IT’S harvest time at The Boaz Project in Sutton Scotney.

Under a slate-grey sky, men and women are busy digging onions, pulling carrots and picking flowers. There is chatter and laughter as they work surrounded by fields.

Tom, 24, in smart green wellies fills a wheelbarrow with weeds which are collected and fed to the chickens, a nutritious treat. “I like helping in the garden and feeding the chickens,” said Tom, who has Downs Syndrome and attends three days a week.

The Boaz Project at Hill Farm welcomes up to 14 adults with learning disabilities per session. Aims include giving people meaningful work and the opportunity to be productive.

In the flourishing veg garden there are carrots, French beans, runner beans, leeks, sweetcorn, courgettes, butternut squash, beetroot, rhubarb, strawberries, gooseberries, small apple trees and a pumpkin patch. A giant pumpkin, weighing in at 52 kilos, was crowned champion at the last Littleton and Harestock show.

There are three fruit cages for raspberries, blackcurrants and redcurrants as well as two polytunnels for tomatoes, sweet peppers, chilli peppers and more. Some of the plot is dedicated to flower production: sweet peas, dahlias, sunflowers, cosmos, gladioli and rudbeckia to name but a few. Colourful blooms are grown for pleasure and to attract pollinators.

Members of Boaz grow the crops from seed. “It’s all about job creation,” said Andy Brooks, a former newspaper photographer turned horticulturist who manages the garden. “We try to make everything as inclusive as possible – and fun.

“There are some jobs that are highly physical – like digging – and not everyone can do that, but potting plants can be done sitting down.” The greenhouse has been adapted for wheelchair use and there are raised beds and planters for those with limited mobility.

In addition to the horticultural side, Boaz has 120 chickens, three sheep, five lambs, two guinea pigs and one donkey to look after.

The sheep and donkey enjoy starring roles in the nativity play staged in a barn by members every Christmas. One year, a sheep made an unscripted dash for the exit, adding to the festive cheer.

The donkey belongs to Dr Gordon Masson, a founder trustee of Boaz, who allows use of 4.5 acres of his land and a barn for a peppercorn rent. A popular activity is taking his donkey for a walk around the arable farm.

Founded in 2007, the Christian initiative was started by Rev James Mitchell-Innes, retired vicar of Christchurch in Winchester and his wife, Carol. The couple who had four children of their own, become long-term foster parents of four youngsters with special needs. The eldest foster son, who had Down’s Syndrome, attended a residential college where he learnt farming skills – even driving a tractor. But on returning home, there were no jobs for him.

Luke, 28, who currently attends Boaz one day per week, had a similar experience. “I went to Sparsholt College for two years. I took a foundation land-based course. We tattooed pigs’ ears and learnt how to slaughter them as well as doing horticulture, animal care and welding. I drove a tractor. I loved it but after that there was nothing for me.”

Adults with learning disabilities are more excluded from the workplace than any other group of disabled people, according to Mencap. Latest figures from Public Health England show only six per cent are in paid employment.

After a few ‘gap’ years, Luke’s family found Boaz. He said: “I’ve made loads of friends. I like doing outside work best, maintenance jobs and especially tree surgery with Johnny.”

Johnny Norriss is a forester during the week, but on weekends and bank holidays he feeds the animals at Boaz as well as volunteering on his days off.

The local charity has five full-time equivalent paid staff and about 40 volunteers who help on different days (or half days) of the week. Volunteers are vital to the success of the project – and new recruits are needed.

Manager Stuart Palmer said: “The dream is to get to a one-to-one ratio if we add staff and volunteers to give members the best possible experience.

“We are seeking to make their world a bit bigger and more interesting. There is something about working in a big open space, close to nature, that is inspiring.

“There is a lot of sky here, fresh air, fields, new people to meet and real work to do. It’s an opportunity for people to step out of their usual mode of operation.”

Success stories include giving a severely depressed woman a reason to get out of bed in the morning or a young man taking off his headphones to tell everyone about his holiday. Even a few words can be a major milestone after weeks of silence.

“Some of our members have mild to moderate autism. We try to establish a rhythm and routine to what we do,” said Stuart.

There are chickens to be fed and given clean bedding as well as eggs to collect, box and stamp. The free-range eggs are packed off to Barton Stacey village shop to sell.

Members develop cooking skills with fresh ingredients harvested from the farm whenever possible. Recipes are tailored to individual dietary needs. Deputy manager Sally Ratcliffe said: “It helps people to understand that all the work they have done in the year – the weeding, digging and hefting manure around – has produced the food they are eating which gives everyone a sense of achievement.”

Jams and chutneys are made for sale along with any spare fruit and veg. Members also learn handcrafts, such as woodwork. Projects include bird tables, bat boxes and planters filled with herbs or bulbs made to order. Proceeds are ploughed back into the project.

Sally said: “There is a huge gap at the end of education for people with learning disabilities. As well as learning horticulture and life skills, the social interaction here is important.”

Katie, 32, who attends one day a week, said: “When I first came to Boaz, I was very shy and nervous, but I came out of my comfort zone and made friends.”

Angie Dixon, 64, who volunteers one morning a week with her husband, Alan, a retired farmer, said: “Boaz is like one, big, happy family. Everyone is made to feel welcome.”

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