Life on Jimmy's Farm
TV made him famous, but Jimmy Doherty is working hard, expanding his business and looking forward to the day when the cameras leave.
Chloe Smith joins the media scrum
The first sign it is not a normal farm is the film crew. They are a small team, but a permanent fixture on the farm, faithfully recording the antics of a farmer and his pigs for the BBC programme Jimmy's Farm.
It is half-term and the car park is heaving with families. They have come to buy their food, look at the pigs and try and catch a glimpse of Jimmy Doherty, made famous by the series of programmes that have documented his struggle to set up a free-range, rare-breed pig farm on the outskirts of Ipswich.
When he finally emerges from the shed that doubles as his office, shoppers follow him around with camera-phones, asking for autographs, with the kind of excitement typically reserved for footballers.
He takes time to talk to everyone, but says he is uncomfortable with some parts of his fame. "Your personal life is on show and everyone thinks they know you and want to talk to you, which is lovely, but the other side to it is people think you're a millionaire as well, and all of a sudden you're loaded, and it's not the case."
He is just a normal farmer, he emphasises, who took over a derelict farm, converted an old tractor shed into a farm shop, and has built up a business from scratch. He now has 800 pigs and sells 30 a week in the shop. He also holds monthly farmers' markets with other local producers. Like any farmer, he says, things are unpredictable: "We could have a really busy farmers' market - brilliant - but any money we get goes straight back in. You put, say, two miles of fencing in, or you buy a tractor for £20,000," he says. "Our wage bill is nearly £30,000 a month, but as long as there's money going through the till, that's alright and we can slowly build up."
The farm is not, he emphasises, propped up with money from the TV series: "The business is the business and it pays for itself, it pays the wages."
Jim's company, the Essex Pig Company, is named after the breed he brought back from near-extinction. Its distinctive colouring and marking - black with a pink band covering the shoulders, upper back and front legs - is the symbol for the company and adorns the labels of the sausages, bacon and pork sold in the farm shop.
Rearing traditional breeds was a crucial part of the business plan all along, says Jim: "They're part of our living heritage and I think that's very important." As well as the Essex pig, the farm also rears breeds such as the Gloucestershire Old Spot, the Tamworth and the Berkshire. Rare-breed meat, he admits, offers "a very good marketing side".
Animal welfare is another part of his farming ethos, for which there is no compromise. "I know it sounds a bit hippy-like," he says, "but happy animals, that are able to display as much of their natural behaviour as possible, are better-tasting animals." All Jim's animals - and there are now sheep, cattle and poultry as well as pigs - are outdoor reared, and some of the pigs are finished in the woods to forage. But aren't free-range, happy pigs just too expensive for ordinary people? Doesn't intensive farming have a rightful place? "There's a place for it if people aren't prepared to pay the real price for food," he argues.
"People have been weaned on the idea that food is a fuel and nothing else and you shouldn't have to pay any money for it. In the same instance, those people would think nothing of paying £15 for a DVD or five quid for a pack of fags or £2.90 for a pint of Stella, but you say it's eight quid for a free-range chicken and they say," and he puts on an incredulous voice, "'Eight quid? For a whole chicken?' But I know how much a bag of chicken feed costs and I can't work out how a chicken could cost £3.90. How's that possible?
"People in this day and age deny themselves nothing, except quality food. It's a weird mindset." The engine driving the phenomenon of the £3.90 chicken, is, of course, the sheer efficiency of supermarket retailing. So if the multiples came knocking with a lucrative contract, would Jimmy jump?
"I've had a number already," he says. "There's only one supermarket I'd be interested in. I think Waitrose has very good ethics when it comes to small producers. As for the other supermarkets, what I've heard from other producers is they don't really give the small producer a fair deal. There isn't any money in farming unless you are the retail outlet yourself, and yet Tesco's profits are £2bn. For me that points to where the money is in farming." For
those reasons, any supermarket contract, "would have to be on my terms", he says. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Jim would much rather see the independent sector grow. "I'd like to see more high street butchers," he says. "With more diversity of retail outlets the farmer has more options to sell somewhere else. The supermarkets represent 85% of retail outlets, so for most farmers that's their only outlet, so they're tied to it."
Jim's main retail outlet is his shop, where two butchers transform carcases into sausages, bacon and fresh cuts. He also sells his meat on the internet and supplies two local restaurants and a delicatessen. He has plans to open a tea room and has unused land, which he plans to use for more cattle, and is on track to expand his herd of breeding sows from 85 to 100 by the end of the year.
You might think, with his self-confessed hippy values, that Jimmy's farm would be organic. It is not. "I just wanted to do what I believed in at first," he says. "I think the principles that the Soil Association set out are basically the principles for sustainable farming, which are good. I know Pat Holden [SA director] and I'm very open to the organic sector. But for me, it all became very confusing and I just wanted to open a farm shop, have my own animals and people can drive and see them, see the butchery and see what we do. This is about free-range, welfare-friendly.
"I think organic gives the consumer some sort of identification of how the food is produced to a certain extent, but I don't think it's the be-all and end-all. People shouldn't just take it blindly because there is a danger of the organic brand being hijacked and turning into just a label," he says.
The third series of Jimmy's Farm airs in the autumn, and it may well be the last. "That might be it, I think. It's lovely, but it's quite difficult sometimes. You imagine being followed around all the time. The best thing about it is it's our personal diary because I'm rubbish at taking pictures."
The programme gave Jim publicity other producers could only dream of, but there were unexpected side-effects that he'll be glad to be rid of. "All your mistakes are seen on the television so the very next day you have EHOs, trading standards and health and safety people writing in, saying things like: 'I saw you shutting a door on a thing and that lid wasn't done up properly.' So you're under the spotlight and you've got to be whiter than white."
For the time being, Jim will divide his time between the farm, filming and travelling the country, attending food shows to promote his meat. But life on the farm suits him and, when the cameras leave for good, he is confident people will keep coming back for his food. "When we first started, people thought our pork
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