The fight for Fordhall Farm is a story of a young brother and sister faced with escaping eviction from their family home of 700 years and saving their livelihood. Here, Charlotte Hollins explains how she and brother Ben built the farm business.
“Growing up at Fordhall Farm was a privilege. We, that’s me and my younger brother Ben, would spend our days playing in the fields – mum and dad would never really know where we were, but they knew we were safe.
In summer we would build rafts and race down the river and in winter we would find the steepest hill to sledge down in the snow.
As we got older, we knew mum and dad were struggling to keep hold of the farm, but we didn’t really understand the implications.
But with Muller Dairy as our new neighbour, we knew the landlord would not stop until he had regained his land and sold it to Muller for its planned expansion.
As the years of legal battles ensued, the farm became increasingly run down, Dad’s best cows were slowly sold off, repairs were not made and power was shifted in his favour.
Eventually in the mid-1990s, when Ben and I were approaching secondary school, our stockman and only member of staff was made redundant; there was simply not enough livestock or income to keep him on.
This is when it really hit home for us. Our new daily routine involved feeding what few livestock remained before and after school. Dad was getting into his 80s and it was up to Ben and I to keep the practical side of farm life going.
Although our dad’s eyes always lit up when talking about his passions, and he stood his ground for many years, he became exhausted by the constant fight to stay at the family home and the farm became dilapidated as vital funds were directed into legal fees.
The legal battles seemed fruitless, simply a way of spending more money only to be rewarded with more stress and anxiety. Increasingly, it looked as though we were prolonging the inevitable and it was hard to accept for the whole family.
When I finished my university degree in 2003 it seemed as though all was lost. An arbitration hearing at the end of almost 15 years of legal battles finally went in favour of the property owner and our 12-month eviction notice was served.
We heard Muller had shown interest in other land near Market Drayton and wondered if this could be a window of opportunity. Sure enough, it was and just 24 hours before the family were due to be evicted in March 2004, Ben and I secured a short-term 18-month tenancy at Fordhall Farm.
We had gained ourselves some time to create a plan which would eventually see Fordhall saved from developers forever.
At 19 and 21 years of age respectively, Ben and I took on the running of Fordhall Farm. We inherited 11 cows, six pigs and six sheep, with our run-down organic farm.
The pastures were rich, but we were not. We had very little savings to invest and very little experience of running a business, but we set straight to it.
Ben took on the day-to-day running of the farm and I took charge of promoting and marketing. Within weeks we had our first farm shop trading. To us, the £50 a weekend we were turning over was a huge achievement, but we understood it needed to grow – and fast.
Selling direct to the public was the way to secure our business for the future, but the banks would not entertain supporting us and we had nothing to put in.
Luckily, we were offered a low interest loan of £2,000 from The Princes Trust. Used to purchase cheap, thin livestock to feed on our copious grass pastures, this loan was the backbone of our small business.
With our short-term tenancy secured, we worked hard to rebuild the connections between Fordhall and the local community.
Events were held, volunteer weekends gained momentum and lots of community consultation was had.
By our willingness to open the farmgate and engage with the community, we found doors began to open and hope was on the horizon.
We were taken aback and inspired by the number of people who came forward to support Fordhall.
The threat of development remained, the landlord was determined, but so were we.
We could not see this beautiful piece of land lost under concrete, we could not see our father’s lifetime work at building fertility into the soils lost forever, we could not see our home disappear, and most importantly, we knew Fordhall could be something special again and we did not want to lose that opportunity.
800 landlords helped save a family's heritage spanning 700 years
Months of community consultation resulted in the creation of the Fordhall Community Land Initiative, a community benefit society which would sell £50 non-profit making shares and, ultimately, see the farm in the ownership of more than 8,000 community shareholders.
The option to purchase the farm was negotiated and six months eventually remained to raise the asking price of £800,000.
The response from the public was overwhelming. There were long letters, heartfelt phone calls, generous donations and offers of help and support.
We were inspired by the way the community came to support Fordhall back in 2006. That mountain, that David and Goliath battle, was a colossal success, but it was only one aspect of a long journey for us.
