Former Formula 1 champ Jody Scheckter is finding organic farming hard going. His Laverstoke Park brand has yet to turn a profit, but he’s determined to tough it out, he tells Rob Brown
Jody Scheckter is rubbing his temples. Times are tough.
The one-time Formula 1 champion lost a packet when Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme collapsed in 2008. And Laverstoke Park - Scheckter’s ‘university of organics’ - has been haemorrhaging cash for years, last year losing more than £1m. It would be enough to give anyone a headache.
Yet the impression of inner turmoil belies his determination and an underlying optimism his Hampshire farm is close to turning a profit.
His confidence is not without foundation. Laverstoke’s extensive range of mainly meat products is winning shelf space, its unique soil analysis lab is doing brisk business and this summer it will open a cookery school. The farm is also set to tackle its high energy bill with an anaerobic digester, to be built next year. So could Laverstoke Park be poised to turn the corner?
If so, it’ll vindicate a long, difficult eight years for the South African, who confesses he sometimes can’t believe he took up the challenge in the first place. “I must have been drunk,” he jokes of his decision to produce quality organic food for him, his wife and six kids. What was left they’d sell in Laverstoke’s farm shop. Simple.
If only. “I don’t know where it’ll end up,” he says, surveying the farm which has grown from 530 to 2,500 acres and employs 130 people. “We wanted to be self-sufficient but I had to try and make it commercially viable. We didn’t want to sell to the supermarkets. We now sell to Sainsbury’s and Waitrose. But we’re not profitable yet.”
Scheckter’s obsession with quality - “a passion, a disease”, in his words - meant that his meadows are covered in 31 different deep-rooted grasses and herbs, what Scheckter describes as a “mixed salad” for his 2,000 water buffalo - Britain’s biggest herd - sheep, pigs, chickens and wild boar.
“You can have the best grass, the best soil and the best animal but if you stress the animal out in the abattoir you’ll ruin it,” he explains as we enter the slaughterhouse purpose-built to spare his livestock the trauma of transportation.
And Scheckter’s meat - along with his buffalo mozzarella and ice cream, ale, lager, pies and pâté - certainly tastes good, as the listings he’s secured with Abel & Cole, Waitrose, Sainsbury’s and now M&S (Laverstoke has just begun supplying the retailer with own-label beef jerky) attest. Trouble is, he’s not selling enough to turn a profit.
Part of this is down to the abattoir’s inefficiency. “It’s kind of reverse manufacturing,” he says. “You start with one and end up with 1,000 individual pieces. If you don’t sell it all you lose money. If you don’t sell it in three months you have to throw it away. My aim now is to make this profitable without doing it like everybody else.”
Scheckter believes profitability is not far off and notes that it took his previous venture, Firearms Training Systems, eight years before it was in the black. He sold his shares of that business in 1996 for a reputed £100m. But retirement was never on the cards.
“What else would I do? I’d be in Monaco getting fat and I wouldn’t be happy. I’ve taken on so much now I just have to make it work.”