Jimmy Doherty - country champion
PUBLISHED: 12:19 11 May 2009 | UPDATED: 08:31 28 March 2014
He has a busy farm open to the public, TV documentaries to present, books to write ... it is a hectic life for Jimmy Doherty, named Farmers' Champion 2008. He talked to STEVE CHILCOTT
Life’s a bit of a juggling act for Jimmy Doherty. One week he is swinging precariously down a cliff face with the intrepid honey hunters of Nepal. Then he is globetrotting through four continents for a TV documentary about GM food. Another week, and he is back at Jimmy’s Farm in Suffolk working on an ambitious new Butterfly House.
Then there is the new Darwin Garden, the eco-ice skating rink, the occasional on-farm wedding, the monthly farmers’ market ... not to mention his celebrated pigs and other animals.
It seems there is never a dull moment for the high profile smallholder, scientist and broadcaster who was dubbed Farmers’ Champion 2008 for his work on the hugely popular TV series Farming Heroes.
It was back in the summer of 2004 when I last paid a visit to Jimmy’s Farm, near Ipswich (CS, Sept 2004, The making of a sow’s purse). It is a working farm, open to visitors seven days a week, and nowadays it bursts with exciting innovation. There are regular events of all kinds, with hands-on visitor attractions such as farm walks and nature trails. The ice skating rink, opened this winter, has also proved a big success. And the farm shop offers home reared free range pig produce, beef and lamb as well as an abundance of herbs and veggies from the garden.
‘There are loads of other plans,” said Jimmy. “We are trying to open the whole food production system to the public and expand the education side of things. That’s important.”
For a Valentine's Day present, Jimmy bought his long-time partner and now fiancée, Michaela, a Kubota L300 series for use in the vegetable garden … and had it sprayed strawberry pink!
With on-farm weddings becoming popular, the colourful tractor has come in very useful. A couple can now take their vows down by the lily pond, with the bride then whisked off in a flurry of confetti, perched on the three-point linkage!
“We’ve finally moved out of the pink caravan too, “ said Jimmy. “We live in a little cottage just 10 minutes down the road, which is great. It's even got a bath!”
Jimmy’s TV work goes from strength to strength. After the three original series of Jimmy’s Farm came the hugely popular six-part documentary series Farming Heroes, earning him the Farmer’s Weekly accolade Farmers’ Champion 2008.
“It took a year to film it, but really it's down to my other half being here and holding the fort with another key member of staff, our office manager and administrator Tania Sadler,” he said.
The thought-provoking and unbiased exploration into the truth behind the GM controversy was filmed for Horizon on BBC2 and screened just before Christmas. It showed that, despite the UK remaining a decidedly no-go zone for GM, the rest of the world is embracing this technology with fervour. With 800 million people worldwide permanently malnourished, it certainly offers one solution; whether it is the right one is still open to debate.
Jimmy’s adventures with the Nepalese honey-hunters was filmed last year as a special for Natural World, again on BBC2. “We’ve now got 10 hives here on the farm,” said Jimmy. “Barry, the local beekeeper, comes in and sorts them out. His car is always full of bees flying around the back, crammed full of hives and smelling of beeswax and furniture polish. He’s always got a bottle of mead on the go!
“Everyone here is worried about the colony collapse situation affecting the United States. Bees are definitely down, although we shouldn't be worried about them becoming extinct – they were here long before the dinosaurs and they will be here in the future. Really we've got to worry about food production and ourselves and how important bees are to us as pollinators. I know that apples are rubbish this year, for example, but we've actually got a good number of bumblebees because we’ve got lots of log piles and rough areas where they can nest; we've also got commercial bumblebees bought in to help in the vegetable garden.”
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species and Jimmy has been filming a three-part series to tie in with the BBC’s Darwin season. At the time of writing it is scheduled for screening in late March.
Next to the impressive vegetable garden, a new area has been created and aptly named Darwin's Garden.
“Obviously I've got a science background – biology and zoology – and, as we know, Darwin was hugely influential, especially in terms of livestock. Everyone thinks it was on his world trip to the Galápagos on the Beagle that he suddenly went ‘ah’ to the theory of evolution; it wasn't – it was 20 years later out in his garden when he was doing lots of little experiments with plants and animal breeding. So Darwin’s Garden is just to show kids that science is relevant in the garden or in the lab – it's not just dusty stuff in textbooks.”
Jimmy said they made good use of 15 old oak trees which were cut down beside a nearby railway line. “We took huge chunks and put them on our nature trail. We carved one chunk into a huge chair. It illustrates the simian, monkey, chimp, Neanderthal man, through to modern man. You can sit and look out over the garden. Wonderful! It was all done by a local guy and a chainsaw.”
Then there are the books. Jimmy’s second, A Taste of the Country, was published by Penguin in March 2006 and went straight into the top 10 of the hardback non-fiction chart.
“It was just a nice thing to do really. It wasn't something to make pots and pots of money. They are good fun and there's a possibility of one or two in the future, but they take such a long time to write.”
