For just over a decade, a dedicated group of Shaftesbury locals has been spending their free time running the town’s community farm. Alfred’s Keri Jones headed to Breach Lane, between St James and Enmore Green, on a sweltering, sunny Sunday morning to catch up with the handful of helpers who were enjoying a brief break from tending to the crops and livestock.
“We call ourselves a community farm because it’s for the community,” said Helen English. Shaftesbury Homegrown’s 4.5 acres of gently sloping land has been rented to this community group for a peppercorn rent. The volunteers have divided it into fields where sheep graze and flowers, fruit and veg are grown. There’s a polytunnel, henhouses, beehives and a few wooden outbuildings, including the long wooden shed where the team were sitting on green plastic patio chairs and pouring coffee from flasks.
“It’s a place for anybody who is interested in growing fruit and vegetables or looking after livestock. We try and do it in as much of a sustainable way as possible,” said Helen. “We don’t use chemicals. We don’t have electricity. We do use a strimmer and mowers, otherwise the place would be completely overrun. It’s just a case of doing what we can, when we can, in the work sessions.”
It was fascinating to see how much a group of unpaid locals from all walks of life were achieving. Our elevenses was over. No skiving here. There was work to be done and it was lunchtime for the livestock. I joined Helen as she went to feed the Shetland sheep and they were getting very excited over what looked like All Bran.
Helen taught me the first rule of this farming club – don’t name the animals. “We don’t give them names because we’ll become too attached to them then,” Helen explained. As she fed the excitable flock, they went into a feeding frenzy, gobbling up the pellets that their shepherd had scooped out of the bucket she was carrying.
There’s no sentimentality. These sheep are reared for produce – they’re not pets. “We have been breeding with them, getting lambs from the ewes. We had our own ram and we recently managed to sell him as a live animal. Normally they have twins and we send them off to slaughter in the autumn. We keep them for the meat,” Helen said.
“We never have any trouble in selling twenty halves of lamb. People know that our stuff is naturally grown and the animals have been well looked after,” said volunteer Matthew Tagney. “Last November and December, all the reports came back that the lamb was very good. People said, wow that’s the best lamb I’ve had for a long time.”
These Shetland sheep provide more than just meat. “We get sheepskins and we tan them. They sell very well and people pay much less than they would in the shops. We’ve also had people take the fleeces off and spin the wool,” Matthew said, with clear pride. “Some of us have got scarves, gloves and hats made from the wool of our sheep. We don’t have anybody spinning at the moment, but somebody will come along, we’re confident of that.”
Matthew and Helen appear to be Shaftesbury Homegrown’s shepherds and the responsibilities go beyond feeding and rounding up the flock. “There are forms to fill out. When it comes to castrating the ram lambs, we have the help of a retired vet who lives up the road. Matthew and I are his assistants. We’ve learned quite a lot about sheep and I personally found it very rewarding because I’d never had anything to do with sheep before,” said Helen.
I was assured that ‘townies’ who want to volunteer, but have never even stood in a field with a sheep, shouldn’t feel intimidated. The group break newbies in slowly and the induction starts over a cuppa. “We invite them to come down during our coffee break so they can absorb the feeling of the site and listen to us while we chat. Then we give them a little tour and we suggest they go with Matthew to feed the sheep. We start them on one task at a time. A newcomer can do one or two tasks for a while, before branching out and learning about other things,” said Helen.
Volunteers who have farming or smallholding experience can learn new skills too. “I look after the bees,” said Helen. “I’ve learned quite a lot about beekeeping. It’s very rewarding. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do and I’ve had the opportunity to do it here.”
Claire Martin has had livestock before. She wanted to learn about commercial flower growing and the community has let her give it a go. “This year I’ve started to plant flowers. There is a new interest in growing indigenous flowers and selling them locally. People want to buy local flowers. I have done a couple of bouquets. We’ve had some lovely dahlias and the sweet peas are coming on. It’s another string to our bow,” she said.
Obviously, a farm is a 24/7 enterprise. This summer’s lack of rainfall has increased the workload of all of the farm’s helpers. Their volunteering time needs to be managed, to ensure that all the tasks are undertaken. Matthew says the farm’s rota system works remarkably well.
