20 March 1998


Oak Tree Farm is a busy place with an unusually large staff. Ann Rogers went to meet some

of the young people who work this diverse holding and those who work with them

NATIONAL Lottery success means a lot more work at Oak Tree Farm, Hilder-stone, Staffs and jobs beyond the farm gate too.

The Oak Tree Farm Rural Project for people with learning difficulties has been awarded a grant of £92,792 by the National Lotteries Charities Board which will enable it to increase work opportunities.

A new member of staff will arrive shortly to help some more able young people make the transition from working in a sheltered environment to carrying out simple tasks on commercial farms, jobs like washing down after milking. This person will also take small groups of less able young people out to work in the community, tackling conservation work or gardening for old folk and jobs of that kind.

Meanwhile a new workshop is to be built at the farm where woodworking skills can be developed and the young people can make items like bird boxes.

The farm already boasts a pottery, and greenhouses which are at the heart of an extensive horticultural enterprise where chrysanthemums are one of the main lines. They grow 6000 single, spray chrysanthemum plants annually from which they sell cut flowers, most of them to shops.

Beef cattle are the principal stock on the 6ha (15ha) holding which is rented from the Sandon Estate owned by Lord Harrowby, one of the projects patrons.

Farm produced pottery, dried flowers and plants in their season are sold from the farm shop which opens six days a week, Monday to Saturday.

Some of the young people were potting up daffodils ready for Mothering Sunday when Farmlife paid a visit. Nine are on duty each day. They come for one or two days each a week and the first task of the day is to feed the animals. Once that is done they have a stint in the day room.

As for most farmers these days, their routine includes some paperwork – completing a diary, doing project work – exercises which encourage reading, writing and numeracy skills. Then its back to farm or craft work, explains Dave Moreton the farm manager who is responsible for the day to day running of the establishment.

Dave, a former agricultural engineer with an HND from Writtle, moved into Oak Tree Farm Cottage at the start, just over 10 years ago. "They wanted someone here while the work was being done – and I am still here," he says, tracing the development of the premises and pointing out where the new workshop is to be built.

It will be close to the pottery run by Irene Read where the young people help produce a wide variety of items, from fridge magnets to large urns. Much of it is slip casting which they can do quite independently, explains Irene who involves them as much as possible, adapting work methods to suit them and integrating their ideas and designs into the products.

Monica Moreton is one of the volunteers who helps out in the pottery. She was also the first chairman of the executive committee. "The project was launched by parents and friends egged on by teachers," she explains.

"With a mainstream child you are always wondering what he or she is going to do when they leave school. With a handicapped child it is worse.

"The special school was very, very good and, at that time, the training centre was not. It grew out of those concerns and not wishing to lose the momentum, the stimulation of new ideas and fresh places for those out in the rural areas."

Theres always plenty going on at Oak Tree Farm and plenty of help and encouragement too from both staff and volunteers. At least two volunteers – active retired people or parents – attend each day. There are also three project workers – Kathy Ronninson, Sheila Fenn and Carol Carney.

Carol is a farmers wife with a passion for donkeys and an incubator back home, on the family stock farm, currently stocked with eggs to produce birds for Oak Tree Farm. Selling purebred trios is another possible source of income. They already produce turkeys for the Christmas market.

"We try to run Oak Tree Farm as a working farm but it is a place where young people come," says Dave, pointing out that some get more out of working with plants and animals than others and that the range of abilities is wide: From someone able to feed cows with a fork, sweep and brush and who just loves standing looking at the cows, to someone able to set up and refuel the mower and cut the grass without supervision. There are also strong young men who enjoy physically demanding tasks such as mucking out and digging ditches. Nowadays most of them are contracted to come by Social Services. Ages currently range from 18 to 30.

They have a stand at the Staffordshire County Show to let local people know what the project is all about and receive support from the community in many ways. Besides benefiting from their own fund-raising activities which, in addition to the sale of cattle, plants, flowers and craftwork, include open days, jumble sales and a grand draw, they benefit from the efforts of outside fund-raisers, from Brownie packs to local industries and receive support from grant making trusts.

"If we had known how much it was going to cost we should never have begun," says Monica Moreton referring to the amount it took to get the project underway.

"Running costs are about £60-£70,000 a year," says Dave who is anxious that news of the lottery award and the input of Social Services will leave local people feeling they no longer need help.

"Money is the only thing that restricts us," he adds. "We are brimming with ideas – but it only restricts us, it doesnt stop us."

Right: Mark Laytham forks feed to the cattle. Below: Jayne Hodson with project assistant Carol Carney, Hebe the dog and Russell the farms pet goat.

Left: Farm manager Dave Moreton with Steve Hawkins who is about to decorate pottery. Below: Pottery instructor Irene Read (left) and volunteer

Sue Hough in

the attractive

farm shop.

Pictures: Jonathan Page

Craig Beardmore at work in the greenhouse. The farm also has polytunnels and a large outdoor area for flowers.

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