Jim has never liked to be far away from the nitty-gritty of farm life, and he admits they have the same problems as any small business in the current credit crunch.
Back in those early farming days his pig herd amounted to a mere 20 sows, largely Essex/Saddlebacks, plus Gloucester Old Spots, Tamworths, Large Blacks and a few of what he refers to as the ‘Iron Age variety’, with just two litters a week required to keep the sausage production line rolling.
He still has the same breeds, but numbers have fluctuated. At its peak breeding stock reached 94 sows before a staggering 104% hike in feed prices forced stocking levels back to somewhere around the 50 mark.
‘It's getting slightly better, but it's still not good,” he said. “We all went to 10 Downing St on the Save Our Bacon; Our Pigs Are Worth It demonstration. There was an interesting survey carried out that week.
Something like 95% of pig farmers are looking to leave the industry because they can’t carry their costs on to the supermarkets; you are only talking 17p on every pack of bacon to save the industry!
“We're looking at different ideas, such as producing our own food, but when you add labour to it it’s sometimes not cost-effective. I've just built a seed drill as I'm thinking about doing plots of fodder beet and stuff like that so that I can graze it off, but also use it as a rotation. I move the pigs off and put a crop on, or whatever, then put the pigs back on to feed on it, especially the sows. We want to be more self-sufficient, but it is quite tricky because we are only a small operation. Every penny counts but we can't really put our price up any more because we are already at the top end. It’s difficult.”
With Jimmy regularly away filming, staffing levels at the farm have had to increase dramatically. The operation is now manned by around 15 full-timers, with four full-time butchers, plus eight part-timers. Sadly many of the old faces have gone.
There is plenty to keep everyone busy. “We're dealing with fly tippers at the moment - which is a pain,” said Jimmy. “I’ve got some cows to sort out this afternoon – a handling system to put up. We've moved all the pigs out of the wood, and that's got to be put back to grass. There’s topping to do to get rid of thistles, and then it's on to the vegetable garden. If anyone stands still too long they end up packing sausages!”
The Butterfly House
Jimmy’s big project in the last year or so has been the new Butterfly House, a huge double-domed polytunnel which will re-open this Easter.
This has always been a long-term passion, from the time he was an undergraduate studying zoology, then working at the Entymology Department at London’s Natural History Museum and on to Coventry University where he researched for his doctorate in entymology.
“For me butterflies are very important, like bees, as indicator species of the health of your habitat. A bigger plan for the Butterfly House is really the outside, the butterfly garden that we’re putting in next year. It will be like a sort of mini-wildflower walk and will include a dragonfly pond.
“The tropical Butterfly House is instant gratification. Kids love it. You go in, and it's ‘Wow look at that! That’s amazing!’ Then they might see some wild butterflies. It is all about sustainable farming. If you've got the rich, diverse habitat, with lots and lots of different species, you're going to have a nice rich environment to grow food in. They go hand-in-hand. Diversity equals stability and, if you’ve got stability, you've got good farming practices, haven't you?”
Stock for the Butterfly House is bought in as pupae from a specialist supplier and introduced on pea-sticks, with success depending on carefully matching the various breeds to their preferred plant-food.
“The one we’ve been breeding in quite large numbers is Heliconius Charitonius, the zebra butterfly, which comes from Florida down through Central America and into the top half of South America,” said Jimmy. “It's a lovely butterfly that feeds on a particular group of passion flowers.
“It’s great fun, and it takes you back to being a kid and running through the meadows catching stuff. When kids understand about lifecycles they begin to appreciate nature and develop a bit more respect for it.”
The farm now boasts five wildlife ponds densely stocked with tench, crucian carp and rudd; these in turn lure kingfishers, egrets, herons and a diverse insect population.
In the front meadows, East Anglian Red Poll cattle and Galloways now rotate with Jim’s pygmy goats, Jacob sheep and his beloved Essex pigs. They are also home to buzzards, sparrowhawks and kestrels, with barn owls regularly sighted quartering the fields for prey down towards the railway line. Up in the woodland, stretching to some 30 acres, tawny and little owls abound.
“We put bird feeders out on the nature trail, and probably around 30 nest boxes over the years. Grey squirrels are a great problem. We put metal plates over the nest boxes, but they still get in, kill the chicks and destroy the eggs. A nightmare!”
Jimmy’s Farm has come a long way in the past five years, with a full calendar of events drawing visitors to the ‘whole farm experience’. But he is keen to develop the brand further afield, and is now looking into opening a second farm shop in Surrey. It will be a big leap, although he admits it might be a tall order trying to run two farms. “Well, it's only premises to rent. To us the bottleneck is trying to increase direct retail to the public as there's only a certain amount you can sell from one shop.
It's a difficult one – but you've got to progress...”
TO FIND OUT MORE
For full details of upcoming events at Jimmy’s Farm, including the big Easter Farmers’ Market, go to www.jimmy’s farm.com