Jimmy's farm life
Pat Parker talks to Ilford-born Jimmy Doherty, about his TV career, his struggle to create a rare breeds farm and rescue the Essex Pig from extinction
JIMMY Doherty has rarely been off our TV screens since the BBC filmed his against-the-odds efforts seven years ago to establish a small free-range, rare breeds farm. The setbacks the then 28-year-old ex-zoology student and his wife Michaela encountered were numerous, making the resulting series, Jimmy’s Farm, compulsive viewing. A host of series, including Jimmy’s Farming Heroes, and Jimmy’s Food Factory, looking at the science involved in processing food, have followed, although his most recent, A Farmer’s Life For Me, will be his last for the BBC, as he is about to depart to Channel 4.
‘It’s an exciting adventure, really,’ Jimmy enthuses. ‘I can start developing a lot of my own ideas, which I can’t tell you about at the moment, but it will be science, food and farming based, with one or two campaigning issues and a few surprises as well, I think.’But you don’t have to spend too long talking to Jimmy to realise that TV celebrity is not what interests him. His real passion is his farm in Wherstead, Suffolk (just over the border from his native Essex), re-establishing rare breeds such as the once virtually extinct Essex Pig, farming them humanely, and encouraging people not only to understand how their food is produced, but to produce it themselves wherever possible.
And he is convinced there is a growing interest in self-sufficiency and sustainable living. His latest series, A Farmer’s Life For Me on BBC2, attracted huge numbers of applicants, all keen to compete for the prize of running their own 25-acre Suffolk smallholding, rent-free for a year. The winners were Geordie couple Ray and Jane and when I spoke to Jimmy, he had just lent them the use of his farm kitchen to help them produce their pasta sauces. ‘They’ve been making them up in my kitchen, making a mess, but trying to get them all jarred up,’ says Jimmy cheerfully. He’s sending them to food shows and farm markets to sell their products, which will also be available at his farm shop.
‘I remember Jamie and I sitting on the back seat of the school bus making up stories about the driver. We were little gits, I suppose’
His personal involvement in helping the couple after the cameras have left is a testament to his integrity and commitment. Jimmy explains how he hated having to send contestants away at the end of each episode. ‘I had to sit in a caravan with them face-to-face and tell them they weren’t going any further. And they cried. I had to get out of there quick. But I think a lot of them really enjoyed the experience and will go on to run their own farms at some stage.’Jimmy says Ray, a former factory worker, and Jane, a nurse, won because of their tenacity, creativity, and ability to work as a team. Several of the contestants, including City bankers, had had successful careers. ‘But the ones who were the most confident often didn’t make it that far,’ Jimmy continues. ‘The ones who were really quite humble and willing to learn survived.’Jimmy’s just produced a book about self-sufficiency accompanying the series, covering everything from making chilli oil to rearing livestock, and is holding a series of masterclasses at the farm.
‘I get so many emails from people asking how to keep chickens, grow vegetables or set up a farm. It’s a growing trend. When I started, you had to go to a specialist shop to find books on keeping chickens or starting a smallholding. Now you can walk into WH Smiths and find 15 magazines on these subjects.’It all seems a world apart from Jimmy’s early years. Born in Ilford in 1975, the son of a builder and a hairdresser, Jimmy’s family moved to Clavering when he was three, where his dad converted a former cricket pavilion into an attractive thatched home. Clavering, of course, is where chef Jamie Oliver grew up, and the two first became friends at nursery school, before moving on to primary school and Newport Free Grammar School together.
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‘I remember us sitting on the back seat of the school bus making up stories about the driver,’ remembers Jimmy. ‘He used to put up with it day in, day out, but one day, he slammed on the brakes and came down the bus to tell us off, but we moved so quickly out of our seats, he couldn’t tell who’d done it. We were little gits, I suppose.’But the pair were also hard-working and idealistic. Jimmy can remember Jamie saying once on a shopping trip to Cambridge how he’d like to open a pasta bar and employ the local homeless. From an early age, Jimmy developed a fascination with wildlife. Aged 11, he washed cars and did the washing-up in Jamie’s parents’ pub, The Cricketers, to earn enough to buy a second-hand aquarium. ‘It gave me an amazing insight into the natural world. Then I had snakes and terrapins, and turned my dad’s garage into a reptile house, and his carport into an aviary.’
Jamie left school at 16 to go to catering college. After that, Jimmy buckled down to his A Levels. ‘It’s funny, as soon as he left, I improved,’ he laughs. ‘He was a distraction really!’The two remain friends to this day, and are godfathers to each others’ daughters. Jimmy’s baby girl Molly was born last year.After considering a career in the police or the Royal Marines, Jimmy went to university to read zoology. He started a PhD in entomology, studying insects at Coventry University. But 9/11 changed all that.
