Lieut Col Ben Davies found duty in Afghanistan challenging and rewarding, but the strategic planning that kept him going in off-duty hours focused on Whirlow Hall Farm...
Ben left the Royal Engineers in May and took up his new post as chief executive of the farm trust in July.
Two months on, he’s already making his mark on the 138-acre working farm, drawing inspiration from its 150 volunteers, staff and the thousands of children and young people who benefit from the charity’s educational programmes.
“A military career is good preparation for working hard and this is about teamwork,” he says.
Despite being an officer, Ben is very much a hands-on leader: “My first morning was spent jumping up and down on the dustbins; and the first evening, I was chasing sheep across the field after they got into the vegetable patch!
The farm produces a wide variety of foods, from lamb, pork, beef and poultry to seasonal vegetables and soft fruit – all on sale in the farm shop, as well as supplying a number of local restaurants.
I see masses of potential here and I can’t believe how lucky I’ve been...Ben Davies, Chief Exec
“This challenge is about sustainability,” says Ben.
“We need to smarten up our act and become more of a customer experience – and that’s not something I’ve ever said in the Army!”
He has already addressed issues such as improved signage, a key part of the profile-raising drive.
He wants more local people to visit the farm and enjoy its produce, so many behind-the-scenes activities are being opened up.
In future, visitors will be able to watch extracting of honey from the beehives, shearing the sheep and making wine in the vineyard: “Instead of doing that in secret we should encourage people to come along.”
Wifi is now available in the cruck barn café, so visitors can use it for business meetings and events. Pick-your-own fruit opportunities will be doubled next year, and there will be a chance to pick-your-own veg too – and even eggs for the children.
“I see masses of potential here and I can’t believe how lucky I’ve been to get an opportunity like this,” says Ben.
Other plans include regular events – like the Autumn Feast that we went along to on Tuesday.
The evening was planned by Ben and his wife Helen, a communications expert and sustainable food champion, who joined forces with a number of Sheffield businesses to stage the dinner.
The aim was to celebrate the wealth of local food and the passion of its producers, as well as raising vital funds for Whirlow Hall Farm Trust.
Chef Richard ‘Rico’ Storer, from the Rutland Arms on Brown Street, is in charge of the kitchen, with a small army of volunteers including most of Ben and Helen’s family.
Rain doesn’t dampen the spirits and instead of cocktails in the candlelit yard, we retreat to the cosy comfort of the stone barn, where the flagged floor and painted wooden tables are bathed in the rosy glow of tealights and halogen heaters.
We tuck into chunks of Seven Hills bread, topped with pork rillettes and garlicky aioli, as we sip cocktails and mingle with our fellow guests.
Then it’s time to take our seats as Ben and Helen introduce the evening – before joining the volunteers who are acting as waiters.
Wines are introduced by Barry of Sharrowvale-based Starmore Boss. We pick a bottle of fruity Portuguese Azuelejo (£15) and the party is under way.
First up are sharing platters… My favourite is the pork rillons – deliciously crisp-skinned pieces of confit belly, reared on the farm, with a tangy salsa verde to cut through the fat.
There’s also terrine of pork from Heeley City Farm; roasted aubergine purée; a smoky paté of creamy Italian Burrata cheese and mushrooms; and a choice of spelt or French bread.
Next comes an exquisitely rich tomato and butternut squash soup, more of a purée than a broth, served in vintage china cups and saucers.
“In spite of it tasting almost exactly like Heinz, I did make it myself!” jokes Rico.
The main course is daube of beef, a classic French stew made from shin of Whirlow beef cooked with red wine, bacon, onions and herbs.
Big pots are placed on each table, along with dishes of potatoes, ratatouille, and a barigoule of foraged Peak District mushrooms and sweet Wortley Hall parsnips (Mother Nature having taken her toll on the artichokes).
And there’s more...
Cheese is next: wooden boards laden with huge chunks of Hartington Stilton from Porter Brook Deli, mugs of shell-on walnuts from Barra Organics, and spelt and oatcakes handmade by Helen along with the surprising highlight of this course – her own pickled pears.
Helen, who tweets as @Pickled_Pair, picked the fruit then poached quarters in a tangy syrup to give a fragrant, sweet-sharp finish, with plenty of bite, that works magically with the strong cheese and glasses of chilled Sauternes dessert wine.
And finally, for those who still have room, there’s dessert of apple tarte and classic almond pithivier: beautifully light flaky pastry with a soft centre of almond sponge and cherries.
It’s been a great night out, with tickets just £30. And Ben promises such events will soon be a regular feature.
Whirlow Hall Farm, Whirlow Lane, Sheffield S11 9QF 0114 2360096 Whirlow Farm