Spending time outside and engaging in meaningful activities as part of a community is not a given for everyone. Providing more than a safe space or entertainment, FarmAbility enables people with learning disabilities and autism to do just that. Based on a farm in Oxford and across various outreach locations, people aged 16 and over come here one or several days a week to engage in a range of activities. According to their own interests and capacities, they can choose to care for the farm animals, work in the gardens, wood workshop, kitchen, or egg processing facilities, and take the dogs for a walk in the woods. The project’s aim is to build people’s confidence and skills, such that they may be able to progress into employment.
I visit the farm on a rainy Friday morning. One by one, staff, volunteers, participants – called co-farmers – and carers arrive. Many enter the barn dripping but mostly excited. The day starts with a meeting. Whilst today’s options are still being laid out, some people can’t wait to get to work. We split up: one group will start clearing out a stable, two people are going to work on their CVs, and I join the ones who will be sorting and packing the farm’s organic eggs for distribution to customers in the area. It’s serious business, and there is not much chatting going on as everyone focuses on their jobs.
FarmAbility is generously hosted by FAI Farms, who don’t charge the project any rent. However, the engagement in the egg enterprise benefits both parties: it helps the farm and offers a fantastic work experience setting for co-farmers. Since the participant’s contributions, paid from their care budgets, don’t cover all the costs, FarmAbility also relies on other streams of income. Being a charity, they can receive donations, and volunteers contribute by offering their time, skills, and knowledge.
Having been founded 8 years ago, FarmAbility is one of the more established social farming programmes in the UK, with 60 places a week for 6-hour day sessions that are being attended by 52 co-farmers and school students. They are currently working at full capacity and looking to expand, as the waiting list is growing. In total, there are about 260 care farms in the UK alone. Their popularity increases, as awareness of the value of spending time outdoors and with animals for people’s overall wellbeing is on the rise. Olek Salmanowicz, one of the staff members, tells me that before there was institutional care, people with learning disabilities would help out on farms and be part of the community. However, with the industrialisation of farming, these working environments changed and many hands-on jobs disappeared. Today, the idea that people with learning disabilities need to be protected and entertained often means that they don’t actually get the opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to society. Care farms address this gap and create a space that most participants come to love.
When I ask what makes the work worth it, Olek explains: “It is the sense of progression. When people first come in, they are often quite hesitant and anxious. This can be due to their previous education, which has given them a sense of not being able to do things. Here, there are many activities to choose from, and we involve the co-farmers in finding what type of work suits them. The more opportunities you give people, the more they can discover and show their capacities. We create an environment of encouragement and trust, and that way, their confidence grows. Being able to see the impact over time makes the work rewarding, even though it is also demanding.”
Rather than following a particular programme, the learning in this setting happens organically. Co-farmers come regularly, some have been involved for up to seven years. Spending a lot of time together means that everyone gets to know each other, almost as a big family. This allows people to learn to function in a team and as a member of a community. The personal contact also allows the staff to track participants’ development and find out what types of work might best suit them. It is a made-to-measure approach that tries to bring out the best in people.
With some adjustment on the side of the employers, Olek thinks that many people could actually get into work - as is already more common in countries like the Netherlands and Germany. One person who came in as a co-farmer is now almost ready to support others and will soon join the team of volunteers. Someone else is currently training in a wood workshop and might have the chance to move on to a paid job. However, FarmAbility is about more than getting into employment alone. It is about developing self-advocacy: finding one’s voice and learning to take charge of one’s own life. It is also about hands-on, sensory experience: getting in touch with the other-than-human world. And, as Raul, another member of staff, emphasises, it is about addressing the basic human need to be in a caring environment and find a sense of meaning. “People need to be loved”, he says, “and I just need to love people!”.
Tea break at 3:30pm. The co-farmers and the team settle down, after having collaborated on emptying out a stable in the afternoon. People seem content after a productive day. The physical work and the busyness got everyone tired at the end of this week. Favourite songs are being discussed. Mary, a student of occupational therapy on placement, is being quizzed about her preferences: Abba or Queen? I am also made to choose sides, and then people sing along with a YouTube video. The rain has almost stopped now. To close the day, the group will go out with the dogs for a walk in the woods: a recurring ritual. Having stayed longer than planned, it is now time for me to say goodbye. I leave with a feeling of gratitude for having been invited into the welcoming space that FarmAbility creates, and a sense of hope that in future, a growing number of people will be able to reconnect with the land and each other in settings like this.