West Wales well-being social enterprise demonstrates the power of community spirit in the face of despair
Emma Bird tells us how she and husband Rodney embarked on an off-grid idyllic life on their smallholding with alpacas, workshops and Social Prescription activities to help promote well-being, all while overcoming potential devastation with extraordinary resolve.
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Ten years ago, my husband and I said goodbye to life in suburbia (Gloucestershire) as we started our adventure as Alpaca Farmers. Investing in a high-quality herd we readily jumped in with two feet after years of talking and dreaming about smallholding life.
Both ready for a challenge and change of lifestyle as our kids had grown and were becoming independent. We both have a big love of animals so as we researched traditional smallholding livestock we soon realised that we didn’t want to raise animals for the table, this was going to be our dream business and we wanted to be comfortable with every aspect.
Alpacas seemed the perfect idea, beautiful gentle animals producing hypoallergenic premium fibre and gentle on the land. A huge amazing learning curve, I attended training with a camelid vet, learnt from other alpaca owners and read a lot.
Having a low carbon footprint was paramount and our smallholding in Ceredigion is completely off-grid. Solar electric (no mains), our own water source and a wood fired Rayburn using our own wood to heat water and the home. A lifestyle business to enjoy and be proud of. We supplement the farm income from our other work, myself a part time hairdresser and Rodney a groundworker.
I learnt to process the alpaca fibre using a traditional spinning wheel and attended basket weaving workshops locally, soon my tutor became my mentor, I gained so much from these days and they became extremely therapeutic.
Nine months after setting up Bird Farm Alpacas, my husband Rodney was diagnosed with Rectal Cancer, undergoing surgery, radiotherapy and chemo. Things got pretty serious but somehow the alpacas helped us get through, they depended on us and we had already jumped off of the cliff, no turning back. As hard as it was, we loved the farm, the routine and purpose it brought us.
Failing to gain the support of our local council to begin the farm locally, we moved to West Wales where the council were much more supportive of our business, as were the local community. We were welcomed whole heartedly which helped, as leaving our family and friends support system was a huge wrench.
I began my workshops at the farm, small numbers creating a restorative day of crafting, listening, talking, sharing lunch and a walk to the alpacas. Going home with something you have made, disconnecting with busy lives, getting back to nature and spending time with the calm alpacas seemed to be a winning combination. I receive great feedback from people and also have gained so much from it myself as life sent us some more huge curveballs!
A year after arriving in Wales we suffered a huge blow when one stormy January night in 2014 our house burnt down completely, we lost all of our possessions, a truly shocking experience. Just two weeks later we discovered Rodney’s cancer was back, this time in his lung. Devastating, life seemed pretty cruel. We had to put the fire nightmare into perspective, no one was hurt, health and well-being is everything! This took us back to basics and again we found solace in the alpacas and the nature around us. Our local community of Gorsgoch rallied around us in any way they could and for that we are forever grateful, feeling like you are part of something is very important. They helped us rebuild and furnish our home and we got on with things once more.
Making connections along the way I have learnt to collaborate with other makers and therapists. Developing a Community Group meet up once a month (Pre Covid-19) bringing people together to share craft skills, providing peer-to-peer support, Complementary Therapies and time-out in nature which has proved a great hit.
For three years we have had adults with learning difficulties helping with farm tasks from Glasallt Fawr, a lovely rewarding experience for us all.
Ten years on, Rodney’s health and my reluctance to part with any more alpacas has prompted a change in focus. We have decided to downsize the herd and cement my collaborations with three friends to form ‘Bird Farm CIC’.
"This took us back to basics and again we found solace in the alpacas and the nature around us. Our local community of Gorsgoch rallied around us in any way they could and for that we are forever grateful, feeling like you are part of something is very important."
Our common goal to support vulnerable people within our community and from further afield. Providing well-being being workshops, Social Prescription Activities and bespoke Day Care services.
Between us we have a wide range of skills and experience and are undertaking further training. Myself retraining as a Counsellor, starting in September, I think some farm/craft-based therapy will be a great addition to the CIC in the future.
Social Business Wales New Start has been a great support so far, sending my mentor Serena to the farm to understand fully what we plan to do and currently helping us submit our CIC application. Suggesting I join the ‘Start with a cuppa’ sessions which have been great. Starting anything in a rural community can be isolating let alone during lockdown! It was great to reach out and listen to the other social business ideas and learn who we could potentially work with.
It is important for social businesses to link up to identify what services and support is needed in the local area. This way we can share ideas, skills and training. Providing localised support, avoiding unnecessary travel, particularly important with our current health crisis. During these extremely difficult times, it is even more important to support rural communities. Showing support and kindness is the way forward to support us all through the difficult times this country is facing.
Bird Farm CIC has received business consultancy support and advice from Social Business Wales New Start, funded by the European Regional Development Fund and delivered by the Wales Co-operative Centre.
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