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Rhubarb Farm - a social enterprise scheme based in Langwith

PUBLISHED: 09:24 10 November 2014 | UPDATED: 09:24 10 November 2014

Crop harvesting was part of the two day Full Circle course

Crop harvesting was part of the two day Full Circle course

Archant

‘Everyone is welcome at Rhubarb Farm!’ says Jennie Street, the managing director of a successful social enterprise based in Langwith village in the Bolsover district, on the edge of the Derbyshire/Nottinghamshire border

Thriving crops in one of the polytunnels. Note the use of recycled toilet rolls for sowing seeds inThriving crops in one of the polytunnels. Note the use of recycled toilet rolls for sowing seeds in

It’s a day of blue skies and high hopes and people are flooding in to the eight acre organic farm site for a two day ‘pick, cook and eat’ course, entitled ‘Full Circle’. There is chatter and laughter as participants get ready to pick peas, harvest beans and dig potatoes which will later be used in salads, soups and quiches to provide an alfresco picnic on the farm’s village green, close to its busy little café.

Thirteen people are on this horticultural taster course. They are looking to improve self confidence, learn new skills and increase their chances of getting employment. Some have been referred by a children’s centre, others from a project which aims to fight drugs and alcohol dependency, some have come via the job centre, and many are already enthusiastic volunteers at Rhubarb Farm, which was set up almost four years ago, with the ambitious aim of Changing Lives and Land.

Twenty-four-year-old Sam is on the course and is a regular volunteer at Rhubarb Farm. Following a difficult childhood she became agoraphobic and needed an escort to support her on her first bus journey, some 18 months ago, from her home in Shirebrook to Rhubarb Farm. But from being a sedentary prisoner on her own sofa she has become an active outdoors volunteer, known best for getting covered in mud during enthusiastic planting, digging and weeding sessions.

Sam said:‘When I first came I couldn’t talk to any one. I was suffering from social anxiety, agoraphobia, and really, really bad depression and got stupid with my thinking but I’ve come a long way since then. I love this place to bits. It has helped me so much. I had a rough childhood and was bullied a lot and I never felt I fitted in anywhere but I do fit in here and am almost part of the furniture here now. This place is very relaxed and friendly and the people are so down to earth and I’ve made lots of friends. I value this place so much that if I ever won the lottery I’d probably give most of it to Rhubarb Farm. It is such a big part of my life.’

Tom and Luke (front l to r), with guests from the Department of Work and Pensions who enjoyed a corporate event day constructing clay pizza ovensTom and Luke (front l to r), with guests from the Department of Work and Pensions who enjoyed a corporate event day constructing clay pizza ovens

Sam now volunteers at the farm three days a week and supports others. She is actively seeking work and has become a youth commissioner for the Sheffield region’s talent match programme which is aimed at helping young people into work.

Sam said: ‘We are all individuals here. We all have issues but everyone accepts you for what you are.’

The Full Circle course is paradigmatic of the wider work undertaken at the organic farm which was set up as a Community Interest Company – a social enterprise that uses its profits and assets for public good.

‘We were kick-started by Bolsover District Council who had the foresight to trust our vision with a grant of £48,000,’ said Jennie who has enjoyed a 30-year career in community development projects in Derbyshire, Sheffield, Hong King, Ethiopia, Sudan and Eritrea.

Currently there are 11 paid employees, including Jennie, but around 50 volunteers work on the site during any one week, nurturing the huge variety of plants and produce that is grown in neat raised beds, fields and poly tunnels scattered across the fruit tree lined acreage.

Just now new crops of spinach, rhubarb, beetroot leaves, spring onions, peas, broad beans, mizuna and mibuna are ready for the picking. One poly tunnel is serving as a humid house to bring on cucumbers, aubergines and peppers. Another poly tunnel, financed by Derbyshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner Alan Charles, is currently growing tomato plants. These are set with marigolds or tagetes, a companion plant to help control pests such as whitefly.

The 52 types of vegetables and fruit are harvested for the farm’s Crop Share Scheme. Members of the scheme contract to buy a weekly bag of fresh vegetables and the income is used to help pay the workers to grow the produce.

Customers call in each Thursday, some travelling an eight mile radius, to pick up their allocated hessian bag bursting with seasonal produce. The collection service enables the farm to avoid transport costs and helps closely connect people to where their food is grown.

Jennie said: ‘In winter the bags might contain about eight types of vegetables but in the summer months this can go up to as much as 20 types of vegetables!’

Rhubarb Farm charges £4 for a half bag and £8 for a full bag. ‘It’s all fresh, local and organic and is good value,’ says a customer called Vicky who pops in to pick up her bag. She tells me that she is also a former volunteer and came for months during a period of ill health and bereavement. ‘They helped me get back into work,’ she smiles.

There’s currently a waiting list for the vegetable bag scheme but any surplus produce is sold to the public direct and volunteers can help themselves. Local shops and restaurants sometimes buy in when the crops are available and a proportion is also routinely allocated to help families in food poverty as Rhubarb Farm is classified as one of Derbyshire’s 17 food banks. But the main purpose of horticultural activity at the farm enterprise is to provide a service – work placements, training and volunteering opportunities for people in need. These include people with mental ill health, physical ill health, disability, dementia, the unemployed, recovering drug and alcohol mis-users and ex-offenders.

