Jonathan Benjamin “JB” Gill spent the first five years of his life living in Antigua,
before moving to Croydon, where he began making music at the age of seven, joining
the choir and performing at the local church. After completing university, he met
the other members of the band JLS and they decided to audition for The X Factor in
2008. They came second that year and went on to sell 10 million records worldwide.
Let’s begin with the obvious question, why is ex-boyband member JB Gill, one of the four founding members of the band JLS (Ed. Note: X Factor runners-up to Alexandre Burke in 2008) having lunch in Boisdale? Simple answer, JB is now a bona-fide farmer, vocal advocate of sustainable produce and particularly keen on venison – all of which are passions we share.
For readers unfamiliar with the band JLS, here is a quick summary. After appearing on the X Factor, the band were signed to Sony-owned Epic records and they went on to achieve 5 No. 1 hit singles, selling 10m records worldwide, winning two Brit Awards and six MOBOs along the way. An impressive resume, and had it not all ended in December 2013, we might never have had the pleasure of JB’s company, on a very enjoyable autumnal afternoon.
JB was partly out-and-about in London that day thanks to British Sausage Week. He is the newly recruited ambassador for the campaign, run by www.lovepork. co.uk. Now in its nineteenth year, it’s basically a celebration of the great ‘British Banger’. Sausages aside, JB is most passionate about venison. Before we get there, I asked him to explain how it all began, after all, as a career change this appears to be significant?
“I’m definitely the leftfield one when it came to a new career. Where I live now, we have about 10 acres of farmland and when I first bought the land there were no real plans to be a farmer. But over the first two years I was frustrated by cutting it back every year and spending money on it. I thought it’s about time it made me some money, or at least helped feed us! That was the birth of the farm idea.” I wondered if JB missed the music industry and some of the glamour that went along with it, “No, I’ve gone into a new phase of my life. My outlook and my priorities have changed. I was very busy then, pretty much working 24 hours a day, we left early in the morning for promos and interviews and arrived back late at night because you had to go to some event. Which sounds like a lot of fun, but trust me, three years into it, not every party is great! It changed for me when I got married and that came at the right time, I value being at home now.”
I still couldn’t help wonder if JB was the real deal or the ‘face’ of the farm, he had arrived impeccably dressed at Boisdale, but did he have his wellies on at home? “Yes, I didn’t have the space or farming knowledge at the beginning, so I started off with pigs, Tamworths. I then ventured into turkeys, we are in our third year now and we sell those direct from the farm. It’s been gradual and I’ve selected livestock that I have the time to look after and secondly, that I have been able to grow with.” So from Christmas number one to the Christmas table, I asked JB if I should abandon my traditional Waitrose turkey this year, “Our farm will do 200 turkeys running up to about 12 kilos, which is double what we did last year. They are completely free range, bronze birds and I feed them a mix feed specially developed by Kelly Bronze. Most of the sales are made online at Kelly Bronze Turkeys, ready to be collected from Biggen Hill on the 23rd.” I’m definitely tempted, JB is clearly passionate about animal welfare and we often forget the work that goes into getting that turkey on the table.
Of course he isn’t entirely tied to the farm. If you remain unfamiliar with JLS but perhaps have a 4 or 5 year old child, they will more than likely be aware of his presence in their lives. He is one of the presenters of the CBeebies series, ‘Down on the Farm’, an educational programme based on… you get the picture. “We are on the fourth series of Down on the Farm and excited to have just been nominated for a Scottish BAFTA, it’s great to be recognised for
The farm is the foundation but I enjoy still being part of the creative process. I’m working on a book range at the moment for early readers (Ed. Note: JB has a two year old son, called Ace). It works for me from a new career perspective, from a lifestyle perspective and an artistic perspective.”
