In November 2018, Blenheim Palace Estate teamed up with farming charity, FarmAbility, to help people with a wide range of learning disabilities find a place in the industry. Emily Ashworth reports.
Blenheim Palace is probably most known as the birthplace and ancestral home of Sir Winston Churchill, as well as being a renowned site of beauty and a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987.
But look beyond its regal exterior and historic legacies and you’ll find there is another string being added to Blenheim’s extensive bow, after teaming up with farming charity, FarmAbility, an organisation which works in partnership with farms and open spaces to offer opportunities to ‘co-farmers’ – people with learning disabilities, many of whom also have autism.
Blenheim Estate currently runs 1,750 ewes with access to about 2,000 acres, and it is head shepherd, Charles Gerring, and co-shepherd, Richard Tustian, who are working with charity team leader, Raul Ospina-Bonilla, to take the project forward.
Given the space available and the extensively run, grass-fed system, they have, says Charles, the means to accommodate the charity’s aim: to give co-farmers a chance to build confidence and skills using productive outdoor environments. But it is also about giving those part of the programme opportunities to develop their independence and reap the physical and mental benefits of doing purposeful activities outdoors.
Raul, a herdsman originally from a dairy farm in Columbia, says: “There is a high percentage of people in our society with disabilities and autism that are unemployed, and when you look at them individually, many are employable if given the right time and approach. We all learn differently, and farming offers a rich range of activities for co-farmers to find out what they’re good at.
“When people are penned up indoors, inside their own head, anyone might feel trapped and that is part of the beauty of being outside in the field. Your horizons open up.”
And it is easy to see how this environment could have a calming and productive impact, with its pristine views that go on for miles and the gentle hum of families and tourists wandering leisurely around the grounds.
This is partly why, says Charles, he has stayed here for the last 26 years.
Based in Wytham, FarmAbility has been engaging people aged 16 to over 60 in outdoor, farm-based activities for seven years. More than 100 people with learning disabilities and autism have now benefited from spending at least one day a week learning animal husbandry, woodwork, horse care, growing vegetables and assisting with seasonal tasks.
But a study from Disability Rights UK showed that in 2018, 376,000 people with disabilities of working age were unemployed and Raul believes all industries need to be open to new ways of working with disabled people. And in the UK, only 17 per cent of people with a learning disability are in work, compared to 74 per cent of the general population.
“It is not just farming,” says Raul.
“To me, what we’re doing now is sending out a big message to society that if we could give it a bit of thought and a little time, we can create opportunities for everybody.”
There is a sound relationship between Raul, Charles and Richard too, with Raul confiding he has felt ‘personally overwhelmed by how good the guys at Blenheim have been.’
And each is keen to change the perception of employment of people with disabilities.
Charles says: “To be on the sidelines when the team is here, to hear the laughter and the fun and to know they are achieving something, it fills your heart. They are enjoying themselves, but you can see they are gaining from it as well.
“Raul knows their capabilities and who can do what but, among the team, they can do it all.”
The type of work carried out varies across the year to include maintenance, mucking out pens, walking the sheep out into the fields and working on various small building projects.
But both Charles and Richard are not blindsided by the group’s disabilities, ensuring anyone helping out on the estate gets to give everything and anything a go.
They even have one co-farmer, Jacob Woodley, 21 who, although he was born with cerebral palsy, leaves his walking aid at the farm gate, motivated by the support and encouragement all three have given him.
Jacob says: “I thought the work would be too hard because of my cerebral palsy, but now I feel excited about working at Blenheim – I can go to work like other people who are not disabled. I look forward to each week and it shows others that disabled people can work too.”
They have also all impressed Richard, who is in awe of their problem-solving abilities.
He has witnessed them, he says, do things in a way you would normally never think of because they have to think outside the box.
The FarmAbility group visits Blenheim once a week and Raul wants the farming industry to lead the way in highlighting the advantages of welcoming people with learning disabilities into the workplace.
He says: “Farming offers great opportunities to people facing challenges and this model could open more eyes and minds to the idea.
“As a culture, we have a tendency to say this is how it should be, but I say, let’s work with who you are. The thing with the animals, too, is they don’t judge. Humans may see someone with a disability and try to be polite, but they are still staring. Here, there are no conditions or questions.
“That is one beauty that care farming offers people as well – the timing of farming, the patience. You don’t plant a seed and in a couple of hours it becomes a crop.”
All three are heavily invested in the project but, for Charles, it lies closer to home.
Charles’ three children all suffer from some form of myotonic dystrophy, a long-term genetic disorder that affects muscle function.
He says: “It is about ability, not disability.
“My children all have some form of learning disability which has affected them in different ways, so I know what it is like first hand to have young people who need a bit of help.
“But it is also about creating a community again, like farming was. And to be inclusive.”
And it seems to have come full circle for Charles too, who is thrilled to see his son, Will, 23, become a volunteer with FarmAbility.
But the work will continue, as the charity continues to spread its inspirational message.
Raul says: “My dream is there would be places like Blenheim all over the world and that we’d see more of our guys move into employment and apprenticeships. This really is a powerful thing.”