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Visionaries: Jimmie Hepburn

Ecologist

1st April 2009

‘“Visionary” is a terrible word to use,’ Jimmie Hepburn grimaces. ‘I’m not doing this for my own ego. I’m happy for contributions and new ideas; I’m starting from scratch here, but I want people to build upon this.’

You get to farm the whole system. This is the revolution that is needed in aquaculture.

‘This’ just happens to be the UK’s first organic carp farm, designed to produce a sustainable, non-carnivorous supply of fish for British tables, and makes Hepburn as pioneering in the world of food production as he is as incurably modest.

Hepburn started out in life working on an industrial salmon-farming operation in northwest Scotland. Having spent a childhood ‘messing about in ponds’ and with a university degree in ecology, the scale of Scottish salmon farming didn’t sit easily.

‘I wasn’t happy with the impact the industry was having,’ he says. ‘Three to four tonnes of wild fish were needed to make the pelleted feed to produce one tonne of salmon.’

But Hepburn was at the same time a pragmatist, who could see that not only was salmon farming rejuvenating local economies and communities in Scotland, but also that without some form of fish farming, natural stocks would continue to decline.

‘I was never scared to look at the issues,’ he says. ‘In sustainability, you must be prepared to consider the unthinkable; you must always be prepared to consider something the complete opposite of what you have been doing.’

Which is pretty much what he did. In 2006, Hepburn moved into the muddy remains of a former fish farm in Devon, its previous tenant forced out by the dismal
economics of the industry.

‘A lot of people think that I’m crazy, because I’m farming a fish that isn’t even eaten in the UK,’ Hepburn says. ‘In fact, carp is worth more if it’s sold as a sport fish for anglers than if it’s sold for the table.’

His choice of carp was far more considered than his critics believed, however. For a start, carp will eat just about anything – ‘they’re the chickens of the fish world’ –
and this means feed can be sourced locally without relying on dwindling Atlantic stocks. They don’t need super-clean water (unlike salmon), they don’t produce much pollution and they don’t need as much food.

On Hepburn’s farm, feeding time involves shovelling manure from local organic farms into the ponds, which fertilises plants and algae, providing natural food for the carp. This is supplemented with organic grain and topped up with mealworms bred using wheat bran and the scraps from a local veg-box scheme.

‘You get to farm the whole system,’ Hepburn explains. ‘This is the revolution that is needed in aquaculture.’ But his vision extends far beyond the confines of his own patch. Part of Hepburn’s business is a consultancy on ponds, lakes and sustainable aquaculture – Aquavision – which encourages ordinary people to raise fish as food in their back gardens or garages, using ponds or tanks.

‘Why shouldn’t people look at growing fish, just as they do vegetables?’ he asks. ‘I would like people in the middle of London to say, “Why couldn’t we do that?” If I can get people to start farming fish they’ll also start becoming more connected to where their food is coming from.’

Hepburn is quick to praise Penny, his organic horticulturalist wife, for her role in helping him run the business, but it’s clear that his vision has been expensive:
‘I’ve always seen this as a place to inspire,’ he says. ‘It’s a fantastic opportunity, but it’s also a hell of risk. I feel like I’m at the helm of a 747 taking off: I can see the end of the runway, but the wheels haven’t yet left the ground.’

Aquavision

To read more about the other nine visionaries click on their link below:

Introduction (Society), Ann Pettifor (Finance),

Derek Gow (Conservation), Carolyn Steel (Urban design),

William McDonough (Waste), Peter Lipman (Transport),

Polly Higgins (Law), Bill Drayton (Business),

George Marshall (Energy), Duane Elgin (Consumerism).

 

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