Fordhall Farm keeps growing

PUBLISHED: 13:25 25 June 2010 | UPDATED: 17:26 20 February 2013

Fordhall Farm keeps growing

Fordhall Farm keeps growing

The brother and sister whose battle to save their family farm won over the nation's hearts are ploughing on with their campaign to grow the business organically, says Sarah Hart

Fordhall forever

The brother and sister whose battle to save their family farm won over the nations hearts are ploughing on with their campaign to grow the business organically, says Sarah Hart

A visit to Market Drayton could help to secure the future of its most famous farm, Fordhall. Four years ago brother and sister Ben and Charlotte Hollins led an inspiring, celebrity-backed, national campaign to raise a staggering 800,000 to save Britains first organic farm from the developers. Now, they are donning their fundraising hats once again to claw in a further 300,000 to make much-needed improvements to the farm.

Each year hundreds of people visit the higgledy piggledy tumbledown farm on the fringes of Market Drayton to take part in special events, courses, explore its nature trails and stock up on tasty organic produce from its tiny shop.

Ben and Charlotte, whose father Arthur Hollins returned Fordhall to natural farming methods way back in the 1930s and emerged as an organic pioneer, now want to smarten up the buildings and improve their visitor facilities. Phase two of their campaign involves raising money to build a larger farm shop, a tearoom, new offices, toilets, showers for their volunteers, a bunkhouse and an educational resource centre for schools.

The 800,000 collected in the whirlwind phase one of the campaign was spent buying the 140-acre farm to prevent it being sold to developers. Arthur, like his father before him had been a tenant farmer, and when he finally lost a protracted legal battle to stop his family from being evicted from the land it had farmed for generations, all hope seemed lost.

But the new Hollins generation wanted their chance to farm Fordhall. Ben and Charlotte, then just 19 and 21, mustered a feisty campaign and fought off the eviction notice by persuading the landlord to give them more time and let them take on the tenancy. Salvation rested on an ingenious idea to sell thousands of co-operative shares in a community trust that would buy the land and hold it in perpetuity.

Fordhalls plight was splashed across national newspapers and magazines. Ben and Charlotte found themselves on national television and a bevy of hard-hitting celebrities lined up to declare their support among them Prince Charles, River Cottage chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, actress Prunella Scales, botanist David Bellamy and popstar Sting.

People thought we enlisted some big PR person, but it was just us on the telephone ringing round, explains Charlotte, now 28.

The onslaught of publicity resulted in 8,000 people buying 50 shares in the newly-created Fordhall Community Land Initiative. This raised 500,000. The rest of the money came largely from loans, and Fordhalls target was reached just 24 hours before the nail-biting deadline in June 2006. The result was announced live from the farm on BBC Breakfast News and the organic world breathed a sigh of relief.

We couldnt comprehend the amount of support we got from so many people, such heartfelt support, recalls Charlotte.

We were two kids just out of uni asking people to send us money. We were really lucky that people were prepared to put some money into the farm and now theyre our landlords.

Ben, fresh out of agricultural college and Charlotte, who obtained a first class honours degree in environmental management and mathematics at the University of Central Lancashire, wasted no time. Theyve once again built up the farms livestock. When they took over the tenancy in
2004 numbers had seriously dwindled because Arthur, then in his late 80s, and his wife Connie had been forced to sell most of their animals to pay the legal bills.

Now Fordhall is thriving again with 140 beef cattle, 200 sheep and 40 rare breed pigs.

A lot of environmental work, too, has been done with the help of grants and a dedicated army of volunteers. Three nature trails have been opened, leading through fields, woodland, wetland, across streams and along the River Tern. Theres even a family of otters and remnants of a motte and bailey castle. One benefit of being chemical free for 65 years is the abundance of wildlife, wild flowers and natural fauna.

Urgent renovation work was undertaken on the declining 17th century farmhouse, and somehow Charlotte and Ben also found time to write a book about their extraordinary campaign. Wed wanted to write an update to dads book, The Farmer, The Plough and The Devil, and republish it, Charlotte explains.

But our updates got longer and longer, really another book. One day a volunteer helping in the office mentioned that her sister was editor for a London publishing company.

It turned out to be Hodder and Stoughton who jumped at the chance to publish their remarkable story. The Fight For Fordhall Farm has since become a best-seller.

Proceeds from the book have enabled Ben to set up and equip his own butchery. He butchers all of Fordhalls meat and sells it online and through farmers' markets, country shows and the farm shop. He also supplies hog roasts for outside events.

Altogether Fordhall and its community land initiative employ nine people, plus casual labour. But much more work needs to be done. The existing offices are a tatty old portable cabin, the toilet is a compost loo parked in a field, theres nowhere for the volunteer labourers to wash and the farm shop is barely big enough to swing a cat.

The buildings will be renovated in sustainable local materials with sheeps wool for insulation and lime plaster for the walls, enthuses Charlotte.

And, of course there will be eco heating sources, including a ground source heat pump extracting the natural heat thats locked deep in
the soil.

To raise money Fordhall is continuing its sale of shares and staging fundraising events. Although the shares are non-profit-making and cannot be sold they give supporters a vote on the future of the farm and regular news updates.

Glancing around the place today its hard to imagine Fordhall in its heyday with its bustling country club, guesthouse and restaurant and its thriving farm and yoghurt business. Arthur and his first wife, May, were among the first to introduce live yogurt to the UK in the 1950s, their distinctively branded pots supplying smart delicatessens and upmarket department stores from London to Edinburgh.

Arthur inherited the farm tenancy in 1929 as a boy of only 14. The chemical fertilisers that his father had poured onto the land to boost yields stripped it of its fertility. Arthur introduced a sustainable farming system based on lessons he learned by observing nature. His research brought him to national attention.

The farm declined, along with Arthurs age and health. Sadly he didnt live long enough to see the children he was so proud of succeed in the fight to save Fordhall. He died in January 2005 at the age of 89.

He might have been dubbed an eccentric in his day, but whats certain now, is that Arthur a gentle, deeply intelligent and articulate man was way ahead of his time. Inheriting his fighting spirit, Ben and Charlotte
are determined his legacy will never be lost.

Fordhall Farm shop is open Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays 11-4 and Fridays 11-6. The nature trails and a picnic area are open Fridays to Sundays the same times.

See wwwfordhallfarm.com for online sales, a list of events and volunteer days and how to become a shareholder. Fordhall is holding a fundraising barn dance and hog roast on July 31. Tickets, costing 10, are available from the farm shop. Tel: 01630 638696

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