My friend Judith, who’s involved with a local organic gardening club, called a few weeks ago. “We’re doing a coach trip to an organic farm,” she said. “Want to come and help make up the numbers?”
I agreed but I wasn’t expecting all that much – a few gambolling lambs, a quick tour, a nice tea shop and a chance to buy prettily wrapped preserves. Hardly worth the loss of a precious springtime Saturday. And the place where they were going, Fordhall Farm in deepest Shropshire, meant nothing to me.
Well, it does now. It was an inspirational day out. Possibly to a life-changing extent.
I’ve been increasingly interested in the revival of local, sustainable and naturally produced food for several years now. We grow a large proportion of our own fruit and veg, and since we are fortunate in having excellent independent food shops within walking distance, wherever possible I shop daily for fresh ingredients and avoid supermarkets. I make my own bread and preserves and have largely eliminated processed food from our diet. The Gospel According to River Cottage is a big influence on me.
After an hour and a half of travelling through delightful Cheshire and Shropshire countryside, we turned up the narrow drive into Fordhall Farm. Two very contrasting sights greeted us as we alighted – three vast, featureless Muller warehouses a few fields away and, right next to the drive, a field full of lively little Gloucester Old Spot piglets chasing around. I have a soft spot for pigs that, until that moment, had never completely translated into a complete rejection of industrially farmed pork. That moment changed everything for me. I was faced with undeniable evidence of the natural intelligence and curiosity of the animals I have often so thoughtlessly consumed. And I decided there and then that processed pork would no longer have any place in my kitchen.
The story of Fordhall is a remarkable one. For most of the twentieth century it was run by a visionary tenant farmer, Arthur Hollins, at the age of 88, faced losing the only home he had ever known and the 150 acres he had poured his lifetime into nurturing., one of the first in Britain to farm organically. The farm reached its heydey in the 50s and 60s, when Fordhall Yoghurt became successful. But by the early 21st century the farm was in deep trouble, the Hollins family overwhelmed by legal battles against eviction as their multinational neighbour made expansion plans and their landlord, tempted by exploding land prices, tried to force them out.
By 2004 the outcome seemed inevitable, but then Muller lost interest and began to eye up an alternative local site, giving the family a brief respite. However, the farm was badly run down and seemed beyond rescue. The deciding fact was the determination of Charlotte and Ben, the children of Arthur’s second marriage, who at 19 and 21 years of age decided to attempt the impossible. You can read what happened next on their website or, at greater length, in their book, “The Fight For Fordhall Farm.” Here’s a summary:
In October 2003, with the help of two dear friends Mike and Dagmar Kay, the fight began. Arthur’s youngest children, Charlotte and Ben Hollins were inspired by the vision and enthusiasm of the couple, who believed Fordhall could overcome the odds and survive. They decided they would continue the fight to save Fordhall and firstly began to fight through a local public enquiry.
Arthur’s second generation of children, Charlotte and Ben, at only 21 and 19 years of age took on the project in 2004, after securing a new 18 month tenancy only 24 hours before the families eviction notice was due to expire. They continue to promote their fathers philosophies here at Fordhall as their father would have wished.
Today, Ben and Charlotte manage the farm on a hundred year lease, allowing them the security denied to their parents to take the long view and make the investment in the land that will keep it sustainable and productive. As Charlotte explained to us on our tour of the farm, it is increasingly common for farmers in the UK to have no security of tenure beyond the next five years, making real connection to the land an impossibility. This has a devastating effect on the quality of food production. The farm is actually owned by an Industrial and Provident Society called the Fordhall Farm Community Land Initiative. There are over 8000 members, including such luminaries as Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall, Sting and Prunella Scales. The farm raises pigs, cattle and sheep, selling the meat in its onsite shop and online. An attractive new buiding containing the shop, tearoom and educational facilities opened last year. And a range of community initiatives, catering for groups as diverse as school children, challenging adults and the elderly, all with the overall aim of keeping the original vision of Arthur Hollins alive and showing people an honest, practical and ultimately sustainable way of respecting the land and producing superb produce.
Charlotte is one of the most inspiring people you could meet. (I’m sure the same could be said of Ben but I haven’t – yet – had the pleasure of meeting him). A dynamo of energy, optimism and enthusiasm, she’s the public face of the farm’s community outreach activity, which involves an army of volunteers. It’s that kind of place. It cannot fail to inspire and challenge you.
I cannot get over the courage, determination and sheer capacity for brutally hard work that shines out of these two young adults. It has completely turned around a desperate situation that would have defeated much older and more experienced people. Perhaps you have to be young to attempt something so impossible, let alone to succeed.
I am sure it won’t be my last visit to Fordhall. I’d urge you to go too, if you possibly can. Apart from anything else, the food was fantastic! We’ve already bought our first share in the enterprise.