Opening his arms and home to the homeless has been an enriching experience for arable farmer Rob Addicott, as well as everyone else involved with his family’s Somerset farm.
Ann Hardy finds out more...
Manor Farm, in the Mendip hills, Somerset, is a picture of rural tranquillity. A tree-lined avenue approaches the farm; a duck pond glistens in the spring sunshine; and a wisteria, heavy with blossom, clings to the honeycoloured stone of the grade two listed farmhouse. So why would the farm’s lifetime tenants open their arms to potential disruption?
Rob Addicott and his wife Suzanne have transformed their family sanctum to a community for the homeless, converting Rob’s childhood home into Dairy House, offering refuge to people from the local community who find themselves homeless, whether through addiction, mental health or other life-controlling issues. Living as a family of six in the adjoining part of the farmhouse, their neighbours serve as a constant reminder of their own generosity.
Rob says: “I’ve always harked back to the days when there were a lot of people on the farm.”
It was Suzanne who provided the catalyst to bring the ambition to fruition, having worked with the homeless and with addicts in rehab for many years, mainly in Hong Kong.
Rob says: “Suzanne always had a dream of doing something like it in this country.”
The couple were finally able to do so through Suzanne’s work with the church charity, the Elim Connect Centre, which operates the homelessness services for Mendip District Council.
“Initially, she worked voluntarily for the charity, but after a time, she became employed by them in an outreach capacity,” he says. “There were no homeless hostels in Mendip, and to be honest, the type of people she was meeting would struggle to be confined to a hostel in a town.
“Many of them were homeless living in woods, shelters, caravans or tents.
“We talked a lot about what we could do for them and we knew it was very difficult to go from, for example, living in a wood, to holding a tenancy for a flat.
“We came up with the idea of creating what you might call a hostel, but is something a bit different. “A hostel is for the night, whereas this is fully residential.
“We wanted it to be a place where we could get people off the streets and transition them to their own tenancy. It’s hard but it’s surprising what difference you can make in a few months.”
In the spring sunshine, Dairy House looks every bit the haven the Addicotts had hoped to create, bringing balance, calm and the privileges of country living to the people most in need.
Four members of staff and a team of volunteers work with the residents from 9am to 6pm, and from then on, the Addicotts take over complete responsibility.
He says: “Suzanne and I are like house parents. We want to create a family feel; a sense of community. A lot of people we are trying to reach have isolated themselves from the community. But they’ve done that for a reason – maybe they had a bad experience of it.”
And that perception is something the husband and wife team want to change.
“I think humans are social animals and a lot of problems farmers have are because they are not social anymore,” he says. Admitting to his own human frailties, he has empathy with the residents of Dairy House, many of whom Rob now counts as friends.
He says: “If we are honest with ourselves, we all have degrees of mental health issues at some point.
“Even doing a proper day’s work can be difficult when your mind is in a different place.”
Recalling his nervousness at the outset of the project, he says: “I remember the leader of Elim saying ‘you are going to enjoy this and make lots of good friends’. I didn’t really expect to, but he was right. We have friendships with many of our former residents.
“Our two youngest children also have a really good relationship with the staff next door. They love the therapy dog and also develop relationships with the residents.
“If there’s ever any tension in the house and you go round with the children, it dissipates. How this would impact family life was one of my concerns, but it has been positive.”
Today, Dairy House is home to seven residents who will typically remain with the Addicotts for three months before returning to their community with ongoing support. A structured day includes the activities of everyday living, such as cooking, laundry and even decorating and property maintenance, while formal sessions range from debt to anger-management to relapse prevention and mindfulness.
Rob also believes there is a certain therapy to being on the farm. He says: “We tend to forget we live in the most beautiful settings imaginable and a lot of people who come here feel it’s so nice to just walk and breathe the air.
“There’s a map in the house of places they can go on the farm and we also ask that they don’t go in the courtyard [converted into business units] during the day.
“You tend to find that if you have opened your home and your world to someone, they have a respect for you.”
Although there was hedge-laying and apple-picking in the newly established orchards, he found the 142 hectares (350 acres) of arable – comprising wheat, barley, oilseed rape and linseed – was too highly mechanised to benefit from casual help.
“So we went to our landlords [the Duchy of Cornwall] to ask if we could turn half an acre of a field into a community garden,” says Rob.
With a positive reaction from the Duchy and £12,000 of community funding from the Tesco Bags of Help scheme, they were able to establish the garden with a rotovator, polytunnel, a shed and a small team of volunteers.
“The idea was that we would sell vegetables, but that was secondary to the therapeutic element of growing them,” he says.
Vegetables were initially sold through local churches, then at farmers markets and the community venture, Somerset Local Food Direct. As the garden has expanded, produce has also gone to local markets, including Midsomer Norton, Keynsham and Frome Independent Market.
Today, Rob’s objective is to make the Dairy House financially self-sustaining and, in this endeavour, he has created a community interest company (CIC), which is for the benefit of the community rather than private shareholders.
“At the moment, Mendip District Council provides the money to make the Dairy House work,” he says.
“We are privileged that it is a very progressive council, as this is different from what many other councils are doing.
“But long-term, we would like to make the project self-funding. If you get a change of council you don’t know what funding there would be.
“That’s why we set up the CIC; we are trying to add enterprises that would be able to sustain Dairy House.”
As for the farm itself, Rob says he is always looking for enterprises to develop the business.
“Financially, farming is not ever so profitable,” he says. “We benchmark our arable operation against other people’s and I don’t think we are doing badly. We also have the offices which Mum and Dad converted from the farm buildings, which give us a decent income and can sustain the whole family.”
Whether something similar would suit other farmers he says depends on their goals. “My goal is not to make a huge amount of wealth,” he says.
“If you want to be philanthropic you don’t have to recreate exactly what we have here. “When you raise your head and you realise what you have grown up with, you know you have to be generous. It’s engrained in my psyche and it certainly is for Suzanne. I think we have a really good quality of life and don’t strive for more,” he says.
“We love living next door to Dairy House. You get the odd toe-rag, but most are really decent people who have had bad luck in life.”