We didn’t go into free range egg production for eggs – no, we ran an open home on our farm for homeless youngsters and they needed something to do.
We had helped the next door neighbour to build a 5000 bird shed and when the birds arrived he offered me a part time job egg collecting, the lads that were with us at the time came to help me, one of them was particularly disgusting, he was snotty, dirty, his language was the pits (despite our efforts), he could neither read, write or count but he could collect eggs and one day he asked if he could do it on his own.
I explained that he couldn’t as he needed to count and record the eggs – “well then teach me” he said. In 3 weeks he could count accurately up to 5000 and later learnt to keep the records, he became clean and pleasant.
In 1989 Highfields Happy Hens was born (hatched) we built our first shed of 2500 birds, it was built from all the junk we could scrounge and we saw so many lives change – angry aggressive hands became gentle hands (essential for egg collecting).they learnt to count (cor f’in hell mister how many eggs have we just collected!!). We built a shed a year all very second hand until we had 20,000 birds.
In 2001 we started working for the youth offending service with youngsters who were too young to go to prison then we stated working with the education authority as most of our young offenders had been excluded from school, we started as ‘school’ for just one lad in 2001 now we have up to 30 each week – to our surprise and pride many of whom have sat their GCSE’s and at least 2 are going to college.
In 2003 our world collapsed – the RSPCA and the Lion Brand both had problems when assessing our sheds which were in very poor condition and finally condemned them – I had a complete break down and was off work for 6 months – if we lost our hens the whole project would close down but to rebuild was surely financially impossible. However I began to get well again and had a meeting with our accountant and bank manager who both assured me I had little option – the farm could not be viable without the hens and the project would indeed have to close down.
Our suppliers were brilliant – they helped me to design the replacement sheds and the cost would be around £16-20 a hen using much of our old equipment – because of the work we do with young offenders people started to offer to sponsor a hen (£16-20) and this really took off, as I go out speaking about our work the message travelled fast and local Churches, schools the WI and others all got excited, a soldier at the Litchfield barracks saw an article about us in the news paper – he and his mates started to throw their loose change into a bucket and I was asked to go and speak at the barracks church the Sunday before they went to Iraq – after which they gave me a cheque for £920. At the time of writing we have built new accommodation for 24,000 hens; fantastic for them, fantastic for us and fantastic for our students. It has cost an incredible £400,000 and we started with nothing – just the belief that the work we do here with our young people must not be allowed to stop. So many people shared that belief and sponsored hens, large gifts and interest free loans – our suppliers have now been paid but we need to pay off the mortgage so still need sponsors.
There is another side to this incredible story, dozens of damaged young lives turned around, the youth offending service tell us that since 2001 almost none of our youngsters have re-offended and the education authority tell us that we are the only positive project they have for getting youngsters back to school. The National Care Farming Initiative is now a reality as a source of care for a whole range of social needs and has been acclaimed as a ‘potential social revolution’. HYPERLINK "http://www.ncfi.org.uk" www.ncfi.org.uk
Recently we had a lovely young girl with us, she has been tagged but we could not understand how she had got into trouble (we never ask, this is a new life) before she left us she banged a nail in our cross and later wrote to us, the letter closed with “Thank you all so much for welcoming me in the way that you did when others would never have given me a chance”. It was so simple and has happened so many time.