Developing abilities

A pioneering enterprise for youngsters with special needs is combining training with innovative horticulture, reports Simon Creasey.

Using sewage sludge to fertilise allotments and biomass crops, combining fish-rearing with hydroponic cropping - these alone would mark out Yorkshire's ABLE Project as innovative.

But it is the project's approach to training and education that really sets it apart. Since its launch in 2003 the project's Wakefield site has hosted more than 2,000 young people, mostly between the ages of 12 and 16, many of them suffering from learning and physical disabilities or behavioural and mental health problems.

Physical work on the land or with the fish - and watching things that they have planted and nurtured grow - spurs the attendees on, says Graham Wiles, project officer at the Green Business Network (GBN), which jointly runs the programme. Some have only attended for a day, others for months, but all have taken away a greater understanding of horticulture and aquaculture.

Wiles' next task is to focus on around 20 young people with behavioural problems who will attend the site permanently for a year. "These kids are not engaged in the normal education process," he explains.

"There's no point trying to put round heads in square holes because it doesn't work for them - you need something different. So we adopt an overall well- being approach and give them some good, transferable skills that will help them find employment."

The project is currently looking into how the diverse work experiences encountered at the site can be turned into a National Vocational Qualification.

It has all come a long way from when GBN began a simple cardboard-recycling scheme for people with severe learning difficulties in the 1990s. This evolved into a composting scheme incorporating horse waste and worms. Before long, Wiles noticed that he had a surplus of worms on his hands, and after researching potential markets for them he realised that the fish-farming industry provided a natural fit.

A local philanthropist who had read about Wiles' efforts offered some redundant land and buildings at Lepton, near Huddersfield, to help Wiles create a scheme to help young, disadvantaged people. After discussing this with the local health authority he identified local drug addicts as the group in greatest need of help.

Wiles says the first year of the scheme saw young people in drug rehab programmes tasked with sprucing up the site, with work on the fish farm starting in year two of the project. But the scheme turned out to be so successful that Wiles quickly realised he needed to move to a bigger space.

"We found that we were very successful with a small number on the drug rehab side, but we also realised that far greater numbers were going into the (rehab) system than we were taking out," he explains.

"As a small operation, for us to be really effective we needed to intervene at an earlier stage and focus on kids who were just starting to get into trouble."

Fortunately, a Yorkshire Water official saw a speech Wiles gave about the project and approached him with the offer of a 14ha inert landfill site beside sewage works near Wakefield.

ABLE1 was to be on a much grander scale. The fish farm was still at its heart but this time horticulture was a major component too, as Wiles wanted to grow willow as a biofuel to heat the fish tanks.

But being inert, the earth lacked nutrients. Wiles calculated that the site needed around 8,000 tonnes of compost a year, and that the entire amount could be supplied by the adjacent sewage treatment works.

"It's been done for hundreds of years," says Wiles. "Nowadays the perception is 'yuck - it's sludge', but in fact it's a good, high-quality compost. We've done the toxicity tests so we know there's nothing wrong with it, and things grow beautifully when it's mixed into the topsoil."

The sludge is used on the project's vast allotment area, which is filled with quick-growing giant leeks, cabbages and courgettes, testimony to the sludge's fertilising powers.

It also sustains the community orchard, containing 100 apple, pear and plum trees donated by the West Yorkshire Probation Service, which sends 10-15 offenders to the site six days a week.

Growing continues inside the fish farm polyhouse. The project has abundant crops of watercress, which are fertilised by the fish waste produced by the 3,000 ornamental koi, 7,000 tilapia, 1,000 edible carp and smaller numbers of catfish and sturgeon in its tanks.

Production of leafy salads, peppers, cucumbers and tomatoes will also be stepped up once a series of aquaponic greenhouses is completed.

Some vegetables are sold to a nearby community cafe, but most are taken to a new kitchen that has been built on the project's grounds to teach the children how to cook healthy meals for themselves.

"Initially, the idea of growing food was for the fish, to save us from buying fish food," says Wiles. "But at the end of the first crop the kids were saying, 'Wow, I haven't seen a vegetable look like that before - I've only seen it in a plastic bag in the supermarket'. The kitchen was a natural progression because they were so interested in the food that they had helped to grow and I knew that they weren't eating healthily."

Today, ABLE is a self-sustaining project, but it has taken significant help from the local primary care trust, the Coalfield Regeneration Trust and Biffa to get it up and running.

Wiles has since been approached by a number of different local authorities keen to replicate the project's success in their own areas. A scheme at Rotherham - which will reproduce the template established by the Wakefield site but will also host sessions for parties of children from mainstream schools - recently got the green light from planners and should be operational by 2010.

However, this was a rare fillip for Wiles, who has grown increasingly frustrated at what he perceives to be the shortsightedness of government departments.

"Joined-up thinking doesn't exist and it's so frustrating for us because government funders cannot think outside the box," he says. "We're a small social enterprise at the cutting edge of a new industry but you can't even get the local authority to come and have a look at it."

To his annoyance, Wiles was also refused funding to create apprenticeship schemes so he could keep more young people on the site and give further training in aquaponics (see box, below). But despite such setbacks he vows to continue to help project attendees integrate back into society.

"Some of the kids can't read and write and they're really not ready to go into the big wide world at the moment - they still need support," he points out. "These kids are saying to me 'I'm staying here, I'm not going anywhere', because they feel safe and secure here, they feel ownership. We're offering them an all-encompassing care package and I don't think that anyone can walk on this site and not be inspired."

AQUAPONICS - HOW DOES IT WORK?

Aquaponics is based on a simple water-recirculating system: waste water from the fish provides nutrients for the plants, which are kept in compost beds. In turn the plants filter the water, which flows back into the fish tanks.

At the ABLE Project Graham Wiles and his team have built a series of aquaponic systems housed in greenhouses not much bigger than a typical family greenhouse.

These are fitted with two fish tanks, four beds and a raised bed for growing tomatoes, peppers, watercress and salad leaves. Within nine months the facility can also produce 300 to 500 fish of marketable size, depending on the species.

The project has the ambitious long-term aim of one day harvesting caviar from the 30 or so sturgeons the tank currently rears. The unit design package, including fish, costs in the region of £10,000, and payback time is reckoned to be about two years.

Wiles has attracted a lot of interest in the greenhouse model from as far afield as Africa and Nepal - and students from the University of Stirling are investigating the development of aquaponic techniques using the model. Although it is still at an early stage of development, Wiles believes the technology could provide an alternative revenue stream for farmers, and educational opportunities for schoolchildren and prisoners.


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