Interview - Jody Scheckter, owner, Laverstoke Park Farm

One glance at the state-of-the-art laboratory on Jody Scheckter's farm is all it takes to realise that, when it comes to organics, this one-time Formula One world champion means business.

South African-born Scheckter, who became the number-one F1 racer in 1979, has approached organic farming with the same steely determination he once reserved for motor racing.

Judging by the constant new additions and improvements to his farm in Laverstoke Park near Overton, Hampshire, this 59-year-old has no plans to slow down.

What started out as an interest in healthy food, inspired by his English wife Claire, soon transformed into a passion and obsession as fierce and focused as his former antics on the race track.

"I was always a foody and health fanatic," he says. "I read a book on organics in America and it made such sense. So when I came back to the UK I wanted the best-tasting, healthiest food for myself and my family."

Scheckter fuelled his interest by researching the best way of rearing cattle organically. Six years ago, he purchased land around his 111ha country park to transform his growing farm into the 1,000ha-plus business it is today.

As if to prove the extent of his commitment to the organic cause, Scheckter is keen to point out that his book collection has also expanded. His library now boasts 500 books on farming, soils and health. "Many of them are from the beginning of the past century, when the best natural farming was happening," he says. "We'd had 1,000 years of no chemicals at that point. That was before everyone went down the 'easier' route with pesticides, antibiotics and so on."

Scheckter has never been one to shy away from controversy or risk-taking. Before his racing career peaked in 1979 he was famously known as one of the world's most dangerous racing drivers.

In 1973 he caused one of the biggest F1 accidents in history when eight cars were totally destroyed at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone after Scheckter span out of control. But he "rose from the ashes" to become world champion - proving that his determination far outweighs the controversy that often surrounds his crusades.

So convinced is Scheckter that organic is best that he has set up Europe's only licensed Soil Foodweb Laboratory.

The Soil Foodweb is the brainchild of American microbiologist and organic farming technologist Dr Elaine Ingham. She believes that pests, diseases and weeds can be controlled without pesticides by restoring the soil's biology with compost and compost tea.

Scheckter is a follower of this philosophy. "Farmers nowadays just do not know how to farm," he says.

"When they need help they can just phone someone up to send them some more poison."

His fully staffed lab is equipped to analyse micro-organisms in the soil to help improve the quality of soil on the farm naturally.

"Soil is 90 per cent of farming - there are more living organisms in a handful of good soil than people on earth," he says. "By enhancing the healthy bacteria and fungi in our soils, this aids plants to absorb the nutrients effectively - and that is what gets the nutrients from the soil to the plant. For me, using chemicals is the same as using drugs - the more you use them the more they become part of your biology. You have to wean yourself off them."

Scheckter's farm breeds and sells organic meat, dairy products, cereals and fresh produce - all of which is grown in chemical-free soil.

His clients include Heston Blumenthal and Raymond Blanc of The Fat Duck and Le Manoir aux Quat' Saisons fame, Abel & Cole, and "high-level" commercial clients such as Barclays Bank.

"We like to do a wide range of different things - which is commercially and technically very difficult," he says. "As our markets get more established and better and better, we can hopefully do more multiple crops."

Commercial horticulture production at Laverstoke, says Scheckter, began on the farm's old walled garden. Scheckter then expanded it by purchasing a 49ha site in Lymington, Hampshire.

There, he put 1.2ha of 40-year-old glasshouse previously used for growing chrysanthemums back into action.

Grown under glass are organic tomatoes, cucumbers, leafy salads, and peppers and basil sold as fresh-cut.

Scheckter's field vegetables, meanwhile, include brassicas, leeks, onions, potatoes and parsnips.

In May last year, Sheckter planted a 9ha vineyard - believed to be the largest single-site organic and biodynamic vineyard in the UK. Varieties of vines planted include Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

"Since the garden was joined by the glasshouses I've taken the fresh produce side of the business far more seriously" admits Scheckter, "and, from what I am getting back (from customers), it's good stuff."

So far he has yet to see great returns on the millions of pounds he has ploughed into the farm - but he is clearly confident that his winning formula will make him a champion once again.

CV
1979: Becomes Formula One world champion
Early 1980s: Retires from Formula One and moves to the US to start his
own business, Fire Arms Trading Systems
1996: Sells his business and returns to the UK. Begins to farm at his
home in Laverstoke Park, Hampshire
2002: Purchases more land to expand his organic farming business
2007: Plants what is believed to be UK's largest single-site organic and
biodynamic vineyard


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