As care farming continues to provide health, educational and social opportunities for vulnerable individuals, Sue Scott talks to one farmer whose focus is helping those with autism adapt to natural surroundings.
When Lydia Otter’s grandparents moved their family to a small grassland farm to rebuild their lives after the Second World War, little did they know they were sowing the seed for a project which would transform many more.
For Lydia, growing up in the 1950s and 1960s with her brother and cousins in the Vale of the White Horse, Oxfordshire, there was a special connection with the land.
She says: “I was often to be found standing under a tree as the seasons went by, or sitting by a little stream remembering the cows I helped milk with my father. It helped to ground me.”
Years later, when she watched a group of students with autism come to learn at Pennyhooks Farm, she felt a profound correlation between farming and those living with the condition.
“They got off the bus and spread out across the farm and I just watched their movements change – I knew then they had found their space,” says Lydia, by then a trained teacher in special needs.
Since that coach pulled up 15 years ago at Pennyhooks, which runs a 40-hectare (100-acre) organic beef enterprise, Lydia and her business partner Richard Hurford have helped hundreds of children and young adults find much-needed space and a purpose in developing a whole host of work-related skills.
And, as local authority cuts bite deeper into services for the 700,000 people with autism in the UK, Pennyhooks’ unique work has taken on a crucial significance as a potential role model for other small farms to follow.
“Autism is too big for one person or one family; it needs to be shared by society,” says Lydia.
“We were brought up to think if you can, you give a cup of water to someone who needs it. That’s how we view our farm.
“I could see the chaos in these young people’s lives and I had an inkling the farm could help them.”
And she was right. It might take a little longer for individuals with complex needs to get the hang of rolling out a straw bale for bedding, collecting and grading eggs for sale through a box scheme, or completing observational surveys for the Higher Level Stewardship scheme covering 8ha (20 acres) of species-rich water meadow, but the change it has brought about in them is way beyond what most of their families and carers might have believed possible.
There is a production line of meticulously constructed garden chairs, bee and bird boxes ready for sale outside the carpentry workshop; basketry, jam and craftwork inspired by the farm.
The training blocs – of which the newest, Otter House, was 80 per cent funded by Natural England under an educational access grant to support Pennyhooks’ conservation work – are a hive of industry.
The progress made by learners here is so impressive Lydia now receives a steady stream of referrals for young people and requests for advice from as far London and Kent.
Although the farm supports learners from the age of 11, most of its clients are young adults and it is the desperate need for post-16 services, which are the hardest to provide, which concerns her most.
“Between 16 and 18 many people with autism don’t go to school because they find it such a hostile environment and at the end of it there’s no future for them anyway, so they find themselves isolated in their bedrooms, not going out,” says Lydia.
Around 35 young people, each with their own carer mostly provided by Pennyhooks, spend at least one-day-a-week working at the farm.
“They often come with a complex set of needs which make employment in a mainstream, urban environment all but impossible.
"But here they thrive," and if Pennyhooks can make a success of this alternative contract between farmer and society, Lydia’s hope is others might be able to, too.
Her first step has been to start writing a training programme in the relationship between the rural environment and autism for others to follow.
“Farmers are by nature nurturers,” says Lydia. “They like to see things grow and they can do that for people as much as livestock and crops, while for people with autism, seasonality gives a routine which creates its own purposefulness.”
This year marks a significant change as Pennyhooks Farm Trust takes over the running of the students’ time at the farm, prompting a new round of fundraising for teaching and farming posts as well as business planning.
But by far the biggest project the farm and the trust hope to undertake is building permanent accommodation for students at parents’ request, providing them with somewhere to work and live in later life.
Students like Daniel, now 33, who as a seven-year-old boy at the complex end of the autism spectrum was Lydia’s inspiration for starting the service.
“Once Daniel came into our lives, our future was set – there was no walking by,” she says.
Typically, Lydia’s students suffer from high anxiety – often heightened because they know their involuntary behaviour causes others distress; many have erratic movement; they are hyper sensitive to external stimuli, such as loud noise; they struggle to communicate or read other people’s body language; and they have trouble setting themselves tasks.
None of these challenge fazes Lydia, nor farm manager Richard, who takes the same considered approach to every new challenge thrown up by a client as to any problem on the farm.
Take for instance, the young man who had an issue with shadows.
“Richard found him with his arms wrapped around a post, unable to move because of the visually confusing shadows all the other posts were casting over the track, which meant he couldn’t tell if there were gaps in the ground,” explains Lydia.
“Richard stood and thought for a few minutes and then wrapped his own arms around the next post and very slowly unwrapped them. The lad watched and copied and then they could go off to lunch. You’re always solving problems on a farm and that’s all it is with these guys.”
Richard, who helped Lydia take Pennyhooks through organic conversion after the dairy herd was dispersed and the Aberdeen-Angus arrived, has gone on to assist in devising and delivering on-farm training and become increasingly convinced of the role farms could play.
He says: “It’s the ideal environment to learn soft skills, like working as a team – which most people with autism find really hard to do – also how to complete and repeat an action and have an eye for quality.
For a small farm, providing such services can make an important difference in income too, says Richard.
“Pennyhooks is a genuine working farm,” says Lydia. “We promised ourselves we would never ask the students to do something which is not genuinely needed. But we respect who they are and build from there.”
Which is why the hay bales are a certain size for easier handling; the glasshouse for horticulture training is laid out so no one’s personal space is invaded; and the main workroom has sound-absorbing ceiling panels.
“Where possible, we make the connection between every product we produce and what’s grown here,” says Lydia, a founding member of Care Farming UK, whose advocacy on behalf of the one in 100 people with autism has seen her take the case for additional support services to David Cameron and Prince Charles.
It costs £140 to support a student for one day at Pennyhooks Farm, which relies on donations for much of its work, and while the challenges are ongoing, the business is now well-established to stand in its own right.
“We no longer consider ourselves to be an experiment; we know it works and we are pretty sure why it works,” says Lydia.
"As a child who was distressed at times, especially by separation at boarding school from life on the farm, it taught me that sometimes you need people to reach out to you to help get things better.
“I’m in such a very privileged position to be able to share the lovely thing the farm has been in my life with people who so obviously and genuinely benefit from it.”