the sausquatch, mythical creatures that roamed Suffolk, living on a diet of Ipswich Super Blue Sausages but died out during the big sausage migration of 1985. It’s all about ideas sparking imaginations; the more you do that, the more you stimulate kids...”
The gardens are always expanding, as is vegetable production. During our walk around the farm we stop by both the Thompson and Morgan Garden and the under-construction nursery tent full of peppers and suchlike.
Jimmy’s equally thrilled with the return of Red Rose Chain, staging Shakespeare’s The Tempest in the forest from July 26-August 28; enthusing about the creative way they use the space. First though is Jimmy’s Harvest Festival from July 23-24, a fusion of Harvest and the farm’s Sausage and Beer festivals.
“It’s an amazing thing to set up and run. We’ve got a really good team... Imagine 10,000 people turning up each day to your place; how do you cater for that, how do you store them, move them around safely? And then you clean it all up again. It’s insane.”
With everybody asking him to bring Harvest back, marrying the two festivals was inevitable.
“We thought, actually, sausage and beer started as a farmers’ market and got bigger and bigger. Last year we had 18,000 and those are the kind of numbers Harvest was; so rather than try two, we’d just bring them together. Harvest festival is based on the traditional time to enjoy a celebration of food and the spine of it is the sausage and beer side. We have sausage producers from around the county... Two things we do really good here in the UK is beer and sausages.”
Jimmy’s a big fan of the annual sausage eating contest, recounting the reigning champion really going for it a couple of years ago.
“He’s won it two years on the trot now and he sort of finished and a chipolata came out of his nose. He went (breathes in) and it went back up again and he won. I’ve walked round the back and caught people five guys eating sausages. I went ‘what are you doing’ and they said ‘oh, we missed it because we were late so we’re doing our own sausage eating competition’.”
Other food highlights include Gennaro Contaldo, Matt Cockin of Fruit Pig, Great British Bake Off’s Flora Shedden, Jack Monroe, Marcus Bean, DJ BBQ...
“There’s a good friend of mine who’s a doctor in Woodbridge and she’s ever so keen to meet him. She keeps getting his name wrong and calling him DJ Breakfast...” he laughs.
Music comes from Reef, Newton Faulkner and Chas and Dave, among others.
As work continues to build on what’s already there, Jimmy wants to further the conversation about food production and education and how the two fit together.
“That idea of getting people to understand what their food is and where it’s from... We need to produce food and at the same time we need to preserve the natural environment – it can’t be one or the other.”