By Stuart Toulson, Manager

 Stuart ToulsonIn August 1989 Joyce and Tom Jervis retired and finished farming at what was then called No. 1 Small Holdings.

A very forward-thinking woman had a long-held dream of developing a vocational day service in South Shropshire for people with learning disabilities, because at that time such people living in this part of the county had to travel to day services in Telford. That woman was Laura Tullett, and when she heard that a smallholding was being vacated in Ditton Priors she began the process of obtaining the tenancy for what was then Shropshire County Council’s Social Services Department. In 1990 Laura’s dream was finally realised, and the first people started to come to Oak Farm in the Autumn of that year, spending a few hours each day getting used to the farming environment.

In October 1990 I asked my wife, Alison, to get me a Farmer’s Weekly magazine. She was on maternity leave as our son Tom was just a few weeks old. Alison rang me at my then workplace to say that there was an advert in the jobs page for a Day Service Officer at Ditton Priors Rural Unit. I had no idea what a Day Service Officer was or did, but I applied for the job because the project was new and I thought it might be exciting to be involved with something different for a couple of years.

I was short-listed and offered an interview at the farm. When I turned up for it the first person I met was Jenny Banks; she walked out into the yard with a big beaming smile and greeted me warmly. I was led into the house, where Peter, Richard, Linda and Ros were waiting to interview me. I think that this demonstrates how progressive Laura and Jenny were in enabling people who use services to have a valuable input into who they want to have working with them.

I was lucky enough to be appointed, and it was then that I realised that although I was well qualified to do the farming, I knew nothing about working with people with learning disabilities. Jenny and Laura soon put this right, giving me a fantastic grounding, and investing a lot of time in helping me to gain valuable knowledge. However, I think I learned most from the people who used the service here in the early days, as the environment lent itself to working alongside them. They learned agricultural and horticultural skills from me, and I learned about their lives and issues from them.

When we first came to Oak Farm there were five grass fields totalling 28 acres, as Tom and Joyce had been dairy farmers. There was just a single strand barbed-wire fence round each field. Thinking back to that time makes you realise just what has been done here to develop the facility, and to create a good working environment for people.

In 1990 we started off with seven people using the service. We were bussed out from Halesfield, Telford, and spent the initial weeks planning what we were going to do. Dear old Tom Jervis used to come in and light the fires in the house for us in the early days, which was very valuable, as we may all have frozen to death otherwise.

As we started to develop the work pattern at Oak Farm, more and more people became interested and we very quickly doubled the number coming. Since becoming operational we have given service to over 80 people. Some have stayed a short time, unfortunately some are no longer with us, and others like Richard, Linda Wilson, Sue and Iain have been with us from the start. We now have over 50 people who come to work with us each week, with a fairly steady inflow of potential new farmers interested in joining us.