LUCY MUIR understands better than most how difficult it can be for a disabled person to get into work.
Brought up on a farm in the hamlet of Commondale, on the North York Moors, she went through mainstream education, followed by sixth form college and university. After successfully completing a masters degree in disability studies, she found herself frustrated by the lack of work opportunities.
“I really, really struggled to find any work,” she says. “When I went for jobs people would always say, ‘you’re really good but you don’t have any experience’. I had a few part-time temporary jobs which were written for me, but they had no progression routes or prospects.”
In the meantime, her parents had begun selling their stock and winding down their farming business. In 2001 they tried to sell Fowl Green Farm, which had been in the family for more than 100 years.
Unable to achieve the price they wanted, they decided to renovate the farm buildings and convert them into wheelchair-accessible holiday homes.
“That was another problem we found as I was growing up,” says Lucy. “There weren’t many holiday homes for disabled people that weren’t like hospital wards.”
The holiday cottages provided a stable income for her parents, but Lucy saw an opportunity to bring the farm back into production, and also to do something different.
“I’d had enough of working for other people and not realising my potential,” she says. “Knowing the gaps there were for disabled people trying to get work, I decided I wanted to start something up that would improve matters and make a real difference to people’s lives.”
In 2007 she quit her job and came back to Commondale. By 2008 she had incorporated the Hayshed Experience as a community interest company; the following year it welcomed its first trainee.
The Hayshed Limited, which is now a company limited by guarantee and is seeking charity status, uses agriculture, horticulture and forestry to provide people with disabilities the opportunity to gain practical and social skills, confidence and self-esteem.
“The idea was to give disabled people work experience,” explains Lucy. “Working on the farm provides structure and routine for trainees, through daily tasks such as feeding the livestock on a morning.”
“The trainees are learning as they go along,” adds farm manager Robin Asquith, who joined the team in October 2012. “They work with the animals from birth to death. They learn the correct feeds and quantities of feed for the different animals. They’re involved in animal welfare routines such as cleaning out chickens and trimming sheep’s feet, and develop skills in handling animals from day old chicks to Highland cattle.”
Stephen Harding, the Hayshed’s first apprentice, is nearly at completion of his two-year apprenticeship. Robin says: “He has done fantastically and is now looking for his own flat.”
A former painter and decorator, Stephen found he had a particular interest in sheep.
“I like animals and learning new things,” he says. “I feed all the stock.”
In fact, he leads teams in jobs like feeding and pressure washing, which are usually reserved for Hayshed employees.
He is an expert at catching sheep, and can tip them up, check their feet and inject them.
“You work as a team,” he says. “It’s helped me loads, being able to work with animals and work with people. I’m a lot more confident now and I’ve got more independence.”
Supporting an apprentice was not part of the Hayshed’s original business plan, but Stephen inspired the new role.
“When he joined us four years ago he was quite quiet, but he soon found that he absolutely loved being here and that he loved working with animals,” says Lucy. “He got to the point where he was way ahead of everybody else and he was showing new people how to do things. He was ready to learn more himself.”
The apprenticeship does not follow the usual structure or timetable.
“All our trainees take longer to learn things,” Lucy says. “You have to do it at their pace. It’s not just the obvious stuff like learning to plant seeds. It’s about learning confidence and social skills and small things like being on time, being polite to people or remembering your lunch.
“A lot of people who come here have never had that opportunity before.”
Referrals come from social services at Middlesbrough, Redcar and Cleveland, Stockton and North Yorkshire councils, along with the local forensics team and a growing number of self referrals as word about the Hayshed spreads.