19 September 1997

Free-rangers make plea for fellow feeling

The messages that Roger and Beryl Hosking wish visitors to take away from Highfields Happy Hens open day concern the nurture of people as much as the nurture of poultry. Ann Rogers paid an early visit

JOLLY straw giants will sign the way to Highfields Farm, Etwall, Derbyshire, on Saturday next (Sept 27) inviting people to the open day that the Hosking family is holding in conjunction with the NFU Friendly Farms scheme.

Last year they had almost 1000 visitors. So successful were they that their sponsors urged them not to try a repeat. But they ignored the advice. They have important messages they wish to get over to the public and the farming community, and their sponsors – Ross Poultry, Yorkshire Country Feeds and Bibbys – have backed them once again.

"This is a large free range egg farm registered with the RSPCA Freedom Foods," runs the invitation. "Come and see for yourself how the pressures of commercial farming and animal welfare are handled in a real life situation while producing a product acceptable to the modern supermarkets."

Raising the profile of Freedom Foods is just one of the aims of the open day. Educating the public is another. They can see 20,000 Ross Poultry Loman Brown hens housed in six controlled environment buildings from which they range over grassy paddocks. Visiting children can feed the hens and collect and grade their eggs.

They can see chicks hatching in a specially set up incubator and experience the thrill of holding one.

Then there are sheep to meet – 250 breeding ewes which lamb in poly-tunnels; a tractor and trailer to give rides around the 64ha (160-acre) holding; a bouncy castle and a competition.

Private reasons

There will be trade stands too. "I am a member of the British Free Range Egg Producers Association and the day is aimed at existing and prospective free-rangers to come and see what we do," says Roger. "But we have private reasons which to me are as important," he adds. Both concern the needy.

The first is to encourage more farm families to foster young people with special needs, to make room for them on their farms. Farmers are special people, Roger says, and a farming environment can have a beneficial effect on disturbed young people.

"Most young people, if they are given trust will actually respond to it," says Roger, and he and Beryl have proved it many times over the years.

Another reason is that they want to help to send a lorry load of relief supplies to Bulgaria next month, mostly medicines, food and goods like strong shoes.

While the open day is totally free of charge, visitors will be able to make a "retiring donation," as they put it, which will help load the lorry that Willington Baptist Church is taking to Bulgarians in need.

A local group of churches is also involved with a long-term project setting up a 1000-bird free range poultry unit at an orphanage on an island in Honduras.

"Im a very frustrated Christian," says Roger, explaining why he is involved with these projects: "We ought to be anywhere people are hurting, not just going to church for an hour on Sundays. Honduras, Bulgaria, the homeless from Derby – its all the same."

Until three years ago Roger and Beryl had an open home with up to four homeless lads living with them at any one time. "Young people coming out of prison and that sort of thing," explains Roger. "Then we realised that the girls [their daughters] needed parents."

The farmhouse is now a hostel run by His Upper Room Trust (HURT) for homeless youngsters. The family live at The Paddocks, a house adjoining the holding, and the farm is run as a special needs training unit. "We have a reputation for taking people that are unemployable," says Roger.

"In recent years government has come out with some very good employment support schemes," he says. "Someone with a real social problem needs more that a year to train. There is now a two-year scheme and a supported employment scheme, whereby we pay a full agricultural wage, but can reclaim an approved percentage. The percentage diminishes as a person becomes more useful to the business. This way the training scheme could run for up to 10 years if necessary.

Paying tax

"During that time the special needs person is contributing to society, paying income tax and not in prison.

"Our aim is well balanced husbands and fathers. The majority of lads we see here would end up in prison if someone didnt have the patience to stand in their lives and stand with them. They are people damaged inside. I personally feel that most of the lads that come to us are more disabled than Richard," he says referring to his son who is wheelchair-bound as a result of a road accident.

"Beryl and I see ourselves as catalysts rather than doers. We are not counsellors." Roger stresses. "We cannot be their friends if we know too much about them," he says, recalling the girl who poured her heart out to them, telling how she had been abused, and afterwards hated them because they knew too much about her.

"Once we know there is a need, our job is to find a person to fulfil it, whether it is counsellors or teachers.

"Loads of young lads have learnt to read and write here. Not because we are teachers but because they wanted to learn. To let birds out in the morning and collect eggs they need arithmetic, including percentages to fill in the graph. Some of the things they have been taught at school are actually on a shelf in their brains," says Roger, adding that some lads train at Broomfield, the county agricultural college and have progressed to supervisory roles.

Egg collecting

But it can be a long process beginning with egg collecting. "When collecting eggs they cannot harm the hens," says Roger, but it can be a difficult skill to acquire and many eggs are lost in the process. "We get loads and loads of broken eggs. They often end up wearing eggs," he jokes, but he believes the end result is worth the loss. "As they learn to handle eggs gently they learn to talk gently," he says.

Roger is not a soft touch. Discipline is strict, he says, and some lads cant cope with it. But his choice of farming is geared to providing training and work. Raising replacement hens from day-old chicks makes another job as well as ensuring that the birds raised are immune to local infection.

Grading eggs on the farm makes another job. Most eggs go to a packing station that supplies Tesco but a few are sold, chiefly through local churches. The Hoskings first foster daughter drives the delivery van, affectionately known as the Flying Omelette.

"Our hens do a more important job than laying eggs," quips Roger who is ready to go anywhere in the country, to visit families or groups and talk to them about fostering.

Cleaning, packing, grading… (L to R) Lynne Renshaw, Beryl, Kelly and Roger Hosking. Most of Highfields eggs end up on supermarket shelves.

Roger and Beryl with Charlie Flint (next to Roger) and Darren Renshaw – two of their success stories, says Roger. Darren is now farm manager.

Highfields Happy Hens will be "at home" to the public next Saturday. Below: Roger and Beryl Hosking and straw giant extend the invitation.