Cultivating confidence is the motto behind SweetTree Farming For All – a care farm in Mill Hill that focuses on a lot more than animals and agriculture.
SweetTree Home Care Services and Farming For All came together in 2013, combining the vast care farming experience of the latter with the award-winning care and transitional living focus of the former to create
a not for profit organisation.
“The remit is to help support people with health and social care needs, namely those who are experiencing social and educational exclusion,” explains Jude Allen, director and principal trainer of SweetTree
Farming For All (STFFA).
“We see everybody here – the elderly with dementia, students with special educational needs, young adults referred to us by social services with learning disabilities or mental health issues. The idea is for people to come and for us to deliver services that support them, working closely with their specific plan.”
As we walk around the sprawling 14-acre farm and woodland, SweetTree founder Barry Sweetbaum tells me how this initiative encourages and enables participants to positively engage in the great outdoors through farming, horticulture and other outdoor activities.
“It has been proven that getting outside does wonders for well-being,” he says. “People who come here describe it as a haven.”
Indeed, the farm paints a peaceful picture in the morning sun, with lush greenery, red roses and the sounds of contented animals.
One client is helping with the sheep herding along with a project worker. She laughs as they follow her across the field.
“Activities at SweetTree Farming for All courses are tailor-made according to what that person is looking to achieve,” Barry explains.
“There is a regular routine structure for the day, but people also have their own choices. The farm is used as a vehicle to help reach personal goals. Everything we do is embedded with transferrable skills for life; communication, literacy, numeracy and teamwork.”
Jude adds: “For example, sheep herding would be working to build up teamwork and communication skills. Instead of us saying, ‘Right we’re going to get the sheep in, this is how you do it’, we safely encourage them to plan and learn from trial and error.”
As we approach the donkeys, Barry explains: “Keeping our vulnerable clientele in mind, we only keep gentle, non-aggressive breeds.
“Animals are non-judgmental of disability, addiction or background, so people feel safe, valued and respected.”
It is clear the utmost care has been put into the design of STFFA to ensure specific support for those who come, from picture labels on drawers to helpful signs dotted around.
Jude shows me how the rabbit hutches, which used to be on the floor, are now raised up, especially for one client with cerebral palsy who struggles with bending down.
“He calls them ‘my rabbits’, that’s how meaningful coming here has become for him.”
SweetTree’s emphasis is on slowly reducing support so self-confidence is built along with the ability to interact with the world at large.
“Here is our safe FlexiFarm space,” Barry says, waving his arm around a carefully divided patch of land. “It is designed to help those with social problems, such as autism, who find transition difficult.”
Barry demonstrates how the large entry gate is left open for a client in a car outside, then slowly closed as that individual becomes more comfortable in their surroundings.
“There are clear physical barriers, such as thick screening so the sheep are just seen, reducing anxiety. In the next area, the space is more exposed to the environment and more people can slowly be introduced, or a single animal in some cases.”
My tour gives me an insight into the fun, educational times to be had at SweetTree Fields Farm. I meet goats, chickens, view a space with giant outdoor musical instruments, a wildflower meadow, a yurt learning space and a woodland assault course.
“We also host structured school, Forest School, and summer holiday programs for young people of all abilities,” says Barry.
Volunteer Jodie is watering one of the allotments. She says: “Clients also have the option of gardening, potting plants, sorting chicken eggs to be sold or making lunch for everyone using our fresh produce. Everybody loves working here, myself included.”
Visit Sweettreefarmingforall.org.uk, or call
020 7644 9505