Beccles: Care farm praised for practical benefits

A pioneering concept of “care farming” in the Waveney Valley has already delivered real and practical benefits, says leading East Anglian landowner Sir Nicholas Bacon.

He welcomed farmers and representative groups to the Clinks Care Farm at Toft Monks, near Beccles, which was launched in May two years ago.

He praised the enthusiasm of founder Doeke Dobma, who has developed programmes to provide flexible training for people with a range of difficulties including mental health and also substance abuse.

A strategy of concentrating on practical skills training, either by looking after livestock including pigs, sheep, goats or chickens and learning key horticultural skills, has enabled many people to take the first steps to more stable employment.

Sir Nicholas, who is chairman of the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association, told the 30-strong group of guests that neighbours now look on the project with “benign curiosity” given some initial concerns more than three years ago. “It has been a fantastic turnaround,” added.

The challenge is how the work of the “care farm” can also benefit other farms and businesses in the surrounding area, said Sir Nicholas, who runs the family’s Raveningham estate.

“And that’s really why I’m here to encourage people. I can understand that the scope on big, arable farms with sophisticated machinery may be limited. On the other hand, there are small tasks in conservation and particularly with gardening, which is my passion.”

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As the treasurer of the Royal Horticulture Society, which stages next week’s Chelsea Flower Show, Sir Nicholas was keen to encourage other farmers and landowners. He planned to offer some potential employment if there were suitable candidates from Clink Farm’s training programmes on his family’s neighbouring estate.

“In conservation and horticulture, we can, I think, make quite a difference. And if we can extend that community which Doeke has created by helping him to help more people, then we’ll all benefit.

“You’ve done a fantastic job against all the odds,” he added.

A neighbouring pig farmer, Simon Watchorn, of nearby Earsham Park Farm, talked about his experience with the project. He stressed that he had been extremely reluctant to take anyone on to his commercial pig unit because of concerns about suitability to work with his team of staff. However, he had taken one young man on a trial, initially for just one day. To his surprise, a senior member of his team said that the youngster, who had learned very basic pig- keeping skills on a programme at Clinks Farm, had real, natural ability and affinity with stock.

After several more months of part-time work, eventually two and three days a week, he had taken him on last Christmas, on three months’ trial. Now, he was a full-time member of his team, said Mr Watchorn.

Mr Dobma said that close links had been forged with groups including Norfolk and Waveney Mental Health foundation trust. A programme of “farming on prescription” had been developed with referrals for people to spend a day a week for a 12-week placement looking after farm animals or working in the four-acre market garden. While a three-month programme was a useful start, he suggested that a more flexible approach might benefit more people.

As a social enterprise, the 143-acre Clink Care Farm “ploughed” back profits into the business. However, Mr Dobma said that, slowly, more rural businesses were now being persuaded of the potential opportunities to help and make a difference.

He welcomed the backing of Sir Nicholas and other local farmers.