Hens, honey and happiness: How this local care farm enriches the lives of vulnerable people

Liz Marley, Director of Poppies Care Farm at the Ipswich Farmers' Market Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN

Liz Marley, Director of Poppies Care Farm at the Ipswich Farmers' Market Picture: SARAH LUCY BROWN - Credit: Archant

Care farms are a form of ecotherapy, providing skills and opportunities to people with learning difficulties and mental health issues. Based on the outskirts of Ipswich, Poppies Care Farm helps develop social skills, with care farmers getting involved in all aspects of farm life.

There's always plenty of do - and plenty of animals to care for - at Poppies Care Farm

There's always plenty of do - and plenty of animals to care for - at Poppies Care Farm - Credit: Liz Marley

No two days are ever the same at Poppies Care Farm. From the moment the farmyard cockerels begin crowing at dawn, there's plenty to be done. Animals need feeding. Eggs need collecting and counting. And the market garden needs some care and attention. Daily jobs change from season to season and from month to month, but one thing is for certain: the work will always get done. The care farmers will see to that.

Five days a week, the farm welcomes small groups of people with learning difficulties and mental health struggles. Mostly young adults, but with people of all ages getting involved, these care farmers are invited to get stuck in with all manner of jobs, from mucking out the donkeys to carrying out essential farm maintenance. There's never a dull moment to be had.

Kid goats at Poppies Care Farm. Picture: LIZ MARLEY

Kid goats at Poppies Care Farm. Picture: LIZ MARLEY - Credit: Archant

"This is a working farm, so we don't need to create activities - there is always lots to do!" explains Liz Marley, director of Poppies Care Farm. "The people who come to the farm are learning hard skills - such as using tools, carrying out repairs, caring for animals and growing fruit and vegetables. But they are also learning important soft skills too. Here, they can learn about working together and being part of a team. "We share out all of the jobs between us, and the emphasis is always on the fact that we can achieve more together than we ever can individually."

Liz moved to the farm with her husband Lee Smith back in 2011. At seven acres, the property was by no means large by farming standards, but it certainly presented a challenge for the couple, who were both working full-time when they took over the farm. For two years, they worked on the farm in their spare time, before someone suggested that they look into care farming. It seemed like an ideal fit for the couple, who had both previously spent time volunteering with adults with learning difficulties.

Care farmers can learn hard skills and soft skills during their trips to Poppies

Care farmers can learn hard skills and soft skills during their trips to Poppies - Credit: Liz Marley

So, after doing some research, completing some training and getting accredited with Suffolk County Council, the couple opened the doors to Poppies Care Farm in 2014. Since those early days, the farm has grown quite considerably. The site is now home to two large polytunnels for growing vegetables, and has recently received a grant from the Fonnereau Road Health Foundation Fund to build a third. Liz and Lee have been busy converting the numerous outbuildings scattered around the farm, turning one of them into a 'fun' area for care farming teams. Here in the Yellow Barn, while enjoying a well-earned break from their farming duties, visitors have a chance to socialise and play games, bonding with one another over the pool table or a lively game of UNO.

Each day on the farm has a certain structure to it, but day-to-day jobs are always changing, depending on the seasons. At around 9.20am each morning, the Poppies Care Farm team pick up their guests for the day, bringing them back to the farm and getting them settled in with a cup of tea This gives the staff a chance to check in with everybody and to see how they are doing. Then, as the clock strikes 10am, work begins for the day. The animals always come first as their needs are the most pressing, so it's straight down to the stables to give the donkeys a visit.

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"We carry out a welfare check on our animals every day, just to make sure that they are healthy and happy," says Liz. "Our care farmers tend to really enjoy looking after the animals and feeding and watering them each day. We've got four alpacas, six goats, two donkeys, guinea pigs, rabbits and chickens - and they all need plenty of looking after!"

The farm's Market Garden also needs lots of care. In the spring, the care farmers will busy themselves preparing beds, sowing seeds and planting out. In the summer, it's all hands on deck when it comes to harvesting. Poppies Care Farm supplies Ipswich vegan Café Hullaballoo with all manner of bountiful veg - plump aubergines, ripe tomatoes and hearty greens. The team also sells their produce at Ipswich Farmers Market, which takes place on the first Sunday of every month.

At their stall, you'll find free-range eggs, fresh fruit and veg and farm-made jams, preserves, all of which have been lovingly collected and cultivated by the hard-working care farmers.

"We're hoping to branch out a little more and start selling some more of our farm-made produce," says Liz. "We've started work on our Honey Room, which as the name suggests, is a converted outbuilding which will be used for extracting honey. It is a big kitchen space, which we will also use making our jams and teaching cooking and baking skills to the care farmers. We have goats due to kid in April and we are hoping to milk them and have a go at cheese making as well."

The team is also working on a new space called the "mush-room", which will be used for growing mushrooms. Also on the horizon is a potential hedgerow planting project, which would be a long-term initiative to reintroduce some native hedgerow and larger trees along one of the farm's boundaries. With all of this on the cards, 2020 looks set to be a very busy year for Poppies Care Farm.

"Even though we're in the process of developing the farm and ramping things up a bit, we are focused on keeping our group sizes small," Liz explains. "We have just five members of staff, so this creates quite a personal touch and a family feel. No matter what the next year brings, this will always be the same."

A Typical day on the farm

9.30am Staff and care farmers arrive for a cuppa and a catch up, share stories and plan the day, maybe play some games.

10am First session - we look after our animals, feeding, grooming and mucking out. Sometimes we have special tasks like trimming the alpacas' hooves.

11am Morning break - a drink and some biscuits, a game of table football or UNO!

11.30am Second session - We split into groups. One group will be working in the market garden, preparing beds early in the year, laying membrane and irrigation, later in the year we will be harvesting. The other group will work on farm projects: building new animal shelters, repairing old ones. Lots of opportunities to learn and practice using tools.

12.45pm Lunch - we all bring packed lunches which we eat in the Yellow Barn. We play some games or just relax.

1.45pm Third session - again in groups we might be working in the Market Garden harvesting and preparing for farmers' market, we might get the tractor out (favourite activity) to move compost of waste). We may have a woodworking project in the workshop. Sometimes, if we have had a busy morning, we will go on a nature walk in the afternoon, taking a camera and litter picker!

3pm Re-group in the Yellow Barn for diaries - noting how the day has gone, special achievements and keeping a record of what people have enjoyed.

3.15pm Pile into the Land Rover for drop off, tired but happy!