N O R T H F I E L D F A R M
Jan McCourt Cold Overton, Rutland
My first reaction to Jan was simply that I liked him: my second, a feeling of admiration for the way he has pulled his life together after two serious setbacks. As I write, he is in hospital after a third, which is perhaps too dreadful to call a mere setback: he has been run over by his tractor. Years ago, the same thing happened to a cheesemaker called Doug Campbell. Taking the cup to be half full rather than half empty — well, he's lucky to be alive and with every hope of a complete recovery.
When Jan bought Northfield, twelve years ago, he was an investment banker in the City. His plan had been to continue in the City for at least another ten years: in the event, he lost his job in three. He made no attempt to find another because, as he said, he wanted never again to be at other people's beck and call. Instead, he decided to follow his heart and produce rare breed meat in a traditional, sustainable way. It was 1997, when BSE was raging, which to him seemed the perfect moment to start a business of this kind. His watchword was responsibility. 'I wanted to say to everyone, "You should take responsibility for what you eat."' He isn't registered as organic, feeling that the word has been hijacked, but never uses chemical sprays or fertilizers on his land.
To start with, he stocked his farm with a small herd of Dexter cattle, a flock of grey-faced Dartmouth sheep, and Gloucester Old Spot pigs. No BSE had ever been reported in a Dexter herd and he particularly likes the taste of the beef. In his view (which doesn't agree with that of Richard Vines) breed makes a very considerable difference to taste. 'I have customers who definitely prefer some breeds to others, and specify which they want.' He chose the grey-faced sheep because he had been told that they were the most biddable and easiest of all sheep to handle — adding: 'But they need to be shorn early because they get flies in their fleeces.'
He first went to Borough in 1999 and frankly acknowledges that without it, he wouldn't have a farm now. Thanks to him, the same probably applies to many other farmers in the area. Since he doesn't have enough stock to satisfy the Market demand, he also sells the meat of some forty or fifty other producers, who range from people with only two or three animals to fatteners with 400 or 500. All of them rear their meat according to sustainable principles. Not all of it is rare breed but he says: 'We have every rare breed coming through at one time or another' (which means that his stall offers a unique opportunity to judge for yourself how far breed affects taste). By now, he himself has added Shorthorn and White Park cattle plus Jacob and Shetland sheep to his stock. The cattle and pigs go to a small slaughterhouse forty to fifty minutes' drive away; the sheep travel only ten miles to Melton Mowbray.
While he was still working in the City, his wife managed the farm; thereafter, they ran it together for some years. Then she left him. Their daughter now lives with her, but they have two sons who have stayed with their father and love living on the farm as much as he does. In her absence, Jan is helped by a loyal team of assistants — whom he will certainly need while he recovers.
The farmyard is decorated with neatly trimmed bay trees in pots. On the day we went there was an energetic Dexter bull in one of the barns 'because we want to five the cows a rest'. Another barn has been transformed into an immaculate shop selling gammon, bacon, sausages, burgers, salt brisket, and jellied shin of beef, all produced on the farm by two or three chefs, plus cheese, chutney, local free-range eggs, and a selection of puddings made by the egg producer. Besides the shop and Borough (where he only sells meat) Jan supplies Roast at Borough and Tom Aikens, plus Hambleton Hall, which is nearby, and a number of other local restaurants.
Does it pay? 'Not really... But it's a passion.'