As a member of one of the UK’s biggest boybands, JB Gill found fame at a young age with JLS, releasing five number one singles and selling over 10 million records worldwide. Now an established member of the farming community, he presents Down On The Farm, and is a regular contributor on BBC stalwarts Countryfile and Springwatch, using his profile to help educate the next generation of farmers.
In our recent Autumn issue, we caught up with Gill at his home in the Kent countryside to meet his award-winning turkeys and learn just how big the leap is from fame to farming.
JB Gill always loved the outdoors and knew from a young age he wanted to be surrounded by greenery. ‘The pop-star lifestyle is full on’ he tells me, as we meet on a bright and crisp autumnal Wednesday morning at the farm he shares with his wife, Chloe. ‘You don’t get much time off, so I wanted somewhere peaceful I could escape to on the rare occasion I had time to myself. Here…’ he gestures to the 11 acres that surrounds us, ‘became the perfect place for me to relax and recharge before heading back out on the road.’
Growing up in Croyden, Gill’s Caribbean heritage saw him spending much of his time in Antigua, where his father kept horses, which, he tells me, definitely contributed to an appreciation of the outdoor life. His delight at now being able to share his home in Kent with family when they visit is evident, ‘It’s just the ideal place for them to experience the iconic British countryside,’ he enthuses.
Surprised to learn that the farm was bought five years ago, when JLS was still thriving, I wonder what made the couple choose a rural life over the luxuries and ease of a fast-paced modern city lifestyle? ‘It was about having a sanctuary to escape to’ he tells me, where they could enjoy privacy and long walks together. Whilst keen to keep-up tradition (the farm was previously used for horses), Gill understood early-on that life on the road was not compatible with the demands of farming, so initially the acreage was left fallow; ’I knew I never wanted to be a ‘gentleman farmer with others doing all the work’.
It was around 2013, as JLS were taking the decision to wind down, that Gill began researching and looking into opportunities for their land. With farming being notoriously exhausting and relentless, did the rigors of his former life prepare him, in part, for the role? ‘One similarity is that you are busy all of the time and everyday there is something to do. But whilst I had a manager in show business, when you run a farm, you need to keep on top of everything. Thankfully Chloe is a huge support.’
Fellow farmer and Countryfile presenter Adam Henson was hugely helpful at the beginning of JB’s farming adventure he explains, as was television presenter Jimmy Doherty, who runs a rare-breeds pig farm in the heart of Suffolk that was the focus of BBC television show Jimmy’s Farm in 2004. In-depth research was essential at the beginning, Gill tells me, ‘as every cut of land is different and that determines what you can do with it. I know now that soil types vary and every species of animal has different needs. There was plenty of trial and error at the beginning!’
The first addition to the farm was a Tamworth sow in 2012, rescued from an RSPCA shelter. ‘Ginger’s arrival was my Dad’s fault. We were there looking to re-home a dog, when the shelter manager explained they had numerous farm animals in need of homes…’ and the rest is history.
Soon after her arrival Ginger became the life of the farm, welcoming three Tamworth litters, but there were, naturally, challenges at the start. ‘When we had our first litter of piglets there was a lot of flapping about. I had done so much research, but we called the vet out three times during that first farrowing!’
With experience now on their side, and Gill’s research paying off, the farm is now home to a number of cherished breeding sows and one boar. Knowledgeable about his animals, Gill reminds me that Tamworths are one of the oldest breeds of pig and are now listed as ‘vulnerable’ in the UK by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust.
Now in their sixth year of raising KellyBronze turkeys, the birds have been extremely well-received, with customers sending appreciative emails on Christmas Day thanking them for the fantastic meat. Gill’s pride at their strong local customer-base is evident, but I can’t resist asking if we might know anyone on the annual pre-order list? ‘Oh yes, the Little Mix girls are on there, and Kimberley Wyatt buys her turkey from us each year.’
This leads me to ask if any of his fellow JLS members have been up to help with mucking-out those Sandy Backs. ‘I haven’t quite managed to get them down yet,’ he laughs, ‘but Oritsé [Williams] almost came up to help with the turkeys this year, but I think he got cold feet. Their children have been to visit though, which is awesome.’
The topic of food and its provenance comes up again and again as we tour the farm: ‘Knowing the journey our food takes is hugely important, arguably even more-so now, given the rise in veganism and vegetarianism. People don’t always feel they can trust where their food comes from.’
‘The reality is that a very small number of people produce food for a whole nation, but farming is a difficult world to access if you aren’t connected to it. In this country we are fortunate to have the finest produce available, from meat and seafood to vegetables and grains, but the connection to its source has been lost.’
