“The farm’s heart and soul is back”: Charlotte’s story

Charlotte Hollins’ family farm was at risk from being taken over by developers. That was until she landed on an idea – to convince 8000 strangers to buy a share. The result is UK’s first community-owned farm, sowing skill development and social connection as well as organic produce.

TRANSCRIPT: My name is Charlotte Hollins, and I’m the manager for the Fordhall Community Land Initiative. We are a community-owned farm in Market Drayton, Shropshire.

We’ve been under community ownership since 2006. We’re a Community Benefit Society so we have charitable status. We’re 140 acres of organic pasture land, we’re a livestock farm. And we’re collectively owned by over 8000 members of our local, wider and international community, who all purchased £50 nonprofit making, lifelong shares. They collectively own Fordhall farm for perpetuity.

A threat to the family farm

We’ve been tenant farmers here at Fordhall for generations, and we’ve been farming organically here since just after the 1940s. In the early 1990s Müller Daires became our next door neighbour. And ever since then, our landlord saw the potential to sell Fordhall farm to them for their expansion, and obviously for him to profit out of it. But as we’ve been here for so long as a family, we had quite a secure tenancy. The landlord would issue eviction notices, we would try and fight, it would go through the courts. Throughout the 1990s, there were 10 to 13 years of the family fighting through legal battles, which meant more money was going into the fight to stay at the farm. Ultimately, less money was being invested back within the farm and the farm began to deteriorate. At the same time, my father was getting older, he was getting into his 80s. And that resulted in the deterioration of the site. This gave the landlord the ammunition he needed to evict us.

It was in the final 12 months of that eviction notice that I’d graduated from university, my brother just finished college and we’d come back here to see if there was anything we could do. Ben just wanted to be a farmer, and farm the land, have his cows and do it on the family farm. And I was very passionate about bringing the community aspect of things back to the farm again. We created the concept of having a community-owned farm with a tenant farmer. And within that selling community shares.

I was in my early 20s, I was 21 when we started, my brother was 19. So, you know, we had really had no clue and young naivety was very much on our side. And we launched it. And to our amazement, people were interested and they got involved, and they got passionate about it. They also wanted to secure this piece of historic organic farmland for development, but also wanted it as a community resource, wanted to be able to access it, wanted to be able to buy local healthy food from it, wanted to be able to come and visit with their families. Through the sale of the shares, we were able to raise £800,000 within six months to purchase Fordhall farm.

People with power vs young naivity

The biggest barriers – well firstly, it was people with power, people with money. They were passionate about selling the farm for development, but not interested in how important that land or the resource was to the community. And that was very difficult to fight through. Really the only thing that we had on our side was stubbornness, determination and naivety. We just believed it was possible because when you’re young, you just do. And I think that in a sense made it possible.

I think what we learned through the whole campaign to save Fordhall farm from development was the power of small collective actions. And how incredibly inspiring it is – when you get enough people that come together, and they might only have to do something small, you can create big change, and you can overcome whatever you think is the biggest barrier. Because no barrier is too big to overcome that collective action. And I think that just inspired us throughout. And it’s given us the confidence as well to face every challenge that’s come our way.

A community-powered farm

We run a myriad of different activities. We have a care farm, which supports adults with learning disabilities. And we have a youth project that works with vulnerable young people throughout the academic year. We have free open public access to the farm all year round. And we have our community cafe, our meeting room space, we offer lots of family events, and so forth throughout the summer.

All the projects that we run here do have slightly different focuses. A lot of it is predominantly around health and wellbeing, it’s about rebuilding self confidence and belief. And we’re kind of trying to create as many experiences as possible that really allow people the opportunity to connect with our natural world, to build those appreciations for it.

On the other side, we have our young people that come to us for a longer period of time that are struggling at school for one reason or another. Many of those young people have come to us and they don’t have a feeling that they can accomplish things. But when they get to that end of that project period it’s so rewarding to see them say ‘I’m going to go and do this’. In fact, even our butcher came on our youth project, built his confidence and experience right the way throughout it and then got offered an apprenticeship in our butchers here onsite. It’s just so inspiring to see how his confidence and self belief and his skill has grown.

Fighting for a Community Power Act

The We’re Right Here campaign is absolutely vital for communities right across the country to be able to take collective action and to move forward the visions and the needs of their community. We shouldn’t have to be fighting against sometimes one person to do what the whole community wants to happen.

By having a Community Power Act and legislative rights that allow our communities to determine where they go is absolutely vital to facilitate the movement. Otherwise, it relies very heavily on a very small number of people that have the capacity, the energy and no commitments to be able to push these things through. And it shouldn’t be reliant on that. Let’s carry on the lessons that we learned through the pandemic – the things that were good about what came out of the pandemic, about how we all work together and find the solutions to support the vulnerable in our communities. We shouldn’t need legislation to do it. But unfortunately, I think it is needed to make sure that that path is clear for us to take it forward.

If the Community Power Act had been in place when we were campaigning back in 2006 life would have been a lot easier. It shouldn’t have been the battle than it was for us to secure Fordhall farm. Everything was on our side to do it, everyone wanted it to happen, everyone locally wanted it to happen. But because of a couple of individuals who were not local not wanting it to happen, the battle for us to get there was huge. It shouldn’t just be a one off, the opportunities need to be there for more people to be able to take these resources, these assets and put them into community hands and use them for the benefit of their communities.

Farmland is being lost every single day because land is worth too much money, because of the potential that it might have in for future development. And because it’s worth so much money it outprices local people. The incentive of how we manage our land is all based around who can make the most money for it. It’s not based around what is best for the land and the community in that area. We need to change that focus. We need to be able to make the power weighting more equal, to ensure that our land, our resources, our assets, our services are directed in the best way possible.

That’s why I’m absolutely committed to the We’re Right Here campaign and getting that Act into parliament. We’d welcome anybody and everybody to get involved with the campaign and help take that forward.

Taking stock

Occasionally, both Ben and myself and other board members and shareholders, go ‘Wow, could we have thought it would look like and be like it is today 15 years ago?’ And I don’t think we could. It’s far better than we ever hoped it would be. It’s because of people and it’s because of the community. And we will forever be grateful to every single person who supported us on our journey.

The farm’s heart and soul is most definitely back. And you just you can see it. It’s just a place that thrives with having people and wildlife and biodiversity. Just that diversity in all shapes and forms is what makes everything thrive. And when you’ve got diversity and collective action and a shared vision, and you’ve got that consultation and everyone’s working together, you’re resilient.

Charlotte is one of the community leaders who are driving the We’re Right Here campaign. Meet them here.