Jody Scheckter: From Formula One to life in the slow lane
The former Grand Prix motor racing champion started organic farming as a hobby 14 years ago, but it has since turned into a passion and major business. Susie Mesure meets Jody Scheckter
Sunday 05 September 2010
Being told to "belt up" barely 10 minutes into an interview would normally bode badly but Jody Scheckter means well enough. The one-time enfant terrible of motor racing knows better than most what happens when he steps on the gas and he is not taking any chances. It's hardly Monza, but I swear the needle hits 60 as the grass blurs outside my window.
I need him to slow down because I'm trying to pick out the 31 different herbs, clovers and grasses that Scheckter claims have turned the 2,500 acres on his Laverstoke Park Farm into a "mixed salad" for the various beasts that roam his land. We are heading for a field of water buffalo, which The Independent on Sunday photographer hopes will provide a suitable background for some shots to accompany this piece. The hairy black beasts are a far cry from the Formula One glamour girls in backdrops past, but they look just as beautiful to Scheckter. Where I see flies, he sees hope that his 14-year farming odyssey might yet strike gold. After sinking "an embarrassing amount" of his £60m personal fortune into setting up one of the UK's most impressive organic farms, Scheckter, 60, knows that the clock is ticking on his attempt to make his latest career choice – farming – pay. "Even if I can afford to lose money year after year, it doesn't give me any pleasure. I can have the best food in the world and people can think, 'Wow, this is wonderful,' but if it's not sustainable, it's a failure," the former Grand Prix world champion admits.
What started as a hobby after Scheckter's second wife, Clare, gave him a book on organic farming quickly took over his life. "It became a passion, and then a disease," he says. The pair had just returned to England, Clare's home country, after a stint in the US that ended with him banking millions from the sale of a company he set up after retiring from the F1 circuit in 1980. They needed somewhere to live, and settled on Laverstoke Park, the historic home of the Portal family, which was famous for printing bank notes; it came with 530 acres attached.
"It was a little bit of a fantasy," he recalls, his South African accent still strong despite not having lived there for nearly four decades. "I wanted to produce the best possible tasting food for me and my family without a compromise, and my conclusion was to follow nature very strictly. We have two main keys: slow-growing animals and plants are generally healthy and taste better, and biodiversity is the key to a healthy natural environment."
Scheckter's ecological conversion might seem at odds with his former fuel-burning lifestyle, but he claims he has always been a "foodie and a health fanatic". Something, certainly, has been burning the calories he's been consuming: he is as trim a sexagenarian as you're likely to encounter. His white shirt (with Laverstoke Park Farm logo) is tucked tightly into belted Boss jeans and is hiding nothing. There are, however, enough wheels on the farm to help compensate for the Ferraris he drove when he won the world title. In addition to his Mercedes 4x4 and the countless tractors that are dotted about, two bulldozers are busy shifting the 25,000 steaming tons of compost he is licensed to produce.
Although his original intention was to stock his family's larder, not his local supermarket's shelves, Scheckter says he quickly realised that killing a cow meant eating beef for six weeks, and he was keen to apply the diversity principle to his diet as well as his fields. The farm, he says, "just got bigger and bigger to try to make it work commercially". As well as the buffalo, today he has beef cattle, Jersey cows, boar, pigs, ewes and assorted poultry. He also grows a wide variety of fruit and vegetables, as well as hops and vines. Many of his livestock are rare or traditional breeds; he prefers them because they are smaller, grow slower and taste better. He has added salami, bresaola, pâté, sausages, nitrate-free bacon, burgers, and biltong to the fillet steaks he sells in an attempt to use up the other "800 pieces" you get from a carcass. All the animals are killed on site in what I'm told is the abattoir equivalent to turning left on a plane, even if the livestock concerned have only a one-way ticket.