Without doubt JB is a man of many talents, presenter, musician, farmer and sportsman. With the exception of having watched the X Factor and him performing on it, I wasn’t particularly aware of JLS. Fortunately, the tried and trusted topic of sports came up. As it turns out, we both shared an enthusiasm for rugby, JB achieved slightly more than me on the field (!) having played for his school, Whitgift and at the London Irish academy until he was 18. He was a winger so I asked how quick his 100m were at the time, “11.7 seconds, but my 60 and 30 was what I was really good at.”
I smugly told JB that I went to Wellington College (even though I only made the 3rd XV) and wondered how he fared against us? “I remember the first time we played at Wellington, I think we lost at the death, it was freezing cold and a hard place to play. I played against James Haskell, we’d heard a lot about him. But we had some pretty big boys too. We were winning local games 60 or 70 nil in South London, but when we turned up at Wellington we knew it was a serious side.”
I had my own flashback, having played against Dulwich aged 15 and specifically, opposite Andrew Sheridan (later England loose-head prop) who genuinely looked about 25 years old at that time. JB recalled, “The whole gym work started just as I was playing. I played with Harry Aikines-Aryeety (Rio Olympian in the 100m) and everyone wondered what he was eating and what training he was doing. He had never actually been to the gym! But they began running gym programs for the first time at London Irish when I was 15. The game has just evolved so much now and the days of Mike Catt have gone. I think it’s because the Southern Hemisphere teams are naturally big, I had my own flashback, having played against Dulwich aged 15 and specifically, opposite Andrew Sheridan (later England loose-head prop) who genuinely looked about 25 years old at that time. JB recalled, “The whole gym work started just as I was playing. I played with Harry Aikines-Aryeety (Rio Olympian in the 100m) and everyone Wild venison also means stalking and the public don’t like the sound of that. their wingers are just the same size as their No. 8’s.”
We went on to speak about rugby for some time before remembering that we were meant to be discussing venison! As a reminder, we were now at the table eating Boisdale’s own venison special. I asked JB why in particular this had struck a chord with him, “I remember walking in the woods at the farm and seeing the wild deer. I didn’t know venison farming existed at that time, I just assumed it was all wild? Over time I have developed a huge love for venison and am in the process of starting a deer farm in Scotland.” As it happens, I knew about deer farming from a long lunch I had with Mike Robinson, owner of the Harwood Arms and venison farmer himself, but I wondered if JB like me felt the public was still a bit in the dark? JB summed up the situation, “60% to 70% of our venison is still imported and there seems to be no support for farmers here, which is nuts! It’s partly because venison farming is an expensive business to start up, there are lots of initial costs, especially fencing. This means most of our consumed venison is wild at the moment, which also means stalking. Number one, the public don’t like the sound of that. Number two, it takes time. The perception of venison is that it’s a ‘gentleman’s pastime’, that you need land or an estate. This is just not true, we need ‘farm parks’ to normalise the production of venison and create some consistency, higher welfare standards and a great product. At the moment, the readily available sources of protein we have in supermarkets are easier to farm; chicken, beef and lamb. They are all easier to manoeuvre and maintain. Even when venison is farmed they remain a wild animal and they aren’t the friendliest of creatures!”
I guess the big question is what impact JB himself is having on our eating habits. It’s a laudable cause and presumably the farming industry is keen to have him on board? “A lot of people in the farming industry will not have necessarily heard of or know of JLS, so it’s just about bridging that gap and talking about what they are passionate about. It seems to have been well received and I have had a lot of support, I have done a few pieces with Countryfile now. Adam Henson has been very supportive. He took me up to his own farm, to see what he does and exploring what I would be interested in.” We both agreed that attitudes towards food were changing, thanks in part to high profile campaigns from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and others. Ultimately, it all begins at home and JB agreed, “I cook a lot and tell Ace where the food has come from, there comes a point when you have to understand that process. You have to appreciate it and not just turn up, see food on a plate and eat it.”
I truly hope the industry embraces JB’s efforts and encourages the consumer. No doubt his past career will engage an audience of potential venison customers, in a way our celebrity chefs simply cannot and this should be encouraged. Boisdale certainly wishes him the best and not least because he’s thoroughly good company.