“There are about a dozen people on the rota at any one time. We are all grown-ups and it runs itself. So if somebody is going to be away, they send an email and, within half an hour, somebody will offer cover. There are a couple of phone numbers and a log sheet, so if you find something unusual has happened then there is somebody you can ring up so that ‘two heads’ can decide what to do next. I think the rota is one of our successes. People have different ways of contributing. Some people just want to come down once a week and scarcely meet the rest of us. We bump into some of our ‘silent’ rota members and see the signs of their presence but don’t see them,” explained Matthew.
“Have you arranged Christmas Day cover yet?” I asked, assuming that would be the trickiest day to staff. “Most people are so desperate to get away from their family at 11.30am on Christmas Day we have no trouble covering it,” Matthew laughed.
As more coffee was poured, the conversation turned to the farm’s fruit and veg successes this season. “The strawberries have sold particularly well, which isn’t surprising with the summer we have had. When you put them in those blue baskets, because they are red and the opposite end of the spectrum, they go bang! They sell,” said Matthew. “The other good crops we’ve had this year are raspberries, potatoes, beans, garlic and lettuce. We’ve got sweetcorn and the eggs, which are still brilliant,” Matthew continued.
Again, it’s possible for new volunteers to concentrate on one crop or aspect of market gardening that appeals to them. “Members of the group have different experiences and skills and that’s one of the ways in which the group works well,” Matthew explained. “Arthur has grown raspberries for decades. He knows raspberries backwards. I’ve had apple trees for about twenty years, so I am responsible for the benign neglect of our apple trees. I’m quite laid-back about them. It’s quite hard to bump off an apple tree unless you let the sheep eat the bark,” he said, stressing the last words and then laughing, glancing at his colleagues. Had I opened up an old wound here? “It’s water under the bridge,” Matthew smiled.
The volunteers’ hard work is rewarded to some extent when members get the pick of the produce. “We have first choice with fruit and vegetables and the eggs. It depends on how many hours we have worked. We get a discount. Any surpluses are sold to members of the public,” said Helen.
“We get a lot of eggs, which is nice. We feed ourselves and we take them to the community choir each Wednesday and they always sell. We feel like we’re doing something useful with our beautiful, organic eggs,” added Claire.
Even if you don’t have time to help or don’t want to, you can still buy produce direct from the community farm. “We look at the prices in the shops and try to keep ours reasonably in line. I don’t think cost is the main reason for buying our produce. It’s the fact that we have zero food miles and you know who sowed it, weeded it, grew it and harvested it,” said Matthew. “The eggs are not the cheapest in Shaftesbury but we think they’re probably the best in Shaftesbury.”
So how can you buy the farm’s crops? “Just come along on a Friday morning or Sunday morning when our ‘A’ board is out. And when it’s time for the lamb to come back from the butchers we put the word out on our email network. The secret is getting on the email list,” advised Matthew. Pop along to the group’s Friday or Sunday morning sessions and a member will tell you how to have your address added. “It’s all about turning up. Get off the computer and get down here,” Matthew smiled.
Although some of the work can be physical, some members find that the time they spend at the community farm gives them a release from everyday issues. “It’s so therapeutic,” said Helen. “Anybody who has been experiencing mental health problems can come down and get stuck in and work with the soil and the animals. Anybody is welcome, if they feel they can contribute something.”
And the invitation extends to volunteers’ well-behaved pets. As we chatted Archie, Claire’s black and white sheepdog, followed closely. “He’s good with sheep. He is very laid back. He was brought up on a farm so he is used to animals all over the place,” Claire said. “If anybody has a dog, they are welcome to bring it here. They are all part of the family,” Helen added.
So it seems that Shaftesbury Homegrown’s helpers volunteer for a variety of reasons. For some people the food provenance is important – they’ve helped grow or rear what they’re putting on their tables. There are members who enjoy the peace. Others get a buzz from taking part in a project where you can see how your hard work brings results.
If you want to get involved, call in on Fridays or Sundays. Or search for Shaftesbury Homegrown on Facebook and make contact with the group.