2020 winners follow up: Ben Hollins, Fordhall Farm

Siblings Ben Hollins and sister Charlotte have definitely mastered thinking outside the box to create opportunities. Farmers Guardian takes a closer look at how their determination and efforts saw them win Diversification Innovator of the Year last year.

Fordhall Farm is England’s first community-owned farm and has been quite a story in the making.

Following a high profile campaign, it is the result of Ben Hollins and his sister Charlotte selling £50 non-profit making community shares in the farm where their father had been a tenant, in order to safeguard its future.

Ben’s father, Arthur Hollins, was born at Fordhall Farm, Market Drayton, Shropshire, and took over the tenancy of the farm aged just 14.

Despite the push for a more chemical approach to farming at the time, he felt passionate about adopting organic principles in the 1940s which he continued to follow for the rest of his life.

But 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 8,000 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.

Value

While this still remains the base of the current butchery business, Ben and Charlotte realised even more value could be added by cooking their home reared products.

So, after purchasing a £50 griddle from eBay, they ventured into mobile catering and attended Attingham Park Christmas Fair selling steak baps alongside their fresh meat produce.

Ben says: “From that first event we knew catering was the way forward.

“We had a queue of what felt like hundreds of people, even though it was probably more like 10-20 all day. We sold out the whole weekend’s steaks and bread rolls in the first day.”

The following year the siblings bought their first trailer, again from eBay, to the tune of £5,000 which, although was a significant investment at the time, allowed them to attend larger scale events and increase both efficiency and health and safety.

Fordhall Farm Event Caterers has since grown rapidly and now manages catering contracts on a national scale, including at the Edgbaston Cricket Stadium and Carfest.

“During our first year trading at Edgbaston Cricket Stadium in 2015 we were invited to attend with our four trailers and we now have developed this into managing their whole retail food operation overseeing 52 outlets,” adds Ben.

“The stadium took all hot food off their own kiosks and handed responsibility to Fordhall Farm, including the main retail food kiosk within the concourse which is now branded the Fordhall Farm Burger Barn.”

When asked what lies behind their success in such a short space o time, Ben highlights the farm’s initial aim – to provide good, quality, honest food in an industry which he believes has lacked transparency and confidence from its customers.

“We take pride in being a young, dynamic and innovative team who are not afraid to do things a little differently,” he says.

Difference

“Our company values and ethos are integral to our operation and clearly demonstrated in everything we do. These values give us a clear difference in value proposition compared to most contract catering companies.

“Our clients appreciate being able to use us to help them create a unique selling point by promoting their events in a very competitive industry and meet the demands of an increasingly conscious and involved consumer.

“The general public are no longer happy to only be offered hot dogs and burgers in a food court, they want to see variety and street food. Within this, they are looking for a high-quality product with provenance and a supplier with ethical core values.”

Back on-farm, the cattle are all reared on a grass-based system and marketed as such to meet the growing demand for grass-fed meats. In order to meet demand, Ben works with other local farms to increase his supply of free-range bacon, vegetables and milk that have become staple ingredients to accompany the premium burgers and sausages which make up the majority of sales.

With a commitment to reduce food waste and be more sustainably aware, he only uses 100 per cent compostable food trays, cutlery, cups, smoothie cups and straws and recycles the by-products wherever possible.

The catering business is led by Ben and is now a separate business, while Charlotte continues to pursue other opportunities with the Community Initiative. Both still complement the other and the farm remains core to their diversification.

Ben says: “All of our livestock are now marketed direct to the consumer and these outlets have given us complete control over our supply chain and finances.

“We have always had an urge to be price makers and not price takers. This gives us the motivation to get out there and meet the public directly.”

With the capacity of making more than 10,000 of its core products, Ben has a clear plan as to how to grow the business and, while Covid-19 has severely impacted on this year’s events, he is confident the business will weather the storm and emerge stronger in the future.

Focus

Looking ahead, his focus for the next three years is to become more efficient and increasing output at targeted large-scale events.

“The busiest season for event catering is from May to September and during this period over the last few years we are unable to cover multiple events at the same time. If we were able to scale up our operation there are a number of multiple venues we could work with to improve our year-round activity and therefore increase our Fordhall’s growth into diversified agricultural activities.”

Winning the Diversification Innovator of the Year (Large) award last year arrived at a time when the team needed some much-needed good news.

“It has been a difficult year for everyone and winning the award was a great boost for staff morale. It is a massive opportunity for our business going forwards.”