Happily, for this vegetarian correspondent, Friday wasn't killing day at Laverstoke Park, much as Scheckter would have liked it to be. "We kill two to three days a week, but we should be doing five. You can't run a place like this financially with two days," he says, gesturing to the gleaming machinery in the purpose-built abattoir below us. The five-star service is not intended as a sop to the animal welfare movement but because the more relaxed an animal is before its death, the tastier the meat. Apparently. "If you stress an animal in this environment, you get bad meat. If they get scared, the meat changes its colour. It changes its pH. It gets tough, and it tastes different, so we do a lot to keep the animals as calm as possible in here. That's nature's way of making us be kind to animals." Not kind enough not to eat them, though? "No, no. I'm not vegetarian. I'm lazy. They collect all the vitamins for me for years and then I..." he trails off, then gestures to an apple tree. "You can go to extremes; you can say you don't want to eat things that grow like apples, because they're alive. That's not what I'm about."
Moving on, physically as well as philosophically, Scheckter's next stop on our whistle-stop tour of his farm is the dairy, where he has recently added ice-cream to the things he is doing with buffalo milk. Despite feeling queasy from the speed of his corners, I'm treated to a full tasting session: eight flavours in all, spanning liquorice to dolce, the sweet, burnt-caramel version made to his mother's own recipe. I normally take my buffalo milk mozzarellaed, but Scheckter's ice-creams are possibly an improvement even on his much vaunted Italian-style cheese. Sweet, creamy, and no doubt hideously calorific, all eight are a triumph, although peppermint stands out to my mind, possibly because it cuts through the richness of the buffalo milk.
Scheckter knows he's taking a gamble by adding ice-cream to his repertoire, but he just can't help himself. "I probably was arrogant. I started eight start-up companies at once and that's been the biggest problem, because I can't spend enough time on any of them. I can't find the right people. It took me eight years in America to get a good team, and I thought that now I know what I'm doing it's going to be shorter, but it hasn't been. It's all so diverse. Each one is different, from making mozzarella and ice-cream, to salami and bacon, to farming and compost," he says, speaking nearly as fast as he drives. Then there's the soil-testing laboratory that has turned Laverstoke into the "University of Organics", he adds. The farm boasts a full-time microbiologist as well as a microchemist, adding to the complexity of Scheckter's project, as well as his selling points. "We follow nature but we use science to try to understand it a little bit better."
Although most of his produce is organic, Scheckter prefers to style himself as a "natural" rather than an organic farmer. What is clear is that he's no Soil Association acolyte, muttering something about the organic standards body being "too political" for him. He thinks organic food, which has had a tough time of late with shoppers choosing cheaper, conventionally grown alternatives, has a "bad image". He adds: "The more you understand about it, the more you understand the reasons why you should be eating organic. Why would we be putting synthetic things into our body? But I think organic has got a bad image – it's got a Gucci image. It's not at all. It's natural."
Either way, it's an exciting ride, even if Scheckter will have to hand himself his own bottle of bubbles when – if – he finally gets his farm into the black.
1950 Born in East London, in South Africa's Eastern Cape, where his father owns a Renault dealership. Goes to the nearby Selborne College.
1970 Moves to Britain, where he rapidly ascends to the ranks of Formula One.
1972 Makes his F1 debut with McLaren at the US Grand Prix.
1973 Uses up several of his lives in one of the most colourful crashes Silverstone has ever seen. His car runs wide to the exit at the end of lap one and skids across the track into the pit wall. Eight following cars pile either into his McLaren or each other. Although the Grand Prix Drivers' Association demands that he be banned, he misses only a few races.
1977 Joins the Wolf team and finishes second to Niki Lauda in the championship.
1979 Signs for Ferrari, pairing up with Gilles Villeneuve. Wins the drivers' championship. Retires the next year after struggling very badly in his 1980 title defence, managing only two points. Moves to the US and sets up a company that created hi-tech simulators to train law enforcement officers and the military.
1996 Moves to England with his second wife, Clare. Buys the 18th-century house at Laverstoke Park, in Hampshire, and 530 surrounding acres to start an organic farm.
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