How care farming in Great Missenden helps transform lives
PUBLISHED: 10:47 15 May 2018 | UPDATED: 10:47 15 May 2018
Sandra Smith visits Road Farm Countryways to discover how care farming can help to transform lives of those in need of more independence and self-confidence
Farming is one of those dedicated, born-to callings rarely accessed by those whose agricultural connection, if not understanding, is limited to buying and eating products which have been grown or reared. Opportunities to visit a farm are rare. But there are exceptions. And there are exceptional people.
On the outskirts of Great Missenden, high up in the Chiltern Hills, Road Farm Countryways is much more than a working farm. Here, Wendy and Duncan Gray have created a caring environment, welcoming those with learning disabilities to experience hands on outdoor physical exercise while socialising and acquiring knowledge and skills.
“I saw articles about the benefits of farms and wanted to be involved to share our special resource,” Wendy explains. “My first job was working in a care home so I have some understanding of different needs. And my ecology background is helpful. Duncan has a lot of youth work knowledge, as well as countryside crafts and outdoor activities. Having Asperger’s means he can identify with some of the people who come here.”
Their visitors (who first complete an online referral form and may pay per session or in batches), some of whom live in supported housing, generally attend weekly for half or full days. Children with special needs, as well as pupils from schools as far away as London, are also regulars. Whatever their age or background, each one benefits from gentle guidance and a building of self confidence while interacting with others.
This morning’s routine is typical. At 10am visitors and carers meet in a tent at the side of the farmhouse. Within the large, green canvas there are benches surrounding a central table on which tins of biscuits and flasks of hot drinks are lined up for later. The atmosphere, relaxed and enthusiastic, is complemented by Wendy’s calm nature.
She gathers everyone’s attention before the group heads outside and crosses a courtyard, passing a building that is currently under redevelopment. A teaching kitchen, funded through the Rothschild Foundation, has already been installed with an all purpose classroom planned for next door.
We continue to a nearby barn where Wendy instructs Declan and Luke, both regulars, to harness two donkeys which are then led across to an outdoor area. The boys chat endlessly while feeding the animals carrots, leaving me the opportunity to speak to one of the carers.
Linda O’Kelly supports 21-year-old Declan, who is autistic: “It’s important to try and create a life that makes sense to him, by giving him life skills so that he will be fulfilled and have independence,” she enthuses.
Once the donkeys are settled we walk round to the other side of the farm, first stopping off to check on the piglets and goats. At the chicken enclosure Declan, clearly appreciating a degree of responsibility, is first to distribute feed, leaving Linda to tell me more.
“At the farm he uses skills he doesn’t usually get to do. Declan is working with Duncan to make a sign out of light pine and is trusted to saw wood. He’s chiselling and sanding. In no other setting is he so confident and interactive. He flourishes here.”
The range of animals is such that there are species to appeal to everyone. Ever smiling Luke, whose favourites are the donkeys, isn’t quite so keen on the turkeys but we’re soon moving towards another area to admire a bull and herd of cows.
While some visitors are more able than others, Wendy quietly articulates clear instructions to anyone not paying attention. Sticking together is an important condition and, with a few kind prompts, effortlessly achieved.
As we make our way back to the tent Wendy talks about the farm. Mixed arable (wheat, oats) and livestock (sheep, pigs, cattle) make up this 250 acre family owned site which includes woodland and stunning countryside views. She grew up here after her father realised his ambition to become a farmer, studied at agricultural college and invested in the property. In 2010 the Grays made it their home.
As excitement builds at the prospect of mid morning snacks, we all stop to wash our hands while Wendy reveals the impact of care farming on individuals.
“People are able to make progress in a job and take part in it more confidently. Not everyone can communicate verbally, but their eyes can speak volumes. Coming here has a holistic effect, improving sleep and appetite. Physical exercise and being out in fresh air are positive influences. It’s good for care workers, too.”
Last year Road Farm attracted hundreds of visitors and, although fundraising to provide more facilities (including toilets for which drainage is installed and plans approved) is ongoing, a number of charities have provided Being trusted with tools to make items for the farm can give visitors a boost valuable support. Meanwhile the mother of four shares details of another venture.
“We are just about to start Countrymen’s Club for older men with health problems, for instance Parkinsons, or those who’ve had a stroke or are in a wheelchair, things which mean they don’t get out much. Our trackways are firm and solid, though people with a disability need to have a carer with them. Another farm is mentoring us, we are their pilot.
“We want to remain a working farm, but would like others to benefit from the Care Farm. We are also aware we don’t want to be a big, bustling visitor centre because that detracts from what people get out of coming to us. Care Farming really impacts upon the individuals involved who may have very few other places where they’re able to unwind and grow in confidence and independence, which is why we do it.”
Inside the tent, biscuits and strawberry milk shakes are popular. Duncan lights a fire to take the chill out of the spring air. Banter is easy going and friendly. “Do you know what my motto is since the day I started school?” Declan asks me. “Go big or go home!” There’s a touching aura of companionship at Road Farm. Yes, this is a thriving and traditional business. But it’s so much more besides. Because thanks to the compassion of Wendy and Duncan Gray, their land, facilities, experience and purpose combine to give vulnerable members of our society the opportunity to grow.
Road Farm Countryways are grateful to local people and the following organisations for their funding: Terrific Toilets: Sweet Charity, Mobbs Memorial Trust, Great Missenden Rotary, CLA Charitable Trust, Roland Callingham Foundation, Paradigm Foundation. New Teaching Kitchen: Rothschild Foundation, Sweet Charity, Roland Callingham Foundation. Countrymen’s Club: Local Area Forum, Wheels to Explore project to buy an all terrain wheelchair with help from Tesco Bags of Help and Prestwood Area Community Transport.