‘Events such as the Open Farm Sundays we run here help to give the public back that connection and knowledge of where their food is coming from…and it’s a great day out for families.’
Back in July 2017 I watched JB take part in a demonstration at The Game Fair with José Sauto, where they explored the shot to pot ethos.
He describes fondly how, as a child, he would regularly accompany his mother to Brixton market where they would scan the stalls, picking fresh ingredients together. ‘I come from a busy, working family and there wasn’t always time to prepare meals each day, so we’d spend Sundays cooking up dishes for the week ahead.’
With the game season now in full swing, conversation turns to what the family will be preparing this autumn. ‘Eating seasonally is important, so when game is in season we try to buy and eat to support that. Venison is my favourite.’
He is also passionate about not wasting any cut of meat so tries to avoid buying just steaks. ‘When an animal has given its life for that purpose, it is important not to waste any part of it.’
I promise to share with him and Chloe the tantalizing venison, beetroot and blackberry recipe that landed in my inbox from James Martin, just this morning.
With most farmers born into the industry, through his television work it strikes me that Gill is a genuine inspiration to a new generation who mightn’t come from farming stock, but who wish to explore the rural industries. He clearly loved working on the popular Channel 5 documentary series Springtime On The Farm, confiding that it was a real eye-opener for him.
‘When you see all of the hard work, effort and dedication that goes into livestock it is impossible not to appreciate what farmers do in order to put food on our table. That includes arable farmers, who are cultivating fields for crops that go into vegan and vegetarian products. Everyone is part of farming.’
There is also Down on the Farm, the BAFTA-nominated CBeebies series he presents, and which has been described as a junior CountryFile, aiming to portray the realities and facts of farming as a counterweight to the often-negative myths young children come across on social media.
The Gill farm is, it seems, a true family affair, with Chloe, Gill’s wife, enjoying a real passion for their now rural lifestyle. ‘She helps with all of the admin and organisation, whilst I am mending fences, mucking out and looking after the livestock.’ That said, he is quick to admit it’s not all fresh air and tasty organic veg, with the relentless maintenance proving a challenge at times: ‘I’m a millennial and not naturally handy!’ he laughs.
It is clear the Gill children, five-year-old Ace, and one-year-old Chiara relish this life, with Ace following his father around in a mini electric Jeep. Sundays with the Gills involve going to church first thing, and feeding the animals together before a relaxed family meal. Watching the Grand Prix often plays a part, as Ace is a big Lewis Hamilton fan.
‘As a lifestyle for them, here is second to none.’ Gill smiles, ‘they love the turkeys, rushing out to say hello and pick them up when they arrive and I am determined they’ll keep that affinity and understanding of where their food comes from.’ Even though she can’t walk just yet, Gill proudly tells me Chiara has her first pair of wellies ready and waiting.
Always keen to know others’ autumn essentials for a day at the yard, I ask Gill to share his. The jacket has, naturally, got to be a Barbour and when it comes to wellies, Aigles are his must-have. ‘They really keep your legs cool in the summer and warm in the winter and have great grip.’ That must be a saving grace with pigs, I ask. ‘Yes!’ he enthuses ‘They wreck every paddock they go in and the Aigles regularly prevent me going head over heels in pig muck’. I chuckle at the prospect.
What about getting around? ‘I’m mostly in my Land Rover Discovery. It’s the perfect marriage of luxury and ruggedness. There’s the John Deere too, but with just 11 acres, and predominantly livestock, I don’t have much need for a big tractor.’
As our tour of the Gill farm is coming to an end, I wonder what this hugely charming, and diversely-talented individual feels is the future of British farming? ‘I have learned that every farm needs to diversify to survive. For me, that comes naturally through my television work and I am lucky to have a strong social platform from my JLS days, but it can be hard for others to find those opportunities alongside an already-demanding job.’
For those wanting to give it a go, Gill is keen to share the message that you don’t need to own land if you want to get involved in the industry and talks knowledgeably of the various excellent college and university courses on offer around the country. For those with land,
JB advises getting to know your plot first and foremost and growing it to fit your skills. ‘Developing a brand and a story can really help draw in customers. That way they will buy from you because they want to be part of something, not just because they need it.’
It is clear this is a passion for him though, and part of a wider message he feels compelled to share: ‘You don’t release a song purely for it to go to number one. You release it because you want to spread the message, and if it makes it to number one, then that’s a bonus.’
Images within this article have been supplied by JB’s PR agent for use in editorial. We do not own any.