‘I used to run the insect laboratory down in the basement counting flies as part of my research,’ he says. ‘But it was September 11 and I thought, If something like that were to happen here, all that would be left of me would be a microscope and a pile of flies. I decided I’d much rather try to live out my dreams and do something, rather than never try and live with the regret.’His dream was to start up his own rare breeds farm. He’d been inspired by a friend whose dad had a rare breeds smallholding near Stansted, and by books on self-sufficiency.
‘I fell in love with the idea of producing my own food, but I always wanted to do it as a business, not a hobby. There’s a world of difference between keeping chickens and running a poultry business. If I’d known the pitfalls, I might not have gone into it. I think naivety is a great asset. Naivety and enthusiasm can take you a long way, so long as you learn from your mistakes.’
While researching farms for his business plan, Jimmy spent some time on a farm in Cumbria. Jamie was making Jamie’s Kitchen at the time, and Jimmy suggested he sent some of his students up to the farm. Michaela was part of the production crew and Jimmy phoned her after filming had finished to invite her on a date to the London Aquarium.‘We both keep fish, so I thought there’d be plenty to talk about,’ Jimmy explains. ‘Also it was dark, so she wouldn’t be able to see me go red. I started going on about the archerfish and how they spit. I think she thought I was a geek.’
Michaela was happy to give up City life and a media career to help Jimmy set up his farm and the couple finally married in 2009, travelling from the church to the farm reception in a pink tractor. It is commonly thought that Jimmy’s friendship with Jamie led to his television career, but in fact there is no connection. Jamie’s company did, however, help Jimmy get his farm started by giving him a bridging loan, which he quickly repaid. ‘I wouldn’t have been able to get a loan from the bank, as I had no collateral, apart from my Vauxhall Cavalier,’ confesses Jimmy.
‘I fell in love with the idea of producing my own food, but I always wanted to do it as a business, not a hobby. There’s a world of difference between keeping chickens and running a poultry business’
Jimmy describes his entry into TV as a ‘complete fluke’. A friend was asked to make a TV pilot about insect-borne diseases and asked Jimmy to take part. Nothing came of the show, but when the producers discovered he was planning to start a rare breeds farm, despite having no experience, they asked if they could film it. ‘I think they thought I was crackers,’ Jimmy admits.
So one man and a camera filmed Jimmy and Michaela try to restore the derelict, overgrown Pannington Hall Farm, which had no water or electricity. ‘I think they were getting a bit bored, thinking nothing much was happening. Then one day, I got my friends and family to come and clear up all this scrub on the farm. We had a bonfire, only I lit it at the wrong time, and we burnt down 25 acres! And they thought, “Oh, it’s quite entertaining now”.’ The many crises and problems which followed were chronicled in the series of Jimmy’s Farm which ran from 2004 to 2006. Since then, both the farm and his TV career have gone from strength to strength.
Jimmy’s passion has always been to rescue threatened rare breeds, including the Essex Pig, which was declared extinct in 1967. ‘It was amalgamated with the Wessex Saddleback to form the British Saddleback, but I discovered there was one guy who had kept the Essex Pig bloodline pure, so I bred from those,’ Jimmy explains. ‘It makes the best meat in the world!’Jimmy and Michaela have devised creative new revenue streams, such as opening a farm shop and restaurant selling home-produced meat produce. The farm is also a visitor attraction, offering nature trails, a butterfly house and a calendar of special events.
On May 14 to 15, there will be a Good Life weekend teaching various aspects of self-sufficiency and September brings Jimmy’s Harvest Festival, combining top names in music, food and gardening. This year, singer Eliza Doolittle, gardener Monty Don and chef Mark Hix are among those appearing.Yet you sense that even today, keeping the farm in profit is sometimes a struggle. Would he have been able to keep it going without his lucrative TV career?
‘I keep the TV income totally separate from the farm, otherwise, it wouldn’t be a real farm. Being on TV can help with online food orders and it attracts visitors to the farm. Television gives you notoriety, but in some ways it hinders. If you try buying anything, everyone thinks you’re loaded, so the price doubles!’
So, which is the more satisfying, his TV or farming career? He considers. ‘TV has given me great opportunities to travel and learn, but there’s nothing more enjoyable than coming up with new plans for the farm.’
Find out moreFor more information on Jimmy’s Farm and forthcoming events, visit www.jimmysfarm.com. Jimmy’s latest book, A Farmer’s Life For Me, How To Live Sustainably, Jimmy’s Way, is published by Collins, price �20.