Jimmy Doherty: for the love of the land

The farmer and TV presenter discusses his passion for rare-breed livestock, hosting the Prince of Wales, and roasting the perfect turkey

Thanksgiving turkey with side items.Please see my portfolio for other food and holiday related images.
(Image credit: Michael Phillips)

I have always been drawn to nature. When I was a kid, my family moved from London to rural Essex and my dad converted a two-acre field into a football pitch for my brother. I shirked football in favour of scrambling through tall grasses in the quest for butterflies, grasshoppers and field mice. I soon accumulated a little wildlife collection full of creepy crawlies in jars, which later grew to include several snakes.

Aged 16, I had become the youngest-ever assistant entomologist (the branch of zoology concerned with insects) at the Mole Hall Wildlife Park in Saffron Walden. I gained a degree in Zoology and went on to work in the Entomology Department at London's Natural History Museum, before training for a doctorate in Entomology at Coventry University. My studies were predominantly science and theory based and I couldn't quiet the part of me that longed to reconnect again with nature – this was the main push that led me to train as a pig farmer. There is something wonderfully tangible about rearing animals and ploughing your hands back into the soil.

In 2002, I bought a run-down 100-acre farm in Suffolk. Most farmers would have run a mile, yet I saw potential. It was a slice of heaven – a patchwork of streams, ponds, woodland and pastures – but certainly a challenge to get up and running. I had to start from scratch, erecting miles of fencing, installing a plumbing system – our only source of water was a bucket and well – and building the accommodation, which began as a rudimentary caravan. My wife was working in London at the time, so I used to drop her at the local station and then race back to a hill on the farm where I could see her train go past, and wave her off from a distance. It all felt very romantic. I guess my naivety and inexperience gave the farm-building process an adventurous, pioneering feel.

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Surveying the farm today gives me a real sense of pride. Our fantastic team has instilled a proper sense of community into the place. We offer so much to our visitors, with the restaurant, wildlife park, butchery and farm shop, as well as our annual music and food festival. At Easter, we are opening a walk-through aviary and reptile centre, and will welcome a new resident alligator onto the farm.

I recently had the honour of a royal visit from Prince Charles in his capacity as patron of the Rare Breed Survival Trust (RBST), of which I am president. Showing him around made me realise how much the farm has achieved in the past 15 years. In particular, we pride ourselves on our rare-breed livestock, and currently rear 13 different breeds of pigs and cattle. Genetic diversity is paramount when it comes to farming. You never know what environmental changes we will face in the future, and when we might suddenly need rare-breed genetics to improve commercial breeds. The diversity of rare breeds in Britain is something that we as a nation should be very proud of. These animals have been developed over generations throughout the regions. In the same way that people visit museums to admire historical national treasures, we should also visit our countryside to appreciate the treasures that are grazing in our fields.

Homemade sausage.

(Image credit: alle12)

Throughout the years, I've been involved in presenting numerous TV programmes. The travel side of things can become pretty tiring but I'm in an incredibly lucky position as I get to visit roughly 60 farms and factories in the UK and around the world each year. I gain a real insight into developments in food production and farming. Having been exposed to so many inspiring ideas and concepts, I always return bursting with endless new schemes for the farm. It drives my staff completely crazy.

The festive season is a busy period on the farm. Each year, we rear between 8,000 and 12,000 free-range turkeys. For me, the key in raising a happy, healthy bird is to give it both the time and space to mature and pursue its natural behaviour. Our turkeys are a slow-growing breed, fed on locally grown cereals, and are allowed to roam freely around the fields. They live the good life.

Being an avid cook, I've got some decent tips on how to best roast a turkey. Firstly, I never stuff my bird as it prolongs the cooking time and can dry out the meat. If you want stuffing, simply roll some sausage meat into balls and cook it alongside the bird. Secondly, always cook the turkey breast down for the first hour – so that the fat deposits on the back permeate through to the breast – and flip it over onto its back for the last half hour. Then make sure the bird has decent time to rest out of the oven. This is crucial so that the meat has time to relax and all the lovely juices are locked in. And finally, for crispy-skin fans out there, simply take the skin off the bird while it is resting and place it under the grill for a minute or so. You'll end up with the most glorious turkey crackling.

I'm often asked about my opinion on the future of UK farming, and it's a tricky question to answer, particularly with Brexit. Now, more than ever, I think it is crucial that the UK government has a very firm idea on the policies surrounding British farming. European farmers currently receive subsidies so that we can make food affordable in the supermarkets, so it's imperative that those subsidies continue for British farmers after we have left the EU. We also need to strongly publicise the value of British food and supporting British farmers. As a nation, we have fantastic quality produce that we could successfully export around the world, as long as there is committed government backing. I'm certainly hopeful and excited about the future of farming.

JIMMY DOHERTY is a farmer and presenter for Channel 4; for more information about Jimmy’s Farm and his online shop please visit jimmysfarm.com

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