Wednesday 26th September 2018
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Words: Kate Chapman
Photography: Joel Blevins
Featured in the October 2018 issue

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There’s nothing like getting back to nature to help ease the stresses and strains of modern life and as Kate Chapman reports one Lincolnshire family is harnessing their surroundings to provide green therapy and treatment programmes to help vulnerable people.

Care farms are still a relatively new concept in the UK, but Chris and Hannah Blevins have embraced the countryside and are encouraging others to do the same through the Askefield Project, which they launched last October, at Peter’s Eden Farm, Friskney.

Registered with Care Farming UK, the scheme is part funded by the NHS Mental Health Partnership and offers tailored and individual programmes for those who would benefit from the therapeutic use of farming practices – including funded places for people with mental health problems, such as those suffering mild to moderate depression, people with anxiety, PTSD and dementia.

Hannah explained that during their sessions at the farm, clients are able to get involved in a whole range of outdoor activities including animal husbandry, cultivating vegetables and plants, woodland management and general farm maintenance.

“We first saw care farming featured on a TV programme, we’d been doing essentially the same thing in everything but name, as we didn’t realise it was actually a thing,” she said.

“We currently offer full and half-day sessions on Wednesdays and Thursdays, and are hoping to get funding, so we can offer more. Adults can refer themselves to us; they don’t need a doctor’s referral.

“We’re finding that those individuals who regularly come are making huge strides – they’re meeting new people and really thriving working in a team. There’s a real sense of community about the place.

“Obviously, we’re still relatively new, but we have so many plans for other things we’d like to introduce here.”

The couple relocated to Friskney from Market Harborough back in 2006. Hannah, who previously ran a veterinary lab and then worked as a pre-school assistant, and Chris, who worked in motorsport, wanted to spend more time with their three sons Peter, Joel and Noah (now 18, 16 and 14).

They bought a thirteen-and-a-half-acre plot of land, although Hannah admits at this point they had no experience of farming and livestock, and settled into life in the Lincolnshire Fens.

“I grew up in the Channel Islands, and Chris comes from the north-east; we both had fantastic childhoods and wanted to give our children the same sort of experience,” she said.

“Chris’ job was taking him away a lot and he’d always wanted to work for himself, so when we saw this land for sale, it just ticked all the right boxes.

“Before we moved, we’d been making jams, chutneys and fruit cordials, which people seemed really interested in, so we initially started doing that when we came here.

“We also got some animals in, including some pedigree Kerry Hill sheep. Then we started having prisoners from North Sea Camp, who were shortly due for release, come to us as a means of getting them back into work.

“It was one of the most rewarding things we’ve ever done; it was just brilliant to see the change in people from when they first came to when they left us.”

Chris and Hannah continued making their homemade produce, but a problem with obtaining a trademark led them to put that side of things on hold for a time, although the issue has now been resolved. It was around the same time they first heard about care farming and decided this was something they would like to pursue.

Hannah explained that there is a lot of evidence available on the benefits of spending time in open spaces and with animals, for people with conditions such as post-traumatic stress – and some of these individuals were invited along to special open days.

The couple successfully applied for funding and are now hoping to gain more financial support to enable them to offer even more services and facilities to the wider community.

“One of the biggest barriers here is transport. Due to the nature of where we are, one of the hardest things is getting people to the farm,” said Hannah, who works with project leader Anna to deliver the specialist services.

“But now we’ve got our barn up, which has been built from pallets and telegraph poles and looks absolutely stunning, we’ve got a toilet block, wheelchair friendly access, a classroom and lots of green space.

“We have planning permission for another building so we can offer different therapies on site. Eventually we’d like to be able to host weddings and offer local groups the use of our facilities for things like film clubs, lunches and meetings. There’s just so much scope.”

The farm is currently home to Boris the donkey, Welsh mountain pony Rory, a pedigree flock of Kerry Hill sheep, middle white pigs, geese, chickens, ducks and a couple of ferrets – and clients are able to interact with these animals as part of the programmes on offer.

Other activities available include creating a willow dome, cultivating vegetables in the farm’s polytunnel and working on a new National Lottery funded sensory garden project.

Hannah said: “The response we’ve had from people who have come here so far has just been fantastic. One client told us that he struggled to get out of bed some days, as he had nothing to get up for, but since he’s been coming here he’s really found himself. It’s that sense of being part of a community, working with others and creating something.

“We try to encourage people to do things they’ve never done before, obviously they’re not being asked to do things they’re uncomfortable with, we just want them to see their potential.

“We try to achieve something every day, however small, to give our clients a sense of satisfaction. Another of our volunteers said that when he comes to the farm, he feels really valued and appreciated and that’s all we’re trying to achieve.

“If we can continue to help other people like this, then we can’t ask for anything more.”

The Askefield Project is looking for more sponsors so it can grow the services it provides as well as offer more funded sessions. The team is also appealing for more volunteers and materials which it can use, particularly timber, tools and topsoil.

If anyone can help, or would like more information about the project, visit the website www.askefield.co.uk or follow on Facebook at TheAskefieldProject.

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