Food, Farming and Countryside Commission

Farming and health

By Lydia Otter

Pennyhooks Farm, Oxfordshire

Lydia Otter keeps a herd of beef cattle on her 40-hectare organic farm and uses the farm to provide a unique experience for young people and adults with Autism Spectrum Condition.

I was brought up here. I have a letter from my grandfather in 1943 saying he was thinking of buying a farm for his sons because he considered it to be a balanced and satisfying way of life. So the farm was actually bought, I now find out rather touchingly, as a lifestyle choice. My parents often had visitors and friends staying with us, to share the farm. I think it’s been natural for me to understand that farming is good for you.

When my mother died in the early ‘80s I came home to help dad. It coincided with a decline in dairying, so dad sold the milking herd and bought some Angus yearlings and began to build the herd we’ve got. They are suckled for nine months and we sell them finished at about two years old. I know them each by each, really. The beef is sold to retailers through the Organic Livestock Cooperative.

The farm is mostly permanent pasture, but a quarter of it is high-value conservation land. We’ve now made the decision to reduce the herd down to about 20 breeding cows, deliberately to look after that conservation land, which needs the cows to graze it. The decision is linked to our diversification into autism support. Just to give you some idea, our turnover is about £40,000 from the farm and about £400,000 from the diversification.

The cows also have a very central role with our young people, in that they provide that year-long cycle that seems to be so grounding for them. The reason why I started to introduce people with autism to the farm goes back to my experience as a child and the way that I felt so much that I belonged and was so comfortable here. When I went off to boarding school I lost that sense and became very unhappy. The experience influenced my choice of career – I trained as a music teacher specialising in special needs.

When I started to meet people with autism and understand the worlds they live in, where they’re so withdrawn and disconnected, I wondered whether coming to the farm would make a difference. I attended a conference in Barcelona where there was a session on farming and autism. I presented my ideas and the others said, go for it, you’ve got all you need to do it.

We had a young man here today, aged 22, unable to really centre himself or stop. His language wasn’t very capable but he was trying to express himself, which was lovely, but he wasn’t getting anywhere. When we took him out to feed to the cows, they immediately became his focus. He wanted to get them fed, the satisfaction of hearing them stop shouting and settle into the manger to eat, and he became a completely different person almost immediately. The only way I can put it is that the rhythms of the farm seem to really relate to the need for people with autism for predictability and routines.

It was his first visit. Usually we have people in groups of 10, some coming every day, some once a week, mainly men but increasingly women. They each come with a carer, and I employ 15 people, 10 of whom are experienced support workers, so everything is one-to-one. We have two separate sessions a day, and we also develop special groups at the farm such as the mammal monitoring project, and groups to encourage sociability. We’re increasingly approached for the more high-functioning people with autism, who’ve just finished college and have nowhere to go. This young man today was one.

You see remarkable progress, though it can be slow. At the very beginning, where their autism is in such ascendancy, they walk in and you see high anxiety, the movement disorders, the flapping, the shouting. They might be reluctant to help you carry a bucket of feed to the hens, then three weeks later you’d have a hand come out to take the bucket or lead the donkey. It’s getting the body to be able to physical jobs, pushing wheelbarrows. Eventually they’re learning to do woodwork, baking, horticulture, willow weaving. The dexterity is really what I’m talking about, the control. So now in woodwork they’re able to use saws with assistance, power drills obviously with support, screwdrivers. They can recognise tools. They can use a hammer.

We’ve just had an order for 50 of our bee houses, so we’re about to encourage an increase in productivity from our students as the next stage of them learning to work. Because that’s our basic remit. For them to have that equivalence to their peer group of being able to have a working life, a fulfilled life. They’re always going to be too slow to be economical, they’ll always need support, but you can see the importance.

They’re extraordinary, our young people. They draw you on, you learn from them. The farm taught me to nurture. That’s the connection between caring for the land and caring for the animals and caring for our young people. It’s nurture and observation, listening to the land and listening to the young people.

I feel we’ve shown this works. I also think it’s transferable to other farms. If we remained as a sort of a hub for training and an example of what can work, we could support other farmers. It’s a matter of organising the activities, having the facilities, and understanding what’s working. The product of our farm is useful, happy, healthy lives.

My biggest challenge is simply the finance of it. At the moment I fundraise for £100,000 a year. The statutory funding reaches nearly £300,000, but we need £400,000. I wake up every day thinking about it. But of course the challenge isn’t actually the money, it’s people’s understanding that it’s money worth spending. And that’s a policy issue.