Diversification nothing new at England’s first ever community-owned farm

Diversification is nothing new at one of the longest-running natural organic farms in England.

Charlotte Hollins
Charlotte Hollins

Pioneered by the late Arthur Hollins whom was recognised for his ground-breaking research into organic farming, Fordhall Farm near Market Drayton has become a diversifying masterpiece of all things rural thanks to his children Charlotte and Ben Hollins.

The siblings have mastered thinking outside the box to create new opportunities to bring in more revenue.

Siblings Charlotte and Ben Hollins

Since taking over the running of the farm about 20 years ago, they have introduced a farm shop and butchery, cafe, glamping yurts and catering business as well as host a number of events such as educational visits, weddings and parties.

"Diversification isn't new to us and has been going on for almost a century," Charlotte said.

Her father was born at Fordhall Farm and took over the tenancy of the farm aged just 14.

"Dad diversified and opened a country club up to the military during the war. He opened up a swimming pool and tennis courts, and charged the military to come and use it.

"That enabled him to raise enough money to buy the dairy herd he wanted. When he had that he started to make cheese and yoghurts, and was one of England's first commercial yoghurt producers in the 1950s.

"He was also one of the first people to make clotted cream. He went down to Devon and Cornwall and learnt how to make it and started making it and selling it up here.

"We still do guided tours for WI groups and Rotary clubs, but dad did that in the 1960s as well. We meet people today who went on a guided tour back then.

"He ran yoga holidays in the 1970s and had a farmhouse restaurant in the 1980-90s.

"In one way or another we are imitating what dad did previously."

Arthur Hollins in the dairy

Split among no fewer than 8,000 different shareholders, Fordhall is England’s first ever community-owned farms.

In 2000 the farm came under serious threat from a big business – and their bulldozer – and it became clear the family were facing eviction and Arthur’s life’s work to be ruined.

In 2004 Ben and Charlotte returned from college and university to lead the fight to save their home and the Fordhall Community Land Initiative was launched, which now sees the siblings work with the landlords who had bought the shares.

The initiative offered the siblings security of tenure for 100 years, but the next even bigger challenge was to make sure it was profitable and sustainable for the future.

Now extending to 114-hectares, the aim at Fordhall has always been to rear livestock with high welfare standards and add value to their produce, which initially was done selling fresh meat at farmers’ markets, at the farmgate and online.

Charlotte said: "The farm shop was the first thing we did in 2004. When me and Ben first took over the tenancy the farm was very run down and we had very little livestock. We knew the only way we could pay the rent was to sell direct to the public.

"We sold sausages to begin with using a little chalkboard at the end of the drive.

"Then we started to go to farmer markets and serve hog roasts at events.

"We got food catering trailers and started to go to the larger food festivals, serving burgers and sausages.

"Volunteer weekends started in 2004 as well which involved the community and helped get the farm ready to open to the public.

"In 2010 we started our care farm which supports adults with learning disabilities. They come to us three or four days a week and do things like growing vegetables.

"We opened up our butchery in 2010-11 and started making pork pies and sausage rolls. We then opened our cafe on-site when we renovated the farm buildings.

"The next big thing was the construction of the straw lodge which can accommodate more groups and host more events such as wedding anniversaries and birthday parties for children.

"We also host a series of workshops like apple grafting and clay oven baking. More recently we have done yoga retreats and mindfulness sessions.

"We have set up a new afternoon amble every Friday which targets people who are feeling lonely or isolated. We have a walk around the farm, natter, cup of tea and piece of cake. We also have a toddler group on a Friday. What don't we do?"

Feed, fertiliser, fuel and labour costs have all risen dramatically in the past 12 months, squeezing margins from profit into loss for many farmers.

As a result many farmers are branching out from traditional farming by adding new money making activities.

Charlotte said: "Diversifying can be a scary thing to do and coming face-to-face with your customers is not something many farmers are used to doing.

"But the advantages far outweigh the scary elements though and the community is 100 per cent behind you. They want to 100 per cent trust the food they are buying, and the best way of doing that is buying direct."

The pandemic severely impacted the events that would usually take place at Fordhall Farm, but Charlotte remains confident the business will emerge stronger in the future with the continued support of the community.

"The type of farm we operate is about producing quality not quantity. We can't produce volume. Selling direct is the only thing that will help this type of farming system survive.

"There's lots of new businesses who have set up during the pandemic we have made connections with and they supply our farm shop.

"Looking after the soil, land and general environment is vital to what we do. We are always looking at ways at creating new habitats and nurturing wildlife.

"By building experiences and memories, we want people to appreciate and enjoy the outdoors, which will hopefully inspire them to want to protect the wonderful green spaces we have around us."

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