Doherty takes up LEAF challenge

Jimmy’s Farm is joining LEAF. Farmers Weekly joins Jimmy Doherty and Michaela Furney as they conduct their LEAF audit as part of the organisation’s Future of Farming Week initiative.

Future of Farming Week pledge

During Future of Farming Week (March 16-22) Jimmy and Michaela have pledged to tell every visitor through the farm and farm shop the importance of the role farming in everyday life. What will you do?

LEAF is encouraging every farmer in the UK to take at least one step towards building a more sustainable future for UK Farming. For ideas, inspiration and to make a pledge yourself, go to Membership of LEAF starts at £60/year and gives you full access to the online audit.

Or join the discussion on the future of farming – share your thoughts and ideas on Integrated Farm Management on the FWiSpace forum

Sausages, made from free-range, rare-breed pigs, and an inspirational passion for farming, attract a staggering 250,000 visitors a year to Jimmy’s Farm. But it sees no need for farm assurance, so why is it joining LEAF?

“It’s important for us to be part of an organisation with the same positive outlook on farming that we have. And we think it will be a real business benefit. Customers we’ve asked seem genuinely excited that we’re joining LEAF, and the audit will prove to be a valuable check for us – it focuses on quite critical parts of the business,” says Michaela Furney who, along with fiancé and farming hero Jimmy Doherty, run the 100-acre tenanted Jimmy’s farm, near Ipswich.

Michaela is making her way through the LEAF Audit with Tanja Sadler, who manages the farm’s finance and admin. “We should have done this five years ago,” she says. Back then the farm was in crisis, witnessed by millions through a TV show she describes as a double-edged sword.

Now they have signed a 20-year lease for the farm, have ambitious plans for the future and have just completed a busy half-term week that saw 1000 people a day come through shop and farm. This customer base is part of their ‘farmily’, that also includes the staff of nine and the local farmers that supply them. “We want visitors to go away having learnt about where their food comes from and inspired about farming – we’re quite passionate about that.”

The LEAF audit is a series of questions framed to focus on various aspects of the business, assess strengths and weaknesses and help draw out business priorities. A farm’s performance can be quickly cross-checked against all LEAF producers via benchmark scores that are given for each question.

So what did the audit reveal for Jimmy and Michaela?

Marketing masters

The audit reveals the strength of having “fresh eyes” new to farming. They are constantly seeking ways to put their farm in the local press and limelight, which could simply be an invitation for bangers and mash, for example. Making sure people can find the farm is important too. Sponsoring two local roundabouts is their biggest marketing spend, but pays dividends. And a good website, kept updated, is a must.

“Farmers are quite bashful and tend to hide their true talents,” Jimmy points out. “You have to think about what makes you unique, then put your own personality on the business to give the customer the experience they are looking for.”

Firm finances

As new entrants it has been a struggle to get started. They received no grants and their Single Payment amounts to a paltry £2000 a year. Start-up capital was a bridging loan that was paid back promptly. “We’re not propped up financially – if ever that happened we’d give up,” says Michaela.

The audit shows there’s a strong grasp on the finances which has helped the business develop. There are separate cost centres for:

  • the working farm
  • the butchery in the farm shop (including wholesale and online sales)
  • the nature trail and open-farm activities
  • the non-meat side of the shop – the pantry
  • the field kitchen (teas, coffees, barbeques)
  • the off-farm shows

The biggest money-spinner, somewhat surprisingly, is the nature trail. “It’s relatively low cost, but we get a lot of people through. Our philosophy is ‘up close and personal’ – we try to involve children in activities and bring them into contact with the animals as much as possible.” This forms the basis of ‘be a farmer’ courses, charged at £8.50 per child. The half-day course includes pond-dipping and den-building from coppiced logs provided in the wood – a firm favourite with boys.
A new butterfly house is the latest attraction. The poly tunnel filled with colourful flutter should prove a big draw, believes Jimmy. “We’re dealing with the X-box generation – they want to go round a nature trail and see nature. The butterfly house guarantees they’ll see something they can then look out for on the trail.”

