A place for everyone... down on the farm

Heather Carroll, part of a group hoping to set up a community farm near Woodbridge.

Heather Carroll, part of a group hoping to set up a community farm near Woodbridge. - Credit: Archant

All the evidence shows being close to nature is good for you. Sheena Grant finds out about plans for a community farm that aims to help everyone, from children upwards, benefit from interacting with the environment

Heather Heelis, part of a group hoping to set up a community farm near Woodbridge.

Heather Heelis, part of a group hoping to set up a community farm near Woodbridge. - Credit: Archant

Imagine a place where children can play safely outside, where food can be grown and animals reared, where people of all ages and backgrounds can come together and learn new skills or just benefit from being surrounded by nature.

That’s the vision a group of professionals with expertise ranging from farming to education, health, the environment and business are planning to make reality within a few short months.

By September 2016, they hope the Deben Community Farm will be up and running in the Woodbridge area, bringing together farming, care and community in one place, welcoming children, young people and adults to a nurturing environment that builds self- esteem, confidence and respect while providing opportunities to learn new skills and be valued as individuals.

The community farm will incorporate a new care farm, an existing after-school and holiday club and a new children’s community nursery for under fives in one location, where there will be opportunities to care for animals, grow plants and vegetables and explore nature.

Those behind the project are currently looking to buy or rent around five acres of land and reckon up to 700 people could have regular contact with the farm each year and up to 5,000 could use it at other times, particularly weekends.

“It’s hugely exciting,” says Heather Heelis, who runs The Pitstop After School and Holiday Club in Melton and is spearheading the project.

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“We wanted to expand how we work with children and were inspired by the care farming concept and the way it could be applied to anyone of any age, incorporating the idea of getting back to nature and knowing where food comes from, growing and harvesting. The farm will be for everyone from children to people with mental health issues, learning difficulties, disaffected teenagers and other members of the community

“Where we are coming from is quite a unique position. We are looking at not just education and employment training but embracing everyone in this concept and taking a different stance, enriching people’s lives and having the whole package in one place.”

That package involves a care farm with spaces for 10-20 vulnerable clients a day. It will provide a supervised, structured programme of therapeutic and educational farming-related activities, including animal husbandry, crop and vegetable production and woodland management.

Up to 30 children a day will attend the Pitstop’s after school club, which will take up residence at the farm, and up to 40 at its holiday club, There will also be nursery places for the under fives. In addition, it’s envisaged there will be up to 30 visitors a day at weekend and Bank Holidays.

“The idea is that it most definitely will be a working farm as well,” says Heather Heelis. “We would grow things to go to the kitchen and provide food for the nursery and after school club. Any excess would be sold.

“As far as the animals are concerned, we’ll have everything from guinea pigs to sheep, pigs and ponies. We’ve got a couple of hens waiting to come already and goats too. The plan is to open it up so that it reaches the whole community. We would be open at weekends for the public to come and use. There will be workshops, the chance to make things, grow things and feed the animals.”

There’s plenty of research that supports the idea that projects such as this can make a real difference to children, who all too often these days don’t get the same opportunities to be outside that previous generations did.

In 2012 the National Trust produced a report showing “compelling evidence” that children were displaying signs of a modern phenomenon known as ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’.

“Children used to go off and build dens and climb trees,” says Heather Heelis. “That’s not available to them anymore in the way it used to be. The farm will provide opportunities for children to interact with nature and achieve things.”

Other studies show that engaging with nature has huge therapeutic benefits for adults affected by a range of physical and mental illnesses as well as disaffected young people.

Researchers at the University of Essex have been studying the concept of ‘Green Exercise’ for more than a decade and have found evidence that exposure to nature benefits mental and physical health in all ages. One study showed just five minutes of exercise in a green space had a beneficial effect.

Heather Heelis already sees the positive effects contact with animals and the environment can have on children.

“At Pitstop we already grow things and have pets on a small scale,” she says. “Children can experience things that some of them have never experienced before - growing a tomato or lettuce, watering it, harvesting it and then eating it.

“While the club makes the most of opportunities through play to explore the wider world at its current location, there are limitations on what can be achieved. We would like to remove these limitations to enable children to experience a whole range of activities possible on the community farm, activities that will teach them life skills, both social and practical, to achieve a healthy and active life.

“If children can get as much as they already have from a very small-scale project, imagine what benefits they would gain from a ‘real life’ situation where they could grow, harvest, cook and eat their produce on a scale that would feed all the children. Working with the animals, gathering eggs, seeing the wool shorn from the sheep and then knitting with it. Could this experience produce our future farmers, chefs, horticulturalists, conservationists or carers - or at the very least give them the skills to live a healthier lifestyle?

“Children start learning from the moment they are born. They absorb every little detail through sight, sound, smell and touch.”

In line with its community ethos, the project would be not for profit and any money made would be reinvested in the farm.

Capital investment needed for the project to become reality is already in place but Heather Heelis says the team is looking to build partnerships with local business and a serious fundraising drive is planned over the coming months.

“One of the strengths of this project is that it is not profit that drives us but people being at the centre of everything we do,” she adds.

Heather Carroll, who has a background in environmental science and conservation and is also part of the team masterminding the project, says the therapeutic value of what they are planning is important.

“It’s about enriching people’s lives,” she says. “I know how much I enjoy growing things and being in nature and an outside environment. The outdoors is hugely therapeutic and it’s good for health in other ways - it keeps you active, builds self-esteem and makes you feel valued.

“Everyone is an individual and that is where the community farm comes into its own. There is a place for everyone.”

There’s a lot to be done and a lot of funds to be raised between now and next year. But the two Heathers aren’t daunted.

“We are not out to conquer the world – just make a difference in the quality of life of the people who live, work and play in the community around us,” says Heather Heelis. “Our aim is that others will be inspired by what we do, take away ideas, and use them or adapt them for their own needs.

“It is a wonderful opportunity. When we put people and land together magical things happen. We hope to be the catalyst for something amazing.”

To find out more visit www.debencommunityfarm.co.uk or email enquiries@debencommunityfarm.co.uk

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