THE HALF ACRE: BEGINNINGS OF A WOODLAND SOCIAL ENTERPRISE
With the invaluable support of MLWW, two neighbours and I are developing plans to establish a woodland social enterprise where we live, on top of a quiet hill in the Chilterns, writes Sarah Rogers. The Half Acre is already a tiny smallholding project growing veg, keeping chickens for eggs and pigs for meat, and selling homemade produce from a barrow on the footpath; but our plan is to extend this to provide ‘work alongside’ opportunities for people who might benefit from good and meaningful work outdoors in a beautiful setting.
The setting is critical, and our plans only come about at all because of the particular qualities of place. We are lucky enough to live close to a very special beech woodland, currently a mass of bluebells, and foxgloves readying themselves for blooming. The site also has strong connections over 50 years with hundreds of people who come to camp and make music during the summer months, and we have witnessed at first hand the powerful sense of belonging and vested interest that people feel about the place – the physical space, the ancient woodland, the peaceful retreat at the top of the hill and the feeling of remoteness and being away from real life for a while. There’s a long-standing ethos here of profit in every way except financial; all who come share the work, the cost and the benefit. We’re constantly surprised by the number of people who volunteer their labours at working parties or to dig on the allotment, only to say they are leaving with so much more, and the clear sense of feeling better than they did when they arrived.
All this, and knowing how fortunate we are to be living and working here ourselves, has made us want find a way to share those benefits more widely – especially aware of the increasing need for people to be connected to nature, and supported out of social isolation and away from the GP’s practice. Since we began our research we have found many organisations doing something similar in the field of green care, or social and therapeutic horticulture (not least on MLWW’s recent excellent conference on Delivering Green Care in Woodlands). Others are making a success of this, so surely it is possible with our own range of skills, experience and enthusiasms to combine a commercially viable enterprise with social benefit to create a sustainable business? Fortunately we came across MLWW early on in our thinking, and are hugely grateful for their support in doing exactly that. We have been matched with the formidable team at Shared Assets to guide us along our journey, helping in particular with refining and defining our vision, establishing the right organisational structure, securing agreements for use of the land and ensuring we are realistic in our business planning.
What we plan to do is to grow salads and produce woodfuel for sale locally, thereby offering the opportunity for people to work with us to grow, manage and harvest. The ‘work alongside’ ethos is important to us, offering the possibility of the kind of conversations that arise when two people are alongside rather than facing each other, and collaborating rather than one being ‘done to’ by the other. Our aim is that this will help build resilience, independence, confidence and skill in someone who is low on reserves of those – people who feel lonely or isolated, or suffering from anxiety, depression or stress. And in producing salad veg and woodfuel for sale, we hope to create a strong business model for selling and distributing to local customers wishing to support such an enterprise and also benefit from good food produced locally.
We have had wonderfully positive interest from many people we have spoken to about our ideas, developing links with local mental health networks and community initiatives (e.g. social prescribing teams, local mental health chaplaincy, other organisations working in similar fields). We have also been invited to apply for LEADER funding (European money for rural businesses) to help with some of the setup costs (e.g. specialist machinery, storage structures and workspace, and online marketing), so this is now in progress too.
By the end of the year, we hope to have a small, sustainable business engaging three part-time employees, some volunteers and a number of participants coming through the door. We are planning a few taster sessions over the next couple of months, which will help us see our ideas working in reality and shape them a bit more – dipping a toe in the water… wish us luck!