Alex James: The Great Escape

We all need a Bernard Matthews
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At the moment, Fred and Gwyn, the local sheep farmers, give me £50 an acre per year. That's just enough to pay the accountant; Fred drives a new Range Rover. Sheep-farming is low maintenance, low outlay, low risk. The farmers put up temporary electric fences and stand around a bonfire while the sheep eat grass and have babies, which are worth £60 once they've fattened up. Other crops require more equipment and labour and management. There's no way I could cope with that at the moment. But there is definitely room for an agricultural billionaire - a charismatic figure whose heart is in the right place could win the public's confidence and build an empire of farm shops, selling meat and seasonal produce direct from farm to customer. This generation needs a Bernard Matthews.

Generally, though, each farmer has his own way of getting by. Mr Taplin, who sold me the farm, had a good line in caravan storage. People still call and ask if we'll look after their caravans. That's not really what I had in mind when we moved in - I was thinking more along the lines of the Ark meets the Garden of Eden.

It seemed to be going OK. There were two pregnant mares here for a while, which were bringing in £20 a week. Mind you, we are paying the owner 10 times that to look after Claire's horses. Cornflake, the palomino, has started to win competitions and is becoming quite valuable. But Claire would rather sell the house than the horse, so he's not really an asset, as such.

Our biggest earner this year has been from the contractors who fixed the railway bridge. They could only get to it from our bottom field, so they had to pay for access. And then they overran. It was particularly satisfying to get something back from builders being behind schedule.

The little bonuses don't always work out, though. An advertising executive came down from London. He was masterminding a viral campaign for a well-known saddle-shaped crisp. ("Viral" is the new buzzword in marketing; you can't have a meeting without it.) He wanted to film someone dressed as a gorilla chasing sheep, to tie in with the new King Kong movie. They were going to post it on the internet and hope it went full-blown. It's why there are no funny ads on telly at the moment - all the new funny guys are making low-budget e-mail attachments.

It was a stupid idea to promote a nasty product in conjunction with an unnecessary film - naturally, I said we'd be delighted to help. The crisp is the "crack" form of the potato, and children are addicted to them. I'm sure the big players are every bit as ruthless as the crack barons.

The sheep were new to showbusiness but they took well to being chased. Claire works in film, so I threw a few film words around. It was looking good for 500 quid. We were booked. Then, the day before filming, the client scrapped the whole idea. Fred was devastated. Still, there's a cheesemaker coming to look at the dairy barn tomorrow.

alexjames@independent.co.uk

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