The Boyband Farmer
At the grand age of 32, Jonathan Benjamin Gill – otherwise known as JB – is a familiar face to many. The former member of boy band JLS is now an established member of the farming community and presents CBeebies’s Down on the Farm. And now as a presenter of BBC’s Songs of Praise he is increasingly known for his faith. JB talks to Charlotte Walker about how his walk with God has inspired him to look further afield than the boundaries of his own farm…
Like many young superstars craving solace, JB bought his home, set on a 15-acre farm in semi-rural north Kent, as an easy getaway from the craziness of London life in the spotlight. Little did he know that an inherent need to be resourceful would see him begin a new chapter in his life.
“Farming was never in my plans,” says JB. “It was just something that kind of happened, but it’s a great lifestyle, having two young children and something exciting to share with them.”
JB seems to have a knack of embarking on a whole new direction just as one chapter of his life is reaching its natural conclusion. As a youngster, he suffered a sports injury which saw his dream of becoming a professional rugby player in tatters. It did, however, pave the way to him refocusing on his childhood love of music.
It was in 2008, while he was studying theology at King’s College London, that he and his bandmates from JLS appeared on The X Factor. Although they were pipped to the post by Alexandra Burke, it didn’t matter and their first two singles ‘Beat again’ and ‘Everybody in love’ shot straight to number one. Seven years later, with two BRIT awards in hand and having toured the world, JLS had completed their record deal. They decided this was the natural end to the band, rather than negotiating a new deal.
JB says: “I bought the land when I was in the group. I knew that it was going to end so I just thought, ‘How am I to make the most of this resource?’ I always believe in doing things you are suited to and you enjoy. Making your career something you enjoy doing and love doing will motivate you, and I love being on the farm. It actually happened at the right time in my life as I was soon to get married and start a family. I’m based around the farm and if I’m away now, I’m away for a short time, compared to when I was in the band. When you’re in promo mode with a band, it’s literally 24/7. You’re performing at night and then up at 3 a.m. to do breakfast TV.”
JB reflects on the up and down of achieving success at a young age: “There are difficulties in having success young, and any journey to the top of an industry involves a roller-coaster of ups and downs. There is often a great deal of money which becomes equal to power in our world. There are a lot of opportunistic people around you and a lot of pitfalls. I was fortunate that I had my family and I was able to speak to them about things, but I didn’t always do things perfectly. You see it time and time again in the entertainment business – you have this adulation, but that lifestyle ends and it’s hard to adjust. For someone like me, I was at university, and I hadn’t had another job when JLS took off. That was all I knew. But if you start younger, like One Direction did, these guys were just out of school so it’s even more difficult to come out of.”
But so often life goes full circle. Fuelled by early childhood memories of growing up in Antigua, where he remembers his dad keeping horses and cutting sugar cane with his cousins, JB threw himself into learning how to cultivate the land and farming pigs and turkeys. It was at this time that he started questioning whether the Christian faith he grew up with was, in fact, something he had chosen for himself.
He says: “When I was younger, I grew up in church and was, on the surface, a Christian, even though my life did not always exhibit that faith. I still tithed when I had the money but would not say I was actively a Christian at the time. I always believed, but it got to a point where I needed to make a choice for myself. It’s something that cannot be inherited and ultimately you have to make that choice for yourself. You’re not saved because your parents decided you’re saved. It really was when I was thinking about getting married and having a family that I thought, ‘What do I want to stand for?’ and ‘What example do I want to set my children?’”
JB visited Zimbabwe in January with the Red Cross and met farmers struggling with the effects of climate change, which hit home, particularly after experiencing the effects of the long, hot British summer of 2018 on his own farm.
“It hadn’t rained for three months and they had a very long, hard drought and were reaching a crisis point,” he says. “The warm summer last year affected our food production, but in the UK and the Western world we feel the effects of climate change far less than other nations do. They have to do so much more to mitigate against it. The farming they do in Zimbabwe is very much subsistence farming and they are very dependent on a crop, so if it fails, it really is bad news. Here we’re able to import a great deal and have a supermarket to fall back on. So if there are no strawberries, we can buy something else.”
His travels made him realise that “farming’s different in every country. We’re not living in isolation. So it’s good to think of how things are done on an international level. But in developing countries climate change is a very real issue and you have to be a bit smart. It was good to hear that the farmers were being taught about soil types and what crops can resist dry or extreme heat. They were also taught techniques required to preserve water, such as utilising dish- and clothes-washing water.”
JB enjoyed being a part of a Food and Farming event attended by 5,000 schoolchildren at the East of England Showground during the summer of 2018. As a supporter of The Leprosy Mission’s work, it was here that he met Rev Joshua Sivagnam, who works with The Leprosy Mission in Sri Lanka. Rev Joshua teaches leprosy-affected communities to farm the land effectively so that they can feed their families and ensure they are well-nourished, ultimately strengthening the body’s immune system to fight leprosy. Rev Joshua was one of the 12 international farmers to benefit from the Marshal Papworth scholarship helping people from developing countries grow their way out of poverty. Having done ten weeks at farming school in England, he and his fellow students had studied sustainable agriculture techniques, animal husbandry and business practices ahead of meeting JB at the East of England Showground.
“Being a supporter of The Leprosy Mission, it was interesting to learn about leprosy in the modern world, not just from what we read about in the Bible,” says JB. “You should help if you’re able to help and everyone has different strengths. I don’t think it’s beneficial for me to be away in the mission field long-term because of my farm and family, but because of being in JLS, I have a profile and I’ll do what I can to help so there’s definitely positive aspects. It was an honour for me to go to Zimbabwe. We don’t live in isolation and we impact on each other globally. It’s important to keep the narrative going.”