Rhubarb Farm CIC is a small social horticultural enterprise on the Nottinghamshire/Derbyshire border. We grow fruit and vegetables, but this is the vehicle to engage vulnerable, disaffected and isolated people in the rural communities of the old coalfield villages and towns in the area.
Our aim is to help people change their lives for the better, whether this is to gain friends, learn new skills, have purposeful activities, move towards employment, move away from substance misuse, get fit, leave a life of crime or cope better with their mental health. We support about 80 people and have 18 staff.
From the start of operations in January 2011, our ethos has been one of complete inclusiveness and this is the clue to how we rethink civil society.
This ethos is based on the view that too many initiatives that support vulnerable people make four major mistakes, which Rhubarb Farm has deliberately worked to avoid as part of our ethos:
Firstly, they have the effect of ghettoising people in groups where everyone has the same issues, problems or needs. This is risk-averse, results in reinforcing difficult, needy or anti-social behaviour, and does not provide people with diversity or any real challenge to ‘think outside the box’.
Rhubarb Farm accepts everyone, no matter what their needs or abilities – children who struggle with their behaviour at school, people with physical and mental ill health, people with physical and learning disabilities, people recovering from drug and alcohol misuse, older people, including those with dementia, ex-offenders including people on probation, people on ASBOs and people newly out of prison. We even, for about 15 months, had men who came daily from a local open prison, to work on site as volunteers.
The importance of this inclusivity and acceptance is that people spending time working with others of very different needs and issues, learn to understand each other. This breaks down prejudice, confounds stereotypes and builds empathy. It also creates friendship across needs, and this is hugely important in spreading positive thinking about others. It has the effect of enabling people to be role models whereas in a ghettoised situation they would likely be reinforcing similar behaviours.
Secondly, many initiatives have the effect of creating dependence and passivity, where activities are done for them, and they are not productive in the project and are called ‘clients’ or ‘service-users’ or even ‘patients’.
At Rhubarb Farm, everyone we support starts on the understanding that they are coming as an active volunteer, and working on site is a part of the deal, and they are all known as volunteers. This means that people who have no purpose in life or do very little with their lives get involved in purposeful, productive activities, whether horticultural, construction, customer service, cooking or carpentry, all in groups. Their social and economic contribution is recognised and for many, being called a volunteer is the first time they have felt useful, part of a team, and given value for their work. It gives a huge boost to morale and self-esteem and provides motivation to learn and move forward.
Reinforcing change and value extends to employing people who initially come to the Farm for support. 60% of our staff started as volunteers, who initially came to pay off unpaid work hours through the Probation Service. Staff with lived experience are vital role models for volunteers, and provide inspiration and really fundamental support for people wanting to make changes to their lives. Staff work on a transactional analysis model, where sharing their experience is vital, from the person who cleans out the chickens to the MD.
Giving purpose is critical to the health of a society, whether it is paid work or voluntary, and changing the image of volunteers is what Rhubarb Farm has successfully achieved.
Thirdly, many projects limit the time that people are allowed to come to participate, both the number of hours they can come on any day, and the number of sessions or weeks that they can attend.
Rhubarb Farm sets no deadline for anyone attending the Farm. People with long-term needs take varying lengths of time to make changes in their lives, and some people with learning disability reach a level which is comfortable for them, and we recognise this, and put no pressure on people to move on. Working outdoors with others is hugely beneficial in helping people make changes as they learn from each other and some move forward quicker than others, depending on their long-term issues.
Not only do we set no deadline for moving on, but all volunteers come for a full day (6 hours), which is much more effective than attending for an hour’s counselling or a 2-hour coffee morning. Some volunteers come several days a week, which means change has a chance to become embedded.
Fourthly, we make no lazy assumptions that people cannot take on learning or issues that are challenging and complex. So our training courses cover everything from tractor training to transgender and LGBTQ awareness, from a book group for people who can’t read, to buddy training, and from woodwork for women to playwriting for young people with low levels of education. Every volunteer is encouraged and entitled to attend whichever courses they wish. We aim to challenge all our volunteers into new, positive thinking, to learn new things and to be part of debate and discussion.
Beyond this, Rhubarb Farm also looks outward to the communities from which our volunteers come:
- We run a very large annual produce show, the Langwith Show, which by 2019 was in its 8th year, and an important focus for the local community, attended by thousands of people.
- During COVID Rhubarb Farm has been delivering, every week, 55 food bags to local households and 25 cooked meals to older people, referred by the community and professionals.
- We have a garden maintenance team run by a staff member who originally started as a volunteer with severe depression, supervising a mixed team of people with mental ill health and learning disability. Their physical labour out in local people’s gardens, and doing contracts for parish councils, has further positive impact on confounding stereotypes.
- Our little Farm shop brings people in to buy our fresh produce, and they can be served by any of our volunteers or staff, so, again, building empathy and understanding.
- We hold an annual, outdoor Volunteer Celebration, to which we invite the families and stakeholders involved with all our volunteers. About 100 people attend, to see every volunteer receive certificates for work they have done, and this has the effect of families understanding our work, and the ripple effect of this spreads awareness about the Farm’s work by word of mouth. We always get a ‘Chain of Office’ to present the certificates – a Mayor, the President of the Chamber of Commerce, or a Deputy Lord Lieutenant – and this further provides the volunteers with a sense of worth and belonging.
- We share surplus produce and food, share information and share knowledge with other organisations in a transparent way in order to benefit the whole community.
The Farm is now held in high esteem by the local rural communities, meaning that every time we post a request on our Facebook page, we get responses that fulfill our requests within a matter of hours – from borrowing tools, to getting materials.
If civil society is to change, barriers have to be broken down between different people so that communication is on the basis of empathy and awareness, not ignorance and prejudice. Rhubarb Farm is playing its part in working towards this in the rural areas of the north Nottinghamshire and north Derbyshire former coalfields.
The Rhubarb Farm ethos is a model which can be replicated by challenging accepted norms as to how people of all needs and abilities can mix together and how they can participate in productive community activities.