Rebuilding our 140-acre farm was the next big challenge.
Our vision was the farm would become the heart of the local community, a place where families could spend summers, children could make dens, and future generations could learn the importance of food and the environment.
If anyone had asked us how Fordhall would look in 10 years time back in 2006, we would not have been able to visualise the success it is today.
The diversity which now exists at Fordhall goes far beyond the 70 odd plant species in the pastures. It goes beyond the farm’s organic heritage and even beyond our high profile fight for survival.
Today Fordhall is a bustling hive of activity, driven forward by the community and it is changing every day.
From farm shop to farmers’ markets, online sales, and later hog roasts and event catering, our farm business has grown year-on-year. To this day, we sell everything we produce at Fordhall direct to the public.
Many of our customers have remained with us over that 10-year period. From our tiny three-metre x 1m lean to, to the impressive farm shop and butchery we have on-site today, our farm business has survived and grown due entirely to the support and loyalty of the local community, our customers.
Who would have thought when we started with our 11 cows, six pigs and six sheep that Ben would now be standing in his fields as a proud tenant farmer to these 140 acres boasting 200 sheep, more than 100 cattle, 60 pigs and a fleet of catering trailers.
These trailers cater at prestigious events across the country including the Ashes match at Edgbaston Cricket Ground serving the public our burgers and sausages and for The Queen’s jubilee visit to Shropshire, providing catering provisions for the 40,000 members of the general public descending on RAF Cosford for the celebrations.
In 2011 we completed a major redevelopment of the farms infrastructure. The £500,000 project has created a state-of-the-art production facility on-farm, where we have many different strings to our bow.
Our butchers have capacity to make no less than 10,000 burgers per day – their hands can move quite fast.
This business has grown to such a degree Ben can no longer provide enough meat to supply them.
Ben is now working with a number of local farmers to supply the trailers and, with strict rules on how the livestock should be reared, he is providing them with a premium price for their livestock and allowing the scope to increase his business further.
Perhaps his greatest achievement in the last 12 months has been gaining contracts to provide three local primary schools with Fordhall meat for their school dinners.
His place as a tenant farmer at Fordhall, maybe is at the hands of 8,000 community landlords, but he is building a strong and vibrant business through local connections and a commitment to farming sustainably.
We now have a business which employs five permanent staff and up to 25 during the summer months. All this on a 140-acre farm, which would not ordinarily be able to sustain more than 1.5 people.
The community landlord, the Fordhall Community Land Initiative, works side-by-side with us. We run the farm business and they run everything else.
It is a symbiotic relationship which has created more than 20 permanent jobs on our acreage and invested more than £1 million into the local economy.
It has created long-term security for the tenant farmers and found a way to actively permanently involve and engage the community with the land. It has saved the demolition of a long-standing organic farm from industrial development.
We have moved our office from our draughty, cold porta-cabins in the field to our renovated old dairy building. We now have running water and flushing toilets – small things to most but big changes to us.
The farm is now fully open to the public, with three free farm trails, sculptures, ropes to scramble, bird hides, pond dipping platforms and dens to be made.
Our fields are bustling with wildlife, areas have been replanted with more than 500 sapling native trees, and the ponds are being restored.
Our community now extends past our shareholders and local families. We have an established a care farm which works with adults with learning disabilities in our community garden. And, we have a youth project which supports young people from across the county who struggle with the classroom setting.
In both instances we are using the natural landscape at Fordhall to offer care and support to some of the most vulnerable in our community in a way no other conventional establishment can.
Our yurts, which were once used as a classroom and later as volunteer accommodation, have been moved into the valley and are proving to be popular tourist accommodation, even without electricity or running water.
As the ground becomes steadier underfoot, the Fordhall Community Land Initiative epitomises the breaking attitude towards agriculture.
Our father passed away in January 2005, at the commendable age of 89. His life’s research on the relationship between farming and nature, and his passion to integrate people within this, has formed the ethos for the Fordhall Community Land Initiative.
No longer should consumers be disconnected from their food, but rather they should be given the opportunity to learn about the food cycle first-hand and to be part of this growing phenomenon of community ownership."