From the Western Daily Press, 17 September 2014:
Farming may be tough – but for some it is the best treatment. Tina Rowe meets a woman who’d like it on prescription.
Picture a group of teenagers who find school challenging mucking in on the farm. Picture countrymen with a lifetime of experience facing isolation in old age. Bring them together enjoying life at a remarkable working farm in Dorset and you have some idea of what Future Roots is achieving.
The not-for-profit organisation, now in its eighth year, was the brainchild of farmer’s daughter and social worker Julie Plumley.
She was convinced that young people who did not fit into the “norm”, felt under-valued and perhaps faced exclusion from school, would benefit from trying some of the many jobs that are the everyday experience of a farmer.
And when Julie’s own father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and went to a club for people with the illness, she realised that for such an active outdoors man “sitting around inside” was not the answer.
She and partner James O’Brien took the plunge and bought Rylands Farm at Holnest, near Sherborne. Eight years on and just under 100 young people come to the farm each week from 15 schools across South Somerset and Dorset, travelling from as far as Bournemouth, Poole and Christchurch.
The Ofsted-registered establishment runs courses and clubs for all ages.
There is Field 2 Fork, outdoor education and enrichment for five-21 year olds with complex learning needs. Young people learn how to get food out of the field and onto the plate in a practical way, and can gain accredited qualifications, and sometimes for the first time realise their own ability and work.
Future Farmers offers one and two year courses for 14-21 year olds, providing all the basics for a career in agriculture, based on a City and Guilds Award. Young people learn around the seasonal demands of farming life. Along the way they learn teamwork, communication, problem-solving and planning, how to live healthily, good nutrition, as well as how to feed and care for livestock, maintain the farm and tend and harvest fruit and vegetables.
And the Countrymen’s Club tackles the problem of rural isolation. It is funded by the Big Lottery Fund’s Silver Dreams Fund in association with the Daily Mail.
The philosophy is known as “care farming” and Future Roots is part of a network called Care Farming UK.
But despite more and more similar schemes starting up, the UK is lagging on this approach, something Julie would liek to see change.
“Europe is much more advanced in care or social farming that Britain. Norway has care farming on prescription and Europe has many more care farms that are accepted as being part of their Heath and social care services.
“We would like commissioners to see farming as a possible option as a preventative and recovery service for people with various conditions, increasing well being and opportunities to use a green a gym.”
A typical day will find young and old mucking in at Rylands. The farm includes the Dreamcatcher herd of 25 suckler cattle, including eight pedigree Simmentals, Julie’s father’s favourite breed, goats, sheep, donkeys, chickens and ducks.
Julie’s partner still works full-time off the farm, but she says without his input Future Roots would not be able to carry on.
Explaining her philosophy she says: “I grew up on a farm and as a social worker I saw a lot of young people who were not coping with main stream school and were diagnosed with all sorts of conditions and gaining a reputation perhaps for being aggressive, but when you really made contact with them they were really nice young people, but their skills were not acknowledged because they were not the norm. They weren’t recognised for good things, only the ‘bad’.
There is friendship across the ages too, with some of the young people getting to know the older generation, coming across and asking to borrow tools, or sharing information.
There is growing interest in care farming in mainland Europe, a realisation that the natural environment can play an important part in well-being.
“I knew from seeing my dad at work that farming involves so many different skills. You’ve got to be a plumber, a vet, a carpenter… I am not saying we are the best at all these, but you have to be efficient, and also caring, in looking after the animals, and putting the needs of others before yourself. It’s no good thinking ‘I’ve got a cold, I’m not going out’ when there are animals to feed.
“We had a pilot project for 18 months and it has grown from that. Sonya Mogg, who works with us, is a finalist in the Employee of the Year in the Blackmore Vale business awards, of which we are very proud.”
Testimony from two of the schools involved heaps praise on the work of Future Roots and the dedication of their staff.
Gillingham School makes note of “positive relationships built up with staff”, saying that these mutually respectful relationships “do not happen by chance, but through getting to know these disparate characters as individuals and then making sure they were helped to develop.”
Sherborne Learning Centre adds: “It is a fantastic resource run by kind, caring, skilled and dedicated people. it works well for every student.”
And that success with youngsters spurred Julie and her team on further, she says.
“Then we started the Countrymen’s Club, very much around my dad getting older. He missed his cows so much and I thought about other older men, and that there was nothing out there that gave them the chance to stay in touch with rural life and be part of a farm. Not everyone wants to go to a day centre, and older people want to be involved in the future, not just reminisce.
“Someone with dementia can still push the wheelchair of someone with Parkinson’s. Everyone can feel involved. Some will tell me when a cow is likely to calve. One man makes beautiful corn dollies, and tapestry. People still have a contribution to make.”
The farm is holding Holnest Country Fair on September 27-28 to raise funds for Future Roots. The two-day event will include a display of old machinery and tractors, a dog show, chain saw carving and crafts including blacksmithing. All are welcome.