Former F1 star taking pole position on the "biggest smallholding in the world"
ONE-time Formula One champion Jody Scheckter has a steely determination to be the biggest and the best in biodynamic farming.
When Jody Scheckter bought Laverstoke Park in 1996 he was seen by many as just a hobby farmer.
Better known for his hot Ferrari, circuit collisions and fearless driving, Mr Scheckter retired from racing before moving to America and making his fortune even greater by forming and later selling a high-tech security company.
Today, his professional priority is Laverstoke Park, a dairy and arable farm at Overton, Hampshire, which calls itself ‘the biggest smallholding in the world’.
At 2,500 acres it clearly is not a smallholding but, it is how Mr Scheckter likes it to be run.
He readily admits his monetary success has been heavily ploughed into funding Laverstoke Park, allowing him the privilege of pursuing a wealth of interesting opportunities.
“I could not do this without making money first,” he says. “I have put in a lot of capital to experiment with the rural way of life.”
The Laverstoke Park philosophy began when Mr Scheckter and his wife Clare wanted to eat the best tasting and healthiest food, without compromise. However, the couple soon discovered they could not produce sufficient variety on such a small scale for just themselves.
So he expanded the farm to its current size and added a farm shop, abattoir and meat processing unit into the formula.
The livestock list certainly makes for a varied menu, with beef and dairy cattle, buffalo, wild boar, pigs, poultry and sheep. It would be easy to dismiss this enterprise as one which he has simply thrown money at to make it work, but it becomes apparent there is much more to it.
“I am not sure if farming is a passion or a disease,” he says. “I read a lot of books dating back to last century when this country was a nation of farmers. I wanted to work with nature and create a healthy environment for our animals and crops to thrive.”
Upon deciding which direction the farm should take, Mr Scheckter started at the very bottom – with the soil. The first task was to improve the soil through biodiversity, introducing a mix of leys, livestock and compost. The farm is organic and biodynamic as he believes conventional farming killed off vital bacteria and fungi from the soil.
“Conventional farming was in some respects simpler and if there was a problem you call someone up and get it treated with a chemical. Biodynamic farmers are purists and I like that. The soil is 90 per cent what the farm is about. It’s about biology not chemistry.”
Testament to this can be seen in the recent installation of a soil microbiology laboratory on the farm. It exists for three reasons – to test the fertility of the soil and work with its biology; to look at problems, including those of other farmers who are helped by consultation; and it facilitates research with universities to enhance the nutritional value of a crop.
Dr Vinodh Krishnamurthy is Laverstoke’s resident microbiologist who looks at the level of micro-organisms, bacteria and fungi present in the soil.
“We don’t think there is anywhere similar in the UK to what we have here,” says Mr Scheckter. “We have a licence to receive soil from other countries and we use Dr Elaine Ingham’s soil food web group methodology.”
Laverstoke is holding an intensive five-day seminar in September aimed at farmers, growers and agronomists, where soil expert Dr Ingham, who carries out her research from Oregon State University, will be a speaker.
“Our lab has signified a big change in the way people see us. I am no longer just a racing driver who keeps animals for a hobby. We have the best agronomists and scientists in the world learning from us.
“I am not sure if farming is a passion or a disease. Biodynamic farmers are purists and I like that. The soil is 90 per cent what the farm is about. It’s about biology not chemistry.
“Through a microscope we get a snap shot of the diversity in the soil, a handful of soil has more living things in it than people on earth.”
At the heart of the farm is a large composting area. Each day matter is dropped, crushed, sized and put into rows. Eight weeks later it gets put on the soil and each year, 25,000 tonnes is used on farm.
Over the past six years, the farm’s transformation has been carried out with acute attention to detail over every aspect. The abattoir installed last year was created under the watchful eye of Temple Grandin, who transformed the meat industry in America to make slaughter houses more animal friendly, thus reducing stress.
“I don’t just learn from books,” says Mr Scheckter. “I attend lectures and find the best people I can to advise us. We looked at the floors, the light, everything, so we could reduce the stress and not spoil the meat. We kill other organic livestock from other farms too but we only use the abattoir for our own farm meat half a day a week.”
After the livestock is killed, the beef is hung for 28 days and the lamb 12. Everything is aimed towards the premium market and no preservatives or additives are used. Temperature controls are strictly monitored, carcases are cooled at a steady rate and nothing is unnaturally forced.
The livestock are slow-growing and mostly rare or traditional breeds. There is a herd of 13 pure native Angus comprising about a third of the world’s population, around 170 Aberdeen-Angus and a herd of 140 pure Herefords, which can be traced back to the original population.
Water buffalo numbers are about 700 and the plan is to use the buffalo for meat and dairy with buffalo milk ice-cream, mozzarella and yoghurts already in the pipeline. “The buffalo are very placid, but very stubborn and obstinate. We are doing things backwards. Normally people find a market and farm accordingly but I liked the buffalo and wanted it to work so we looked for ways.”
In the dairy section, a pedigree herd of 65 Jersey cows bought from Denmark graze the fields, feeding on grass leys of 31 different herbs, clovers and grasses, or as Mr Scheckter calls it, a ‘mixed salad.’
Some 3,000 sheep on farm are made up of Lleyns, Hebridean and Polled Dorset, while Middle Whites, Saddlebacks and Durocs make up the pig pen.
Laverstoke Park’s organic lamb is award-winning and Mr Scheckter is rightly proud of the quality of the farm’s meat as well as herd health.
As well as the farm shop, Laverstoke runs a local box scheme and has just begun supplying Waitrose and delivery merchants Abel and Cole with produce.
The Scheckters want to share their farm philosophy with others. This summer Mrs Scheckter will play host to 1,500 visiting children and soon there will be classrooms among the farm’s woodland where planting has taken place to put in 120,000 trees and 13km of hedges.
He may have the enviable luxury of funding his ambitious plans, but there is no doubt how seriously Mr Scheckter takes farming and food production. “Farming has to be sustainable without Government help and you have got to find something special and sell it and I feel that is what we have done.”
He still maintains a link with motor racing as Laverstoke supplies Honda with all their food on the European F1 circuit.
Healthy soil makes healthy grass for healthy animals, which means healthy meat and milk making healthy people. From this philosophy, stemmed a business which has consumed the Scheckters in a way they never anticipated.
“Unlike Formula One there are no wins here, just lots of investment. This is as rewarding as motor racing though.
“The difference is when you have a success it is not quite so well-known, there were sharper ups and downs in Formula One, the curves here are slower.”
Livestock - FG