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Jamie Oliver's farming friend puts British producers in the spotlight

01 August 2008
Jamie Oliver's farming friend puts British producers in the spotlight

Tim Relf of our sister site Farmers Weekly Interactive, fwi.co.uk, speaks exclusively to Jimmy Doherty about his new TV series

Not so long ago, the notion of getting a show on primetime TV with the words "farming" and "heroes" in the title would have been unimaginable.

To read the whole of the Jimmy interview transcript go towww.fwi.co.uk

But that's exactly what has happened, with the second of six such programmes having aired on BBC2 on Tuesday. The series is Jimmy Doherty's Farming Heroes, and the man in front of the camera first hit the headlines through the 2002 fly-on-the-wall documentary about his fledgling business, Jimmy's Farm.

In his new incarnation he's travelling the country, visiting everyone from the massive and the high-tech to the tiny and the traditional. "It's about showing the reality of farming and how diverse it is," says the 33-year-old.

The series isn't, he insists, about taking a particular line or advocating what he does (he's big on rare breeds and sells premium products at premium prices), it's simply about showing - and celebrating - agriculture in all its many forms.

"Without organised agriculture, we just wouldn't be here. It's the basis of civilisation. Once you view it like that, it's very humbling. Do we need farmers? Yes, we bloody do."

He's dismissed claims that he's merely "playing" at the job. Ditto the suggestion that his success has come principally as a result of his friendship with Jamie Oliver (the two have been mates since Jimmy was four and he's godfather to the chef's daughter).

The loan he took from him to help get started (the media widely reported it as £55k) was not, he stresses, a handout. "It was a business loan from his company, which was properly done and has been paid back. The TV side had nothing to do with Jamie."

The truth is that Jimmy has always been interested in the countryside, having grown up in rural Essex - a particular catalyst was a friend's dad's Gloucester and Dexter cattle. He went on to study a degree in zoology at Coventry and a PhD in entomology (that's insects to you and me).

Viable

He'd kept chickens as a kid, grown vegetables as a student and read up on self-sufficiency. "But there was no point doing it as a sideline, it had to work as a business. The only way I could have a small mixed farm and make it viable was to do all the processing, add all the value and sell direct to the public."

And that's precisely what he is doing with his equally screen-friendly other half Michaela at their 40ha (100-acre) base near Wherstead in Suffolk. There are 40 rare-breed sows, a small flock of traditional-breed sheep and 45 cows. They had more pigs but scaled back when feed costs shot up early this year.

He's proud of the fact that he's started a farmers' market which has "created a community" and supports local producers and proud, too, of the fact that he's created 15 full-time jobs (even if "this can be a pain in the arse at times").

"What we're trying to do is offer a range of cuts and breeds that people can't get in other farm shops or in the supermarket."

While he's passionate about his approach, there has always, he maintains, been a role for different systems because of the range of markets. "Saying everyone should be eating traditionally dry-cured bacon from free-range, rare-breed pigs is all very well, but there is a reality in terms of what people are prepared to pay for food."

This is a sentiment which comes through on the TV series. The first episode, when he was in East Anglia, saw him visit an ultra-modern arable outfit, a state-of-the-art celery operation and a big poultry set-up. "Big doesn't necessarily mean bad," he says. "Acre for acre, we're world beaters and that's something to be proud of."

He admits filming has been a "complete eye-opener" and accepts that systems like his don't have all the answers to the burgeoning world food crisis.

"The bottom line is you're being constantly pushed to produce more for less. That's the reality of how things are," he says.

"I farm this way because this is how I want to farm. There shouldn't be a ‘them and an us' approach. It's a bit like the organics people. There's a big divide between them and the conventional producers. It's the wrong attitude."

The show, meanwhile, is set to do another thing: make jobs in the countryside seem attractive again. "It's an immensely rewarding career. Problem is, everybody wants to be a bloody footballer or web designer these days.

"It's very important to encourage young people - but you're dealing with the PlayStation generation. It's all about instant gratification. Modern agriculture is very technical - so show them the amazing machinery. If you say: ‘Look, have a go at this, it's like Star Wars', that will engage them.

Bureaucracy

"The worse thing is that we can't include everyone we saw in the programme. It would have been great to have had an hour on red tape - but people wouldn't have watched that."

And bureaucracy is not the only topic he's critical of government over. "One of the biggest problems for farming is not having enough power or backing from government to say: Hang on, these supermarkets are shafting us. There needs to be a rebalancing of the fairness of those deals. That's what the public needs to see. That's one of the biggest challenges - trying to get an honest day's pay for an honest day's work."

Meanwhile, he remains as passionate as ever about traditional livestock breeds. "They are part of our heritage they're just as important as the paintings hanging up in the National Gallery."

To read the whole of the Jimmy interview transcript go towww.fwi.co.uk

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