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Leaving life in France to take on a Broughton farm

PUBLISHED: 16:04 27 January 2016 | UPDATED: 16:08 27 January 2016

Archant

Choosing to leave their life in France to take on the family farm was a huge leap of faith for Dagan and Jess James, but thanks to some forward thinking and a large herd of buffalo, the couple are thriving says Nancy Judge

Dagan James is open about the fact that he has made some mistakes along the way. After all, he turned his hand to buffalo farming without any previous experience. Fifteen years ago Dagan and his then-girlfriend, Jess, were living in France and pursuing their creative passions of painting and writing. Jess is now his wife, they have three children, over 250 buffalo and Hampshire is their home.

A food magazine was the source of inspiration for the farm. At a time when ‘settling down’ and ‘children’ were being mentioned, the couple happened to read about an English farmer who was rearing buffalo. Looking at him now, it is hard to imagine Dagan ever belonged to any other backdrop - he looks so at home standing in the postcard-perfect Hampshire Downs surveying his herd. He reflects: “We were aware that we may soon be given charge of my grandfather’s farm. Rearing buffalo promised to be something different, something challenging and far from traditional arable farming. Buffalo are hardy animals and resistant to disease but still people tried to persuade us that it was not a good idea.”

Fuelled by a vision and plenty of determination, Dagan and Jess welcomed their first great Indian water buffalo to the farm in September 2011. Armed with books and the results of dozens of internet searches, they focused on settling the animals in and establishing themselves as farmers. Fourteen years on and Dagan can smile about the journey they have been on.

“Looking back I now see that I didn’t have any real grasp of the complexity of it all. There is so much to understand when it comes to farming and land. We were learning as we went along with a lot of trial and error. In fact I’d say the first seven years were about learning and it’s only these last seven years we’ve been able to focus on developing what we have.”

The water buffalo graze on the Chalk Downs of Manor Farm near Stockbridge. When they took over the farm the soil was suffering from many years of intensive arable farming. Early on Dagan decided that his focus for the farm was to move away from modern farming methods in a quest to restore the condition of the soil and attract more wildlife. He explains his motivation for natural farming systems: “Nowadays farmers are often forced to focus on squeezing every last bit of profit they can from their land. With this comes over-worked soil, reduced hedgerows, the use of fertilisers and so many other practices which will in the long term damage our natural environment. I have spent a lot of time researching alternative methods.”

Dagan gestures to the acres of farmland and begins to reel off a list of plants such as chicory, clover and lucerne. All the planting is carefully researched and considered. The perfect combination improves the quality of the soil, attracts varied wildlife and crucially provides the buffalo with a nitrogen-rich plate of food. The animals are carefully moved from one area to another ensuring they always have fresh grassland to graze on. This may sound simple but it took some time to perfect.

“At first we let the buffalo graze on large areas of land but this led to uneven and selective grazing. We now divide the grassland into patches of about an acre and a half, split the animals up and move them from patch to patch every other day or so. It works for the buffalo and it works for our planting and the long-term condition of the soil.”

Dagan’s choices are brave ones. By shunning modern methods of farming he is putting his passion for nature, land and the environment over any ambition of retiring early. There have been moments when they have had to stand back and consider whether it is feasible to continue. They have dug deep into their savings in pursuit of creating an idyll reminiscent of farmland from hundreds of years ago. Despite the challenges, Dagan’s focus is fixed firmly on the way forward.

“We have a great team of people working at the farm. We have really good support locally for our meat and we’re focusing on the direction we want to take the business. Being grass-fed means our meat is a great source of omega-3 fatty acids. Buffalo meat is naturally high in protein, iron and minerals and is low in fat and cholesterol. It’s a good choice health-wise, it’s local and it’s delicious. Really it sells itself.”

Sizzling Broughton Water Buffalo burgers have been a familiar smell at Winchester and Romsey Hampshire Farmers’ Market for many years. As well as mouth-watering burgers they sell fresh meat to take away and cook at home. Buffalo meat and local lamb, pork and chicken are also available to buy directly from the relatively new farm shop which is open Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays.

The farm shop brings customers to the farm, something which is important in Dagan’s vision for the future.

“We’re at a stage now where we are keen to come up with ways to welcome people to our farm and show them what we have worked so hard to create. Our meat comes served with a story that we are proud of, and we want to tell that story to lots of people so they can share our passion for responsible farming. For years we’ve had to focus on learning and surviving but for the first time I feel we can be creative in our planning. I am certainly excited by the future.”

The farm played host to its first wedding this summer. There are plans for yurts, regular farm tours and rustic dining events. The farming side of things also continues to move forward. Last year 15,000 trees were planted. Next on the agenda is the planting of wheat to be used for local thatching.

Asked if he is motivated by the hope that one or all of his three children will be tempted to continue his vision Dagan replies honestly: “There is no pressure for the children to feel compelled to continue what we have created here. Obviously I like to brainwash them with my ideas, after all if I can’t convince my children that there are benefits to responsible farming then I’ve no hope of convincing anyone else! We’re lucky enough to have 500 acres of the world in our care and we just want to look after it in a responsible way. I hope we inspire our children to pursue their goals and ambitions whatever they may be.” 


Find out more

• Broughton Water Buffalo, Manor Farm, Broughton, Stockbridge, SO20 8AN

• Farm Shop opening times: Thursdays-Fridays, 9am-5pm and Saturdays, 10am-1pm.

• Visit www.broughtonwaterbuffalo.co.uk

• Broughton Water Buffalo is a member of local food group, Hampshire Fare. To find out more information and to become a member visit www.hampshirefare.co.uk

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