1 January 1999

A DIFFERENT TYPE OF

FARM FOR THE FUTURE

PREPARATIONS to mark the start of the new millennium are well underway in many areas, as funds are raised for projects like village hall extension and tree-planting schemes. But a group in Suffolk has a more unusual project – it plans to start a farm.

Behind the project is the Millennium Farm Trust, a charity established to provide opportunities for people with learning difficulties to experience working with livestock and crops.

Its an ambitious idea with plenty of hurdles to be overcome to get the project off the ground, but one of the biggest potential problems appears to be solved. Finding the right farm could have taken years, but Suffolk County Council came up with an ideal answer.

When James Foster, tenant of the council-owned Vicarage Farm at Great Barton, retired last year the Farms Committee decided to divide the land, adding about 20ha (50 acres) to the neighbouring council farm. This left the tenancy of the farmhouse, buildings and the remaining 17ha (42 acres) which was offered to the trust.

Vicarage Farm could suit the trusts requirements perfectly. The fertile medium loam soil is suitable for both crop production and grazing, and there is a good range of buildings. The location is also ideal, near bus routes to bring people with learning difficulties – the workers – to and from the farm, and close to Bury St Edmunds and potential customers for the farm shop which is included in the trusts business plan.

Finance is the problem

There are, of course, strings attached to the tenancy offer, and the farms committee will require reassurance that the trust has the financial and technical resources to manage and maintain the property and pay the rent.

Finance is the immediate problem. The trust has to raise funds to start the project and to keep it running at least until the farm can generate income. In fact, the farm may never be fully self-supporting as the costs will include employing a manager, and there are no plans for an intensive livestock enterprise which could help to boost turnover from the 17.5ha (43 acres).

The trust hopes that some equipment and livestock will be given to the farm – pigs are among the donations already promised – but fund-raising is the top priority. Money is already coming in through local fund-raising events but the trust is also approaching charitable trusts and organisations such as the National Lottery as part of the money-raising campaign, and commercial sponsorship is another possibility being explored.

Bernadette Shrubshall, who started the project, said the aim is to begin the tenancy in the autumn of 1999 and to expand the work opportunities during the following year. Until then the land is being farmed on a yearly tenancy by the neighbouring farmer.

Her interest in the idea was prompted by her brother, Kirk, who has learning difficulties and is fascinated by farming. Apart from a specialist course at the Otley College of Agriculture and Horticulture, the opportunities in Suffolk for people like Kirk to work with livestock and crops are virtually non-existent. Bernadette was aware that there are farms and smallholdings in other areas which are run specifically for people with learning difficulties and she decided to see if a similar project could be established locally.

An advertisement in the local press brought an encouraging response, including interest on behalf of people who would like to use the facility, plus offers of help. It also attracted the interest of the County Land Agent, leading to the offer of the Vicarage Farm tenancy.

Her interest in the idea earned Bernadette a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust fellowship to pay for travel to Denmark, France and the US visiting farms already established on similar lines to those planned by the Millennium Farm Trust. The visits, plus the experience of organisations running similar farms in the UK, convinced Bernadette that the idea can work well and provide real benefits for those involved in the farm activities.

"Working with animals and crops has a calming effect on some people with learning difficulties," she said, "and it also provides an opportunity to develop skills and to gain experience which they could not otherwise acquire".

Start on small scale

"We will have to start on a small scale with opportunities for one or two people to work on the farm initially, but we aim to expand this to provide places for 12 or even more eventually. Each worker would come to the farm for up to three days at a time to work under supervision with the animals or helping to grow crops, and we will also have a workshop where they can do the basic maintenance and repair work on the equipment."

Crops grown on the farm will be mainly vegetables and fruit. These provide opportunities for hand work and using simple machinery, and suits the objectives of the farm better than cereals or other extensive crops relying mainly on mechanisation. Some of the vegetables and fruit will be sold in the farm shop, together with eggs from free-range hens.

As well as poultry, the livestock plans also include pigs, sheep and cattle which will be kept in small numbers and managed traditionally. Bernadette hopes that at least some of the livestock will be rare breeds which could attract additional visitors to Vicarage Farm.

"We know the same idea works successfully elsewhere, and we also know that there is a big potential demand in this area for an opportunity to work with animals and crops," said Bernadette. "Getting the farm started will not be easy, but I am confident that we will be successful and it seems a very good way to start the new millennium."

More information about the Vicarage Farm project is available from The Millennium Farm Trust, 2 Oakey Field Road, Thurston, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk IP31 3RX.