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A real sense of community down at the Farm !

WJ Watkinson | 02.05.2011 13:17 | Ecology | Education | Health

Its hard to not get wrapped up in the idea a farm is merely and exclusively for producing food, although the milk was particularly delicious!, or that the animals are merely there for petting , although Dingle the pony didn't seem to mind much!, what we can see at the Wellgate Community farm is a real sense of a community and a sense of achievement.

Elizabeth Ellison my guide for the day at the Wellgate community farm lifts here head for a well-earned rest and muses 'There's no such thing as an average day here at Wellgate Farm!'.

The farm is situated on a one and a half acre plot in Collier Row and is a rare glimpse of the country that you wouldn’t necessarily see in the three boroughs that the Farm sits between.

The farm has been going since 1982 and was initially started by volunteers from the local areas of Chadwell heath and Mark's Gate giving birth to its name 'Wellgate'. The project was designed to encourage local participation in all aspects of the farm's activities. The farm started life as a wasteland and builders tip ,but you wouldn't notice this now, with the impolite grunts of Maori the pig or the groans from Mischief the Suffolk Sheep.

What makes the farm so unique in the way that it operates is the way it pulls together all members of society from young to old rich to poor. The 'Wellgate community farm' unapologetically sees its elf as a bridge between the rural and the urban. With an emphasis on care and bridging lesser connected members of society the Wellgate Community farm has served its local area in ways you might not expect from a farm.

Elizabeth Ellison the farm manager explained some of the people the farm helps young “we like to help by taking on volunteers usually Adults with learning difficulties, or recovering from mental health problems, drug and alcohol misuse, including those that are in danger of becoming NIET' (not in employment or training)...we have 300 volunteers and 50 that come regularly a lot them are adults that are here for therapy, recovering from various issues, some are long term unemployed that are trying to get some training and experience with us, to be able to move on to employment with practical outdoor experience...there’s a lot of scope for a lot of different work”

The farm prides itself on its connections to local schools and provides a 'hands-on' programme that allows students from local schools to visit the animals .Eastbrook Comprehensive school in Dagenham has incorporated some of the City and Guilds qualifications the farm offers into its year ten and eleven programme. Elizabeth expresses her belief that these qualifications are really benefiting the children. “Although they are not registered NIET they are at risk because they are low achievers in school and are not necessarily going to achieve their full ten GCSE's...were providing them with a different way of learning a much more hands-on approach ,outside, practical work that provides them with the equivalent of four GCSE's”

The farm is situated between the three London Boroughs of Havering, Redbridge, and Barking and Dagenham. Barking and Dagenham is a particularly deprived borough.

In similar scenarios being played out up and down the UK cuts have started to affect us all but no more our the financial scales more finely tipped than at Wellgate. Elizabeth explained “were living in six monthly stops at the moment reviewing where were at financially and if we can continue for a further six months”.

Struggling for survival Elizabeth expressed her disappointment at not being to offer the full level of services she would like to “one area that wasn’t bringing any money in but was still quite costly was the weekend Young Farmers Club it was one of the first to get cut...which is a really sad thing to do because its one of the best times for young people in the borough to actually attend the farm as a volunteer''

Even though the farm can apply for grants the process is fiercely competitive and in March 2010 one of the grants was pulled leaving the farm in deeper financial trouble resulting in the loss of one member of staff and two more having to go part time. The farm does have members but cash seems always to be in short supply. “Membership money from the local community helps to pay for things like vet bills and electricity bills, a lot of the core costs because a lot of grant makers are only interesting in funding specific projects with specific targets...we do rely heavily on donations” Elizabeth said.

Trying to combat the seemingly never ending struggle for survival the farm launched its 'Keep us going' campaign and has enjoyed a lot of success. “Sainsbury's in Chadwell Heath have named us their charity of the year and we have had a few different events including taking the animals down to the store...they have also been advertising in the store the things that the farm does which is a great way of raising our profile as well because a lot of local people may know us as a farm to visit but won't realise all the other things we do for people in the community all the other services education training and therapy work” Elizabeth said.

Joanne Forbes ,25, a local volunteer suffered from depression and anxiety but didn't seem short of confidence when explaining what the farm means to her “' its helping me build social relationships and helping me and ill get a qualification to help me get in to the working confidence has really improved being able to talk to people, I’ve been able to work as a team instead of keeping isolated all the time so its helped me not just professionally but personally too”

Although the past year has been extremely difficult for all those that are linked with the farm Elizabeth has kept positive and used the time as a chance to knuckle down and really get the farms message out to the wider community. “Although it has been a difficult year financially it also made us more focused and get our message out there to more and more people” . She was keen t express thanks for the support “during this last year when it has been really difficult it has been amazing how many people have actually got together saying we cant lose the farm!” She said.

From Sheila the 82 year old shop assistant in the farm shop to the young children on a day trip to feed the goats what we notice about Wellgate Community Farm is essentially a community spirit, the feeling of were all in this together pulling in the right direction. More than Farming, More than a Farm.

WJ Watkinson
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