One farmer, 8001 landlords

Farming for the future

Travelling to interview Ben and Charlotte Hollins, I wondered how much money I should offer them.

But this wasn't the conventional chequebook journalism. I had not come to buy their story – which is anyway widely available, for £16.99 in a new book. No, I had decided to become a shareholder in the pioneering farm they operate, alongside Sting, Prunella Scales, Monty Don and the Prince of Wales.

At £50 each, the shares are not cheap, particularly when you consider that they don't produce any profits and can't be sold to anybody else.

But on the other hand they represent an long-term investment in the kind of sustainable, organic and local farming that I already support by getting my food delivered to the doorstep in a cardboard box.

They represent a new model for farm ownership, through a cooperative, offering young farmers the security of a long tenancy that would otherwise be hard to find. And they guarantee that Fordhall will hold events and open days to raise public consciousness about farming and its connection to the food we eat – a connection that, despite the efforts of Jamie Oliver, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and others, many people simply don't appreciate.

For these reasons, some 8,000 people, from across the UK and in 24 other countries, have already bought shares, helping the Hollinses to secure the future of 140-acre Fordhall Farm just days before a deadline set by the previous owner, as the book entertainingly explains.

But buying the farm was only the start. A great deal remains to be done – as I discovered this week when I entered the farm's offices, in a portacabin, only to be directed to find find Charlotte Hollins inside a tattered yurt. Surrounded by two dozen 16-year-olds from nearby Newport High School for Girls, she was explaining the farm's extraordinary history.

“Whether we have a future in food and farming depends on the young,” says Patrick Holden, director of the Soil Association. “Ben and Charlotte are that hope made flesh.”

Fordhall Farm has been run by the family for generations, but it was Ben and Charlotte's late father, Arthur, who made it special. His own father had grown potatoes intensively during the first world war and in doing so seriously damaged the soil. Arthur took over the farm aged just 14, and ever since the 1930s it has been run on organic, sustainable lines. (Not that Arthur would have used those newfangled terms.)

One consequence is that Fordhall boasts a truly extraordinary abundance and variety of wildlife, obvious even to this city-dweller. More than 50 species of birds were identified on Fordhall in 2004, including skylarks, kingfishers and lapwings.

Arthur's system, which he called foggage, involved growing different varieties of grass on the higher and lower fields, and moving livestock from one to the other as the seasons changed. That way, he didn't need to put them under cover, and could forego expensive feed and chemical fertilisers.

He also pioneered the production of yoghurt in this country and established a country club and restaurant that drew visitors from miles away.

But Arthur lost his first wife in a car accident. His second wife, Connie, was almost 40 years younger than him, and their children grew up with a father in his 80s and declining health. For nearly a decade, the farm was gravely neglected. The country club, restaurant and yoghurt business closed. Fences collapsed. The swimming pool in the garden gradually turned into a pond. And the livestock fell to a bare mimimum.

Faced with eviction, Ben and Charlotte decided to take on the tenancy themselves, aged just 19 and 21. Charlotte had already finished her degree but Ben had barely started studying agriculture, and they ran the farm while also holding down full-time jobs outside. The tenancy was renewed once, but then the landlord decided he was selling – and they had just a year to raise the necessary £800,000.

But how? Friends advised them to set up a cooperative that would own the farm and rent it out to them. Ben was hesitant, fearing the interference of innumerable well-meaning hippies in the day-to-day running of the farm. But the cooperative structure eventually agreed on for the Fordhall Community Land Initiative gives the Hollinses freedom to farm pretty much as they like – so long as they do so sustainably, pay their rent, and open the farm up to an agreed number of visits, such as today's school party.

Their struggle to raise the money, working day and night for months on end with an army of volunteers and their close friend Sophie Hopkins, is recounted in the new book.

After walking the sixth-formers around fields full of cattle, pigs, sheep and a composting toilet, Ben and Charlotte take a break for lunch. As we step inside the farmhouse I find that it's still severely dilapidated inside. (At school, Ben and Charlotte were too embarrassed to invite anybody round.)

In the kitchen, I'm introduced to their mother, Connie, who features hardly at all in the book, perhaps because her outlook doesn't quite match their own sunny optimism.

For a moment, I'm put in mind of Great Aunt Ada Doom, in Stella Gibbons' comic classic, Cold Comfort Farm, who never recovered after seeing something nasty in the woodshed. But that's not to make light of the horrific difficulties Connie endured for years as she single-handedly cared for the elderly Arthur, raised two children, ran the farm and fought eviction.

In fact, I find myself warming even more to Connie than I do to her cheerful offspring – and that's saying something. She transmits a passionate understanding of Arthur's ideas that the children are still only starting to learn, having dismissed much of it, while he was alive, as “just Dad talking”.

It's Connie, true keeper of the flame, who digs out for me a video showing wiry old Arthur on TV a decade or more ago, rummaging beneath old cowpats by moonlight to demonstrate the unfathomably busy life of the soil. (“Have you got used to being called a crackpot?” the TV interviewer amiably demands.)

And after Charlotte delivers a short lecture about sustainable farming, it's Connie who announces, with prophetically raised forefinger, “I think that Arthur was standing here and talking through you!”

Having studied environment and farming at university, neither Ben nor Charlotte can be accused of ignorance or naivety. But they've had to learn fast, and the flipside of their youthful drive and determination is an ill-informed quality that makes for some of the most engaging parts of their book. Collecting cuts of meet from the abattoir to package for sale in their farm shop, they had to ask which cut was which. And when a well-spoken gent called Edward Goldsmith phoned to offer his support, Charlotte didn't have a clue that this was the founder of the Ecologist magazine, and the uncle of its present editor, Zac.

Today, some years after their struggle for the farm started, the brother and sister are confident and well informed. But Charlotte is keen to stress that the fundraising goes on. A substantial chunk of the £800,000 they raised was a bank loan, which needs to be repaid. On top of that, there's a great deal still to build, including a tea shop to draw in visitors who might not otherwise be interested in what the farm is doing, accommodation for volunteer labourers, and a butchery where Ben can cut up his own carcasses, saving unnecessary expense at the abattoir.

“You get people saying, ‘Oh, they're loaded those two,' but we're not.” The farm doesn't belong to them, it belongs to the cooperative. Ben takes just £90 a week in salary. In the first year, they made £3,000 profit, but last year they only broke even. If they don't get some more money, they'll never be able to do up the dingy interior of the farm, and nor will they be able to extend the ownership model to other farms. So how many shares should I buy?