Down on the farm

On-farm composting is not, on its own, something to write home about. But using waste management to bring different people together is something to celebrate. Leonie Butler grabbed her wellies and went to Oak Farm to see the power of community organics

Established 21 years ago by Shropshire Council, Oak Farm is a care farm for people with learning disabilities. Users of the farm learn new skills, from growing and selling produce to animal husbandry whilst working with pigs, sheep, free-range hens, smaller animals such as rabbits (for those not so strong), and even alpacas. More recently, it has expanded into waste management.

Farm Manager Stuart Toulson got involved in the farm shortly after it opened. The council had placed an advert in Farmers Weekly for someone with farm experience, and Toulson, who was working at Lord Litchfield’s Shugborough Estate at the time, thought he’d apply. “I was interviewed by four of the service’s users (though I hate that word) and they decided I was the right guy for the job. I’ve lots of experience of working with the public, but I didn’t have that much experience of working with this group of people. But it didn’t matter because basically they are people; you don’t need a lot of experience, you’ve just got to like people.” And Toulson definitely does. He is someone with whom you immediately feel at ease and his dedication to the farm is obvious. Because he is prepared to give so much, the farm and the people that use it have flourished over the last two decades. One service user with Smith-Magenis Syndrome, for instance, had never spoken and suddenly started talking when she saw some alpacas on a day trip to another farm; Toulson declared he would take a couple home there and then, and he did! “There is a catalyst for everyone to achieve at something, you just need to find the catalytic key”, says Toulson. “And for this lady it was an alpaca.” It’s no wonder the farm is popular with users. “We started off with seven people, but we increased quite rapidly because of course they went back and said, ‘Ooh, it’s quite nice up there’.” Fifty-three people now use the service, with the unfortunate side effect that they now have to turn users away due to lack of staff. Undeterred, the farm’s zest for new enterprises continues.

The idea to start a community compost scheme grew from requests from local people. The closest green recycling facility was a 30-mile roundtrip on narrow roads. “People knew we had quite a nice site and started to say, ‘Look, I’ve got a few hedge clippings – can I bring them over?’ And I thought, ‘I wonder if there’s a need for this?’. So we put a questionnaire out with the parish magazine and it came back overwhelmingly that people would love to have this facility, there was not one single objection.”

After visits to other projects, including community compost guru Nicky Scott’s Chagford site in Devon, planning permission and licences were obtained, and the groundwork was completed. Funding came from the parish council, the National Association for Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Veolia; the users themselves even raised money through sponsored walks. Though the council didn’t put any money forward, the waste team has surprised Toulson with their enthusiasm: “Joy [Blizzard, Waste Initiatives Officer at the council] sorted all the reuse credits stuff... and helped with the waste exemption licence. The red tape was making sure it complied with what Shropshire Council wanted us to do – hardcore, a bottle gully and a drain that pumps any effluent back into the fields. And whether there was any bio-aerosol impact. But a helpful planning person from the council put things in plain language and explained where we needed gates, et cetera.” The team also produced the signage in keeping with the site, with the compost bins constructed from recycled wood by Oak Farm workers.

The system is simple. The site is open on weekdays and residents bring their waste in by car or wheelbarrow. All 280 households in the parish have automatic membership and of those, over a 100 people have used the composting service, often on a regular basis. While I was there, explained not only how convenient it is for him, but how much he enjoys the chat!

Indeed, Oak Farm workers have a chance to talk with villagers as they help with the offloading and check their user numbers. They are then involved in every stage of compost production and there’s a job for everyone, no matter how physically able. “We’ve got the workforce. We’ve got guys who really love repetitive jobs, especially people with there’s the aerating and moving the compost down the bins, which people love getting involved with and so it gets done quite quickly.”

The 30 tonnes of compost produced annually are used on the farm’s 30 acres. But the scheme has provided so much more, as Toulson explains: “The composting scheme here has been fantastic. It’s meant the complete integration of our guys with the village. I was looking for something that would benefit here and the village and also for a winter activity... People who didn’t use to come and buy vegetables from the shop now bring their compost in and have reduced their carbon footprint and petrol bills by dealing with waste locally.”

The interaction between different groups of people, including one that is so often socially isolated, is certainly invaluable. Across the fields is a primary school, and the children have their own growing patches in one of the polytunnels on the farm. “The users here are very unlikely to have their own kids, so to have young people round people with learning disabilities is fab. And also it’s great because you start to break down discrimination. Kids don’t see any difference, they just see people”, explains Toulson.

Moreover, the farm provides an opportunity for some to move on to permanent employment. The farm shop next door, owned by Pathways Shropshire, sells the farm’s organic produce and award-winning jams and chutneys, and also offers work placements. Toulson’s only disappointment is the that the users aren’t progressing as he believes they could: “With the skills that they achieve, they should be able to move on, but with the job market as it is now, people who are incredibly qualified aren’t getting anything.” Getting the veg they grow out into the markets is something that Toulson is working on and something that could provide more job opportunities.

Meanwhile, Toulson admits that he is often called upon for advice from people thinking of setting up something similar but wary of working with this group of people. Toulson’s take on ‘challenging behaviour’ is refreshingly straightforward: “I think we can get really wound up with challenging behaviour because I think people don’t look at the reason why they are challenging. It might be because mum at home said, ‘No, you’re not going out tonight. You’re a 42 year old woman, but you’re not because it’s not safe for you, or you can’t be trusted’. You’ve got to empathise with someone like that. Everyday I am a counsellor, every hour... there’s lots of give and take.”

There’s also water. A pond (that a council planner exclaimed was a lake when he saw it) is a haven for everyone at the farm. “Water is a really calming influence in people’s lives. And if they need some time, when their behaviour is being challenging, I’ll suggest going down to the water and have some time out. Water dissipates all sorts of anger and anxiety.”

The strength and success of the compost project is due to the way in which the local community and the farm have worked closely together to produce a project that meets many needs – a local solution for green waste, good quality compost and enhanced interaction between residents and the farm. Toulson is confident that this is something that can easily be replicated. It’s certainly worth a visit.