Fruit pies and Victoria sponges are being tested and vegetables and flowers are being selected. Down at Fowl Green Farm in Commondale they’re gearing up for this year’s Danby Show that takes place this coming Wednesday.
Lucy Muir confesses to enjoying the tasting sessions and that preparation is going well, but she is also planning further ahead and has targeted next year’s show as their first for showing Highland cattle.
It’s a remarkable turnaround for the farm that has been transformed in the past five years since she returned home. The development of this unique rural business has been nothing short of dramatic.
The Hayshed Experience may sound like some kind of tourist attraction where children come to a play barn for family days out with pony rides and a coffee shop but in reality it’s where those with many kinds of disability have the opportunity to improve self-esteem and learn rural skills.
Consigned to an electric wheelchair herself and therefore fully understanding of how society deals with people who are ‘different’, Lucy tells of how her brainchild has grown and her plans for the future.
“Since last year our number of placements per week has doubled. We now have 50 every week and with more people coming through the door we have found that we have become even more focussed. The business has grown up and whilst we already took it seriously we are now pushing even further forward with our aim to achieve charity status and to become an accredited training centre.
“We want our trainees, whether they have learning difficulties, mental health issues or long-term health conditions, to achieve qualifications that mean something to them and eventually to prospective employers. Many of our trainees have never been told they’re any good at anything and have never had an opportunity to shine.
“I’ve spent most of my life in their position with people looking down on me. What we are doing here and what we intend to do in the future will give disabled people of whatever kind the experience they need to move on in life. Initially this started as just being about giving some kind of work here but now it’s about preparing them to have an even fairer chance of seeing just what they can achieve and how far they can go.
“We are becoming a lot better in this country in the way disabled people are viewed and we’re a lot further ahead than mainland Europe. The inclusion of the para-athletes in the Commonwealth Games earlier this month rather than having a separate event is a real step forward. If we’d done that for the London Olympics two years ago that would have been great. America is fantastically inclusive. I stayed in Arizona for five months as part of my degree in American Studies and it opened my eyes to how great things could be for disabled people because everything and everybody was open to it over there.”
The farm in Commondale runs to 86 acres of rough grazing and good pasture land, as well as seven acres of woodland. Lucy’s father Sandy has farmed it for over six decades and is still involved today aged 83. He worked in turn with his grandfather, father, brother, nephew and latterly his wife Sue who passed away earlier this year. At one time the farm was home to a flock of around 600 Mule and Scottish Blackface sheep and a suckler herd of 70-80 cattle, with livestock traded regularly at Ruswarp Mart.
“We now have a herd of Highland cattle that including calves runs to 23; we also have a Shorthorn bull named Toby Dave for some reason or other by the trainees. We have him because we want to cross the Highlanders with Shorthorn to produce a more commercial and faster maturing animal that becomes more saleable.
“We also have six Wensleydale sheep and a much larger flock of mainly Mules with a few Scottish Blackface. We lamb in April and did very well this year with predominantly twins. Our first batch of lambs is due to go to Ruswarp next week.
“We have a couple of Pietrain sows and currently ten piglets. We had Gloucester Old Spots but we couldn’t find a market for them so we shifted our focus to what sells better; and we have hens from which we sell their eggs. We sell most of what we produce through our own shop.
“Robin Asquith is our farm manager and one of a team of five that includes three others as well as me. Dad acts as a consultant. The other three are all women and act as team leaders. Robin, one of the team leaders and myself are all full-time with the other two part-time. We have three members of staff working with the trainees on any one day and they split into teams. They cover various jobs including feeding the livestock, working in the greenhouse and around the four wheelchair accessible holiday cottages that we opened in 2001, and working in our woodwork shop.
“We like to be a part of the community and we cut the lawn and around the graveyard for the village church. We’re trying to get more involved with the local community and we’re aiming to create more activities that will bring them in. We already have the Commondale Wool Workshop that was started by my mum.
“What has revolutionised the farm is that each trainee through various social care budgets pays £45 per day. Without that we wouldn’t have half the livestock and we certainly wouldn’t be supporting five members of staff.
“In its heyday this farm only really managed to support my dad and one other but now we are able to run the farm and provide those with disabilities a real chance to perform to their best.”