Labour of love

Staff involvement is another key area of the audit and again Jimmy’s Farm scores well. “We’ve made mistakes in the past, but our staff are our biggest asset, and we’re very lucky with whom we have now,” notes Michaela.

The secret is Jimmy and Michaela’s deep-seated passion for the farm which is shared by every member of staff. Head stockman Andy Gready, who joined four months ago, came all the way from Warminster. It was “the love of the pigs” that drew him – a yearning to re-establish the Essex Saddleback, on which Jimmy’s Farm stakes its reputation. His moment of glory will be showing the pride of the herd at the Bath and West Show later this year.

The same enthusiasm carries through to the butchery, where Jamie Willows will capture you with the care and detail he puts into his craft and the knowledge he has of the different breeds he sells. “This place is everything I stand for as a butcher.”

Best laid plans

The staff may be a key asset, but do they know everything they should about the business? There’s hesitation over whether the farm has a long-term business statement, over its environmental policy and whether the staff are fully aware of what these are.

“Jimmy and I do have a clear idea of where we’re going, but it’s all in our heads – we need to be sure everyone else knows too. As for the farm environmental policy, I wouldn’t know where to start.” Action points are noted and the links in the online audit provide further guidance.

Regulation wrinkles

The farm safety section produces a wry smile from Michaela. “I’m a stickler for Health and Safety, but Jim doesn’t get that stuff. It’s important that kids get a hammer and learn to bang in a nail, can stroke the animals and feed them, but it has to be managed risk.”

The audit reveals a pretty robust state of affairs – another encouraging plus point for the business, even if Jimmy finds it an inconvenience: “You have to get your ducks in a row, but we have so many inspections, from HSE to Environment Agency to HACCP. No other industry has to put up with the level of scrutiny we face.”

Soil management and pollution control are areas where considerable progress has been made, but more could be achieved, the audit reveals. Again it’s an encouragement that there’s no glaring oversight, and a valuable check on how the farm performs. But there’s no compromise in the Animal Welfare section, and all parts are fully achieved.

So what about farm assurance? “Our assurance is that you can walk around the farm and have a look – we’ve nothing to hide. We couldn’t do what we do promoting farming to the public and selling our produce direct unless we were doing it right, and we have a million inspection bodies confirming we are,” says Michaela.

Next steps

The LEAF Audit has reassured Jimmy and Michaela that they have covered their base requirements and has highlighted some valuable stand-outs.

“The audit does help focus your mind on the things that really matter to your business,” says Michaela. It’s a useful check as they plan a bold expansion a large wooden barn as a restaurant and the tenancy of another farm.

Key to the business’ continuing success will be the connection it makes with every visitor it draws, through an underlying enthusiasm for farming. “Farmers represent the most important industry in the world,” says Jimmy. “It’s so important to join a body that is a united voice for all the positive steps farmers take. That way we can all be recognised for our achievements and get the rewards we deserve.”

Who should be the 2009 Farming Champion?

Jimmy Doherty became the farming hero of 2008 when he hosted a TV series celebrating British farming. He was awarded the 2008 Farmers Weekly Farming Champion trophy, sponsored by the NFU for the huge influence this had on the public’s perception of farmers.

Is there someone you know who deserves this accolade – an unsung hero dedicated to furthering the cause of British farming? Let us know on our FW Awards page or ring Marion Phillips on 020 8652 4081.

Customer comment

A brief survey of 18 of Jimmy’s Farm shop customers reveals few have currently heard of LEAF or recognise the LEAF Marque logo. When asked what they think it stands for, there is confusion with other standards, such as the Red Tractor and Soil Association.

The standards of farming at Jimmy’s Farm, such as choice of rare breeds and free range, is a key buying factor, along with interest driven by the TV programmes. When told that Jimmy’s Farm has joined LEAF, with an explanation on what it stands for, three-quarters said this would encourage them to visit again.