JB Gill on how he went from being a pop star with JLS to a successful farmer and countryside champion
The music business is notoriously fickle, and over the years numerous singers and musicians, having made their name, have decided to leave it all behind and try something new.
Russell Senior, the Sheffield-born guitarist and violinist, left Pulp and went on to be an antiques dealer, while Cindy Birdsong quit the Supremes to follow her childhood dream and become a nurse. JB Gill, though, swapped pop stardom with JLS for life as a farmer.
That was eight years ago, and since then he’s built up a successful business from his farm in Kent and fashioned a career as a TV presenter on the Channel 5 hit series This Week On The Farm.
It means that he spends a good chunk of the year filming in Yorkshire and later this summer he will be one of the main stage presenters at the 5 on the Farm Festival, which takes place over the August bank holiday weekend at Cannon Hall Farm, near Barnsley. “Yorkshire’s an incredible county, there’s such beautiful countryside and I love coming up,” he says.
Gill was first beguiled by Yorkshire’s many charms back in his early days with JLS. “We were doing a gig and we stayed at this little boutique hotel in Harrogate and that drive across from the motorway to Harrogate just blew me away. I said if I could live anywhere else in the UK other than close to London, because of work, then I’d live in Harrogate. It’s stunning and I’ve got friends who live there and for me, it’s one of the most beautiful places in the country.”
Gill’s story is an interesting one. He was born in Antigua where his mother worked as a nurse and his father looked after horses. “I spent a lot of my early years in the Caribbean so I was used to having space and the concept of cultivating land and being connected to where my food comes from and the outdoors.”
It was music, though, rather than farming, that held sway when he was growing up. “My mum encouraged me to play instruments from an early age. At primary school I picked up the recorder like everyone did and I loved it. I’d play nursery rhymes all the time and I learned them by ear.”
His proclivity for music was nurtured and he studied at the Centre for Young Musicians in London where he developed an aptitude for classical music. Singing, too, was something he pursued when he was at university.
It was during this period that he met Oritsé Williams, then a budding singer-songwriter, who was looking to put a band together. “I’d never had any formal performing arts training, I just had a passion for music and it went from there. But all that classical training and learning by ear and understanding music in a deeper sense was a great foundation for me.”
The band in question became JLS, runners-up in The X-Factor in 2008, an experience that changed Gill’s life. “You could go out in week one or you could go all the way to the finals. It wasn’t so much a lottery, you just didn’t know how well you’d go down, especially as a group. Prior to us, I don’t think there were any groups who had done particularly well on the show and we gave rise to group dominance with bands like One Direction and Little Mix coming after us.”
JLS’s debut album sold more than a million copies and over the next five years the band had a string of hits and won several gongs, including Moby and Brit Awards.
It was around this time that Gill decided to buy a 13-acre plot of land in the Kent countryside. “At the time my life was really hectic and I could go three or four months without a day off and so when I had a bit of a break it was nice to have a bit of peace and be able to go for a walk and not hear horns and sirens and everything I was used to with city living.”
He found himself spending more time there and when the band decided to split up in 2013 it gave him a chance to develop his plot of land. “We looked into farming, what had been done here before and what we could do and that was pretty much the starting point,” he says. “We started with one rescue pig, called Ginger, who we got from the RSPCA, and we had a litter with her and it just escalated from there.”
They bought some pedigree Tamworth pigs and at one point they had six breeding sows and as many as 75 pigs on the farm.
Today, it’s turkeys that are the biggest part of the family’s farming operation. “They’re a lot smaller and easier to manage and our Kelly Bronze turkeys are outdoor bred and they roam around as nature intended. They feed and drink as they would in nature and we’re proud of that.”
Gill is married to Chloe and they have two young children and farming, he says, fits in with their lifestyle. “If I’m busy all day on the farm I can be with my family the whole day. Whereas if I’m busy filming, or when I was with JLS, then I’m away from my family the whole day and family is very important to me.”
Farming involves hard graft, sometimes with scant reward. “Any job is hard but with farming it’s a lot more physical and there are less people involved these days so it can feel quite isolating. And there are always challenges.
"I’ve gone out to check on the turkeys before I take my son to school and I’ve turned up to a field of dead turkeys, sometimes as many as 30, that have been killed by foxes. So my kids are privy to all this because that’s farm life sometimes. It’s difficult to take, but you have to deal with it.”
Gill is well aware there are bigger and more experienced farmers than him, but he wants to use his celebrity status to raise awareness about agriculture and those people who help put food on our plates.
“Those people responsible for growing and cultivating the food we consume need to be supported. As we saw during the pandemic, we had shortages of flour and eggs and people freaked out. Whereas if we had those connections with the local farmers we would have been able to deal with it better.
“That’s why it’s important for people to have an understanding of what farm life is like. We’re all reliant on the food we eat but over the years we’ve become disconnected from the origins of our food and that needs to change.”
The 5 on the Farm festival takes place from August 28-30, at Cannon Hall Farm, near Barnsley. Per day tickets are £49.95 for adults, £24.95 for children (aged two-15) and free for children under two. For more information and to book tickets go to www.5onthefarm.com.