Down on the farm with Jimmy
And on his farm he had a... herd of pigs, flock of sheep, restaurant, farm shop, music festival and even a film crew. Richard Bryson meets Jimmy Doherty, scientist, entrepreneur and the nation's favourite celebrity farmer
And on his farm he had a... herd of pigs, flock of sheep, restaurant, farm shop, music festival and even a film crew. Richard Bryson meets Jimmy Doherty, scientist, entrepreneur and the nation’s favourite celebrity farmer
A snatched conversation at, of all places, 10 Downing Street encapsulates the down-to-earth charm of Jimmy Doherty. Invited by the Labour government to a think-tank on how to make science more accessible to the public, Jimmy was chatting to that chef and food technician Heston Blumenthal when Prime Minister Gordon Brown approached.“He just wondered what we were talking about and at that precise moment we were discussing why asparagus makes your pee smell so strong,” explained Jimmy. “ It was science linked, I guess, but we were like a couple of schoolboys. I think Gordon gave a half-smile and moved on.”While that might be a little flippant, Jimmy is serious and passionate when it comes to food production.“The people in this industry should be recognised as doing one of the top five most important jobs in Britain. They are the cornerstone of our nation, without them where would we be?”He has met a cross section of Britain’s farmers and producers during his recent television food science show, Jimmy’s Food Factory, in which he discovers what goes into supermarket food. “I’m not into food snobbishness, the programmes don’t look into the rights and wrongs of making food. They reveal the various processes involved in getting it from the farm to the table,” he says.“For instance, every day in the UK 36 million litres of milk are produced, but before it arrives on the supermarket shelf it is pasteurised and homogenised – but what does that involve?”To show the modern dairy processes, Jimmy assembled his own production line at his Wherstead farm using a high pressure washer, a tin bath, a fire extinguisher, a car jack, fence posts, a stepladder and a collection of buckets.He is a practical guy but how much of the setting up of these experiments does he do? The cameras show him sawing wood and hastily assembling all manner of equipment. “A little bit, but the time scales on these shows obviously mean there is help off camera,” he says.The secret behind Jimmy’s successful screen persona seems simple enough – he just acts naturally. The tousled hair, ever so slightly scruffy jeans and casual shirts go with his amused, alert eyes, easy way with people and great enthusiasm for food and how it is made.His television debut came when producer Niall Downing involved him in a pilot programme about killer diseases and parasites.“It must have been okay because the BBC called me later to see if I was interested in other work,” says Jimmy.“When the crew comes to make series like the Food Factory, they become part of the family and you get used to the cameras – three month’s filming equates to about an hour of television.”He says he doesn’t like watching himself on the small screen but when he does he becomes critical, asking himself if he could be better.“Doing voiceovers means you have to go back over your work and, like some people, I don’t like having to hear the sound of my own voice!” he admits.It’s the same Jimmy I meet; friendly, engaged and thoughtful. He answers questions at length but doesn’t over-elaborate or reel off countless anecdotes. He likes to chat but at the same time there is always work to be done, projects to become immersed in.For anyone thinking Jimmy has piggy-backed on the success of his friend Jamie Oliver, it should be known they have been mates since the age of three. They went to the same school (in Clavering, Essex) tended to be “little, noisy buggers on the back of the bus”, flicked towels at each other when working in Jamie’s parents pub and generally got on.
“My first date with Michaela was at the London Aquarium. It was quite dark so if I said anything stupid it hid my embarrassment.”
His love of the natural world and science pointed to zoology as a career but a few years in the Territorial Army almost sidetracked him into military service.” Army training can be good for people, teaching about responsibilities, basic rights, etc, but I’m now sounding like my dad,” he says.But all creatures great and small fascinated Jimmy partly because “a friend’s dad had a smallholding and I loved going there – then I got to work on a wildlife park in Essex.”He went from Newport Free Grammar School to Coventry University’s zoology department and has a PhD in entomology, the scientific study of insects.Looking back, he says the world-changing events of September 11, 2001 acted as something of a wake-up call and kick started his career. “You either don’t do something or you really commit and get on and do it and risk failure,” he says.He trained to be a pig farmer and it was while working on a farm in Cumbria that Jimmy met his wife Michaela. She was a runner on Jamie’s TV series Jamie’s Kitchen and Jimmy asked her out. “I have an interest in, and keep, tropical fish so our first date was at the London Aquarium. It was quite dark so if I said anything stupid it hid my embarrassment.”They married in August 2009 and the newly-weds travelled from the church to the reception at Jimmy’s Farm in a pink tractor given by Jimmy to Michaela. Now the couple have a six month old daughter, Molly Rose.They are clearly delighted to be parents (while I talk to Jimmy, Michaela is chatting to friends in a corner of their farm restaurant and watching over Molly) but life on the farm must go on.In between all the television work, Jimmy’s Farm represents their main business interest. Initially, in those early days, they lived in a caravan and reared pigs to make some income. Utilising free-range production practices, the farm’s meat is based around rare breeds like the Essex, as well as the Berkshire, Gloucester Old Spot, large and middle Whites. There are also Jacob sheep and Red Poll cattle. Alongside the working farm is a 200-year-old barn restaurant, farm shop and field kitchen, while close by there is a nature trail, woodland walk, gardens and a play area.Jimmy also attends food shows and gets involved in Harvest at Jimmy’s, a mini music and food festival held at the farm in late summer. Last year its mix of headlining bands, food and family fun attracted some 20,000 visitors.He also likes to help nurture budding talent by running apprenticeships for young people, “so that they can establish themselves and run their own businesses,” and proudly draws my attention to tables and chairs in the restaurant made with recycled wood by one of his employees. Jimmy appreciated, and felt humbled by his honourary doctorate from Suffolk University last summer.But he’s not precious about it. I spot a torn front page of the East Anglian Daily Times pinned on to a door in his office bearing his photograph complete with cape and mortar board. Someone has added a twirly, yesteryear moustache to the picture. “No respect,” he smiles.Has he ever wondered how he has found himself to be a television favourite, travelling the world and getting involved in all sorts of new experiences?There was the time, while filming Jimmy Doherty In Darwin’s Garden, he pursued a Charles Darwin theory, by asking someone to play a bassoon to some earthworms!Then there are the trips to tropical locations. “When I was hanging upside down prodding a honeybee nest in Nepal, with Gurkhas shouting at me, I did think to myself ‘why am I doing this?’ but then I tell myself that it’s a great opportunity, meeting Brazilian cattle ranchers, or camel farmers in Africa.”And it seems his adventures on the small screen are going to continue, albeit on a different channel. Just days after our interview, news breaks that Jimmy has joined Channel 4 to develop several new programmes with the commercial broadcaster.“From natural history and conservation to farming and mass production, nothing’s off limits. It’s an exact match for me,” he says.And if this fame game ended tomorrow? “I would be left with the most incredible experiences and memories, “ he says. “ It would then, of course, be business as usual, running our beautiful farm. That reminds me - it's our ten year anniversary next year so get ready for a party!'