I have not met many alpacas – in fact I had not met any before I met Boris. But he was a good representative of his species and quickly made me feel at home.
I was visiting Pathways Care Farm in Lowestoft, UK, founded by Geoff Stevens. I came to know Geoff when he was exploring an initiative within the Relational Mission sphere of Newfrontiers, Pathways from Poverty, now led by Julia Miller.
Geoff knew nothing about farming when the opportunity arose to start a care farm but he and his team have achieved an astonishing amount in just two years. Walking around the farm with him I found he is bubbling with ideas – ‘we’re going to put a bird watching hide here’, ‘we will create an arts and crafts room there’ – so I look forward with anticipation to a return visit in due course .
What is a care farm?
It has been found that many people who find it difficult to integrate into society for whatever reason are able to relax and find a reason for hope in the open air. Whether walking an alpaca through the fields and woods (which is when I first met Boris), planting vegetables, grooming goats or laying a path to a polytunnel, opportunities abound for acceptance and fulfilment. An alpaca is very non-demanding – just stroke his neck and he is like a kitten!
Pathways Care Farm is at the end of a cul-de-sac through a housing development in Lowestoft. I really thought I must have taken the wrong turning – I had expected to drive across miles of open countryside – when it suddenly appeared in front of me. As such it is well embedded in the local community.
Located on county council owned land part of the farm had previously been sold for development – a major road and many houses. The remaining 13 acres (approximately 5 ha) and buildings had been allowed to lie derelict for many years when Geoff was offered the opportunity to develop it as a care farm. Now, over 15,000 volunteer-hours later, tumbledown buildings are beginning to provide accommodation for a café, an arts and crafts area, a relaxed place for volunteers and service-users to have their lunch, chicken houses and much much more. Some of the building restoration was carried out by a man on probation, a qualified brick-layer, who used to visit as part of his community payback.
Animals abound; many are rare breeds. I met some well-cared for pigs and goats, each with golden brown coats that shone in the sunlight, and chickens that had been reared from eggs. Plans are afoot for a petting farm which will allow more animals to provide the comfort of contact with those who are trying to find their way in life, some with mental health problems, others with dementia or learning difficulties.
Then there are the two polytunnels ably overseen by head gardener Rob who is highly knowledgeable and does not allow his cerebral palsy to hinder his involvement in the horticulture. It was an inspiration to talk to him.
A sensory garden
As you enter through the farm gate you pass a sensory garden; not yet completed but sufficient to see how valuable it will be with its willow branch ‘cave’ and beds of various tactile and fragrant plants.
Despite its short life the Farm is already attracting much favourable attention in the locality, with over one hundred volunteers from local churches and the general population. The local MP and senior local government officials have given their endorsement and ‘seal of approval’ – the High Sheriff very tangibly by donating two pigs!
The farm will never be self-sustaining from the farming produce alone (I am told the vegetables are superb). But the vision is to make it self-sustainable in other ways: through fees which are charged to statutory providers for their ‘clients’; the café which will be open to the public; the charity shop which receives donations from the local population; the sale of produce, and so on.
The future is bright! This surely is a model others could emulate. Well done Geoff, all the volunteers who make the farm run day by day, and the trustees who ensure the charity is compliant with its duty of care and legal requirements. Thank you for your welcome. A truly edifying visit.