Jody Sheckter: a driving ambition

Fast cars, firearms training and meat production: how are the three related? None other than in the shape of former Formula One driver Jody Scheckter, who runs a 2,500-acre farm and meat production business at Laverstoke Park in Overton, Hampshire.

If Scheckter's two other careers are anything to go by - he won the World Championship in 1979 and he successfully amassed a fortune from the sale of his business designing and building simulation equipment for firearms training in the US - his entry into the meat production business should not be ignored, nor his ambition underestimated. He aims to make organic farming a commercial viability and recent trends indicate that he may be on to a winner as people question where their food comes from.

Scheckter's interest in organic farming was aroused while he was still active in his hi-tech firearms business. "I operated a farm there at the weekends and, after reading a book my wife had bought for me on organics, I went to on to read other books and became passionate about organic farming," he says in a softly-spoken South African drawl. That was over 10 years ago and his plan was to produce the healthiest, best-tasting food for his family.

"Then I asked, how do I do that and what kind of animals do I produce? Through my research, I realised that the beginning of the last century was the best time for natural farming. From that time on, we have moved to today's conventional farming, where all the best money is being spent on chemicals."

Scheckter believes that a producer needs to follow nature strictly to produce the best-tasting food. "You need to create the best natural environment for your animals. Slow-growing animals are healthier and taste better." Initially, says Scheckter, he was just concerned about producing such meat for himself and his family. But he soon realised that he could not restrict production to small amounts to supply his family with varied meals. "Realising that I didn't want to eat only beef for five weeks at a time, I decided to adopt the same process for the public," he says.

What in the beginning was a hobby is about to become a full-scale meat production business. Not wanting to undo his good work of rearing stress-free animals, Scheckter was unhappy about transporting such creatures to an abattoir, so he built one, with a cutting plant, at a cost of about £2.5m. At full capacity, the hi-tech, multi-species abattoir will manage a throughput of 100 cattle. So concerned is the South African about the welfare of the animals that he talked to American consultant Temple Grandin about the design of the lairage. "We sent her a video of design from the angle of the animal," he says, while pondering whether animals should be kept in lairage overnight or sent straight to slaughter. "We will have to monitor them to see where the stress comes from and how we can reduce that. We have some herbs in the fields where they spend the last day to relax them."

The South African now has plans to start slaughtering animals for other organic producers in the near future. At the moment, Laverstoke Park produces meat products on a small scale. Ted Anderson, a former cook, has been employed to make pies, pâtés, terrines, Cornish pasties and sausage rolls. Inspired by his employer, Anderson is using 18th-century recipes, which have been adapted to modern tastes. There is a mail-order service, which will deliver to anywhere in the UK the following day, and Scheckter also has an events company, which caters for 50 to 5,000 people.

In November, a meat-processing plant will be added, which will produce sausages and hamburgers on a commercial scale. To that end, Scheckter is on the look-out for a sales and operations manager to manage this side of the business. "Nine restaurants are now clamouring for us to supply them with our meat, including Gordon Ramsay," he says.

While Scheckter has the money to plough into what some outsiders might see as an expensive hobby, he is certainly sincere about his passion for organic farming. He is interested in every minute detail of the meat production process, from the type of animals reared and bred to the type of food the animals are fed. Laverstoke Park has a diverse mix of animals, which are rotated around the whole farm for biodiversity and to put life back into the soil. Virtually all the animals on the farm are rare or traditional breeds, because they are smaller and grow more slowly.

The farm is impressive. Not a single artificial chemical has been used on the land he bought in 1996. A herd of rare Angus cattle grazes leys, planted with complex grasses. Other leys and paddocks contain Hebridean, Hereford and Jersey cattle, a large herd of water buffalo, wild and domestic rare-breed pigs including the Kune Kune, Saddleback and Middle White, five breeds of sheep, and poultry.

Scheckter says research led him to feed his animals very complex grass leys. He claims to have been influenced by Friend Sykes, who had a farm in the vicinity of Laverstoke Park in the 1960s and had 15 different types, and Robert Elliott who, at the beginning of the century, had put all these herbs and clovers together for animals. Says Scheckter: "I wanted 25 different types but now I have 31 and I believe we produce the best-tasting organic produce because we give the animals a mixed salad full of nutrients. What we feed our animals, we feed ourselves."

Scheckter's hobbyhorse is biodynamic farming, as anybody will find within minutes of talking to him, and he is certainly not apologetic about his passionate belief in looking after the soil on the farm. According to Scheckter, biodynamic farming is all about being self-sufficient in compost, manures and animal feeds. Laverstoke Park now has a fully licensed six-acre compost site, where it makes all its own compost and compost tea - a water extract of compost that is cold brewed. Both products are spread on the whole farm four times a year. To prove his point, Scheckter has established a laboratory to test them and assist in verifying his system of farming and the taste and health of food he produces. It is equipped to examine the micro-organisms in soil and to assess vitamins, minerals and trace elements. The laboratory will also provide other farmers with an analysis of the biological health of the soil.

Scheckter is working towards implementing the ISO 9000 quality standard across his entire farm. "We believe this will be a first," he says.

The awards that Laverstoke Park has won are a testament to Scheckter's achievements. Last year it's Rack of Lamb won the Daily Telegraph Sainsbury's Taste of Britain Gold Award for Best Organic Product and Hampshire Food & Drink Awards for being Best Organic Trader. At this year's Foodex Meatex, six prize-winners awards, including the Gold for Steak and Ale Pie, used organic meat from Scheckter's farm in their products.

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