When a young man like gentle giant James Cook puts his arm around farmer Denys Fell and says, “You’re my hero”, it’s a special moment. Three years ago Denys decided to start a “care farm” offering an opportunity to people with learning difficulties, mental health issues, drug dependency, physical illness or social problems to work with his team at Densholme Farm.
James comes here two days a week and lives in the nearby village of Bewholme in East Yorkshire. “‘I really enjoy coming here,” he says. “I help with the herb garden, plant fruit trees and look after the pigs. I like doing things and Denys is a great man.” It’s an accolade that Denys could never have dreamed of in his 31 years here at Great Hatfield and nearby Withernwick. His farm is a 225 acre commercial organic enterprise, which he switched to 10 years ago. He grows 70-80 acres of wheat a year with the rest down to grass. He also runs a flock of 200 sheep, has a few pigs, chickens and a market garden business. The care farm idea came out of the blue.
“I had a call from a man who worked from MIND the mental health charity,” says Denys. “He had a gentleman with post traumatic stress disorder and was looking for a small plot of land to get out in the fresh air and grow things. The following year, I went to a conference on care farming at Bishop Burton College where the word was that if you really wanted to do it and flourish, the farmer had to get involved. I just thought, ‘Denys, you’ll really have to shape yourself’. We now cater for a number of different groups like local lads such as James who have learning difficulties.”
Denys’s fellow villagers weren’t too keen when they first heard who would be coming. They feared the unknown and Denys acknowledges he might have handled it better. “The fault was mine. I should have been more considerate of the emotions it would cause. I didn’t handle it properly but now it is a much happier relationship. I was initially a little apprehensive myself and there were times when I thought ‘Denys, what on earth are you doing?’
“But they are a lot of very pleasant lads and lasses who have just come under pressure one way or another. What we provide is hopefully a stepping stone to their recovery and a bit of self esteem.”
His team at Densholme also includes Paul Hanson, a Hornsea lad born and bred, who had lived in Spain for 15 years and had worked on a care farm over there. He discovered he was suffering from leukaemia and came back to the UK for treatment. “Paul came here initially as a volunteer three years ago but after six months or so I saw just what a good lad he was and thought I’d have him as an employee,” says Denys. “He’s now full time on the care farm side while I concentrate on the cereal crops, sheep, fencing and a bit of dyking and ditching.”
Denys now works with several charities and organisations including PSYPHER (Psychosis Service for Young People in Hull and East Riding); CDP (Council for Dependency Problems); and Humber Mental Health Trust.
He has had some wonderful testimonials from them but he is mindful of making sure everyone who comes gets something out of coming to the farm.
“I always ask what else we can do to make it a worthwhile experience for everyone. For some it’s just a matter of getting out into the fresh air and feeling as though they have done something meaningful, being useful. For others it’s an escape from the faster inner city life. I was working with a charity called RETHINK just recently and when I asked them this chap said, ‘Denys, the people we have don’t have recourse to undertake studies. If they could do something that brought about a certificate to be put on their wall it would really help with their own esteem.”
Fortunately Denys’s daughter, Rachael, a lecturer at Lincoln University, has been able to direct the creation of a module that is now available through the Open College Network. “James is on that module now. It’s a nice little addition to what we offer and really can help with people’s well being and pride.”
In two weeks’ time everyone will have a chance to see the good work of Denys and his team when they open the farm gates to a special Open Farm Sunday. “Three years ago when I first ran one of these I organised it between myself and my dog. We had about a dozen people all day.
“Last year we had nearly 500. This year Paul is organising a food festival with lots of local produce from the area and cooking demonstrations. I’ll be showing everyone around the organic farming operation and there will be fun and games all around the farm.”
The organic farm is working hand in hand with the care farm and Denys has also just started supplying a new farm shop, William’s Farm Kitchen, at Hornsea Freeport where owner Mark Farnsworth now stocks their produce.
You cannot put a price on happiness and this is what Denys and his team are providing for people such as James. His mum Gill is in no doubt over its value to her son. “James got to 17-18 years of age having been to college and there wasn’t a lot else for him,” she says. “He now comes here and just loves it. What Denys is doing is great.”
And there’s more to come with a new building being planned.
Densholme Community Care Farm and Densholme Farm is open on Sunday, June 12 from 10.30am– 4pm, including Hatfield Food Festival.