‘We are basically here to help people with long term needs, to improve their lives, help them into further training, social integration and employment,’ said Jennie. ‘We are totally socially inclusive and do not ghettoise any group.’

Such inclusivity can mean that the small organic farm cannot operate as efficiently as it might so income streams are supplemented by grant aid.

Jennie said: ‘It’s what we call therapeutic loss. Dozens of people take part in the growing of crops and although they are supervised, there can be damage or delay to some crops because people might not know what they are doing, or they have emotional issues and we might need to have a crisis meeting. Dealing with people with long term issues can sometimes put huge stresses on staff.’ In the future Jennie aims to employ several horticulturalists to undertake a straightforward farming project on unused but rented acreage to help generate income for other social enterprise projects. One project would include erecting an energy efficient straw-bale building, to house the farm’s office workers.

‘We are so desperate for better accommodation for offices and training space,’ said Jennie. They currently work in a steel container which is freezing in winter and boiling in summer.’ The farm actively promotes a philosophy of openness and transparency, encouraging staff and volunteers to share stories about their own backgrounds, to encourage the confidence of others and enable new users of the service to overcome personal barriers.

Keith from Shirebrook is a retired horticultural tutor but volunteers at the farm, teaching on courses and training staff. He first came along last November after losing his wife to cancer and suffering from depression. ‘This place has made a huge difference to me,’ said Keith. ‘I’ve now got something to look forward to. I’m using my skills and giving back what people have given to me.’

Keith is about to come off all anti-depressant medication and attributes his recovery to Rhubarb Farm. Clean tools and a well-ordered tool storage container are part of his on-going legacy.

Former heroin addict Luke Kelly is one of three ex-offenders employed at Rhubarb Farm. He spent eight years in prison for offences including burglary – thefts that were undertaken to feed his drug habit. Clean for six years, he is now fully employed as a crop share worker, and a mentor. He is regarded as an inspirational role model to others, who are desperate to transform their lives for the better.

Luke said: ‘I was about 13 when I started taking cannabis and gradually worked my way through the ranks. I was taking ecstasy at clubs, associating with an older crowd who influenced me and I started to go off the rails.’ Between the ages of 13 to 16 years Luke was in care and hung round with a crowd which introduced him to heroin. It blocked out raw and painful family issues. He said: ‘By the age of 17 or 18 I was a full blown user, heroin dependent.’

A long period in prison enabled Luke to clear his head. He knuckled down, studied for a string of exams and decided to change his life. ‘I wanted to come out of prison and provide for my wife and family and to be a good dad. When you come out of jail you think you have a chance to get a job but that is not always the case. I had knockback after knockback and depression set in.’

A probation officer referred Luke to Rhubarb Farm where he volunteered for three months before landing a job as a crop share worker. ‘It was fantastic to get the job. I get such satisfaction out of it. I feel I had done so much bad in society and I wanted to give something back.’

Luke has taken a further ten qualifications since working at Rhubarb Farm, including a level two NVQ in Horticulture and gaining a license to drive a tractor. He has passed courses in IT, mentoring, adolescent mental health and customer service – all pertinent to his role at the farm. Luke changed his social group, recognising that associating with certain criminal groups had been a trigger for his drug use.

‘Heroin was a big part of my life but this place has given me the strength and the tools to keep clean. I’ve been down that road and got the tee-shirt but I am glowing now and I love my job. My life has changed for the better.’

Luke is ambitious and is aiming to play a managerial role at the farm, and for the past nine months has been mentoring young ex-offender Tom Musson.

Tom came to volunteer at Rhubarb Farm after spending four months in a young offenders institute for assault. He now has a job share as a crop share worker, working three days a week. At just 19 years old he has had 19 addresses yet managed to acquire seven C grades at GCSE whilst at school.

‘My dad hasn’t been there in my life and my mum has been present but not there for me. But I look at Luke, where he has been and where he is today and hope that one day I can do that with my life. Outside work I have problems but when I come here I am living a different life. I am happier here compared to when I am at home.’

In Rhubarb Farm’s line of work there are hard outcomes – when staff provide evidence to sponsors about course provision and how many attendees passed muster for a certificate. But they also deal with ‘soft outcomes’, tenuous achievements, difficult to evidence but which may represent a milestone or a turning point for an attendee on a course such as Full Circle. These soft outcomes are fundamental to the farm’s work.

Finance and Monitoring Officer Lynn Masefield said: ‘This might mean someone gaining the confidence to stay and work in a team for a day, feeling safe and feeling as if they have contributed to something. It might be about increasing someone’s feeling of well being and giving them a reason to get up in the morning to face another day.’

*Rhubarb Farm runs Corporate Challenge Days for businesses and voluntary and public sector organisations. It is also looking for sponsors to fund sand blasting of a steel container, which is then to be painted and used as the staff and volunteers mess room. If you can help please contact jennie@rhubarbfarm.co.uk.

Anyone wishing to volunteer can ring 01623 741210 and ask for Debbie or email Debbie@rhubarbfarm.co.uk.

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