By Francesca Lant
Imbolc, the midway between the winter solstice and spring equinox, seems like quite an appropriate time to talk about beginnings. Falling on 1st February, this pagan holiday marks the beginning of spring (of course differing from the modern meteorological date) – which may seem quite early, with the landscape still notably frosty and leaf bare.
Looking around though, there are the signs that something is beginning, the world is starting to stir. Snowdrops announce an early start to the flowering seasons, and farms all over the country are teetering on the edge of the headfirst slide into lambing season. Interestingly, the origins of the word ‘Imbolc’ are considered to relate to this coming of new life – theorised that the Old Irish term ‘imbolc’ translates to ‘in the belly’ and was used to refer to pregnant ewes.
So, in a season of beginnings, it seems only right to talk about the origin story of the Fordhall Community Land Initiative (FCLI) – a series of firsts and beginnings in its own right.
For those who haven’t heard of this organisation, the FCLI is a Charitable Community Benefit Society (registered Exempt Charity with HMRC) founded in 2005 at Fordhall Organic Farm. This 128-acre farm is one of the oldest organic farms in England. The pioneering late Arthur Hollins, who became the tenant farmer at just 13 years old, rid the farm of costly external chemical inputs after the Second World War. He went on to develop a form of agriculture called Foggage Farming, where the resident livestock live outside all year round, grazing on the diversity of grasses and plants found in Fordhall’s fields – around 70 different species have been found in the pastures so far! This system is maintained to this day by Arthur’s son, Ben.
For a long time, the farm successfully produced a range of food products, first as a dairy producing yoghurt, before transitioning into organic meats…and then the 1990s rolled around. The family found themselves subject to a barrage of legal battles as their landlord tried to sell the land to developers. 15 subsequent years of eviction battles sapped their funds and resulted in the farm falling into disrepair.
In 2004, after months of negotiating, Charlotte and Ben (Arthur’s two youngest children), were granted an extended lease of 18 months just two days before they were due to be evicted. Despite being just 21 and 19 years old at the time, this extension was just the opportunity the brother and sister team needed to begin the campaign to save their family home!
Arthur had committed many years to researching sustainable management of the land and livestock, which was far too valuable to lose to development; and so, with their initial band of supporters, Charlotte and Ben set out, in February 2005, to raise the £800,000 required to purchase the land. Even at this early stage in the journey, volunteers were invaluable at Fordhall – offering advice, assistance and skills freely to the Hollins family.
In the months which followed, the general public were offered the opportunity to purchase £50 ‘community shares’ in the farm – these are non-profit making but make the shareholder a landlord of the farm in their own right. This foray into community ownership tipped the fundraising over the £800,000 mark allowing the purchase of the farm to be made…and earned Fordhall the title of England’s first community owned farm! The shares are available to purchase to this day, with the FCLI comprising of over 8000 landlords from all over the world. Managed by Charlotte, the FCLI collects rent from tenant farmer Ben, who manages the organic land and foggage system in the sustainable fashion pioneered by their father. Farm shareholders are heavily involved in the decision making around the community projects and future of the farm – making Fordhall itself a true collaborative effort.
With the farm now safeguarded against development, thoughts turned to how the land could be used for community benefit as well as sustainable management. Over the years since the campaign, Fordhall has diversified considerably, unwilling to shy away from experimenting and testing, trial and error – after all, their roots were a ‘let’s try it and see what happens’ campaign of massive proportions! Charlotte is now one of the community leaders involved with driving the ‘We’re Right Here campaign’ to form the ‘Community Power Act’, which aims to shift more power towards those who live in the local communities. She believes that ‘if the Community Power Act had been in place when we were campaigning back in 2006, life would have been a lot easier. Everything was on our side to do it, everyone locally wanted it to happen. But because of a minority of individuals who were not local not wanting it to happen, the battle for us to get there was huge.’
The farm now hosts, to name a few, a Care Farm for adults with learning difficulties, Youth Project for young people struggling in mainstream education, and a thriving volunteer programme. Fordhall’s wonderful volunteers get involved with so many different elements of farm life, from conservation, to maintenance, to event setup, to office and café support. Recently, a band of volunteers donated their time to expertly create a floating path along one of the farm’s popular walking trails – these paths use sheep fleece as a path underlay in boggy areas, in place of less environmentally friendly synthetic underlays. The fleeces didn’t have to travel far at all – they were Fordhall’s own sheep fleece! Volunteers donating their time to help maintain the site mean that Fordhall remains free to access, allowing as many people as possible access to the countryside.
The Fordhall team are now at the beginning of yet another large-scale project – Silvopasture tree planting. Following a shareholder survey, environmental efforts were shown to be of a high concern to the farm’s community, and so now around 3000 trees are to be planted on-site – species are being specially selected to benefit the livestock, climate and biodiversity collectively. This project aims ultimately to be a gift to future tenant farmers, and falls in with the FCLI’s aim to break down barriers around agriculture while maintaining sustainable practices. The series of beginnings aren’t stopping any time soon!
Find out more about local volunteering at Fordhall here.
Find out more about community ownership here.
Find out more about Silvopasture here.
Francesca Lant is the Marketing and Communications Officer at Fordhall Community Land Initiative in North Shropshire who have been WWOOF UK hosts since 2022. We’d like to give a big thank you to Francesca for writing this article and for sharing this optimistic story of the power of community.
All photos courtesy of Fordhall Farm.