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DonandHesterIrving750Urban goat farm dream for path to recovery

A Norwich couple have a dream to use their personal experience of addiction and recovery to set up an urban care goat farm, providing a therapeutic place for people who are on the margins to get their hands dirty and build self-esteem. Jenny Seal reports.

Don and Hester Irving had known each other for almost a decade through King’s Community Church in Norwich when they surprised their friends by getting together three and a half years ago.

Not long after, they discovered a shared passion for setting up a goat farm. Their dream is to run a small farm as a social enterprise, in or close to Norwich, which can provide work experience and a place of community for those in recovery, with mental health issues and people with special needs.

The couple got married in June 2016 but Hester recalls: “We had to discipline ourselves to talk about the practicalities of getting married rather than the goat farm - because we were very excited about it. I felt like that excitement came from God.”

Both in their 50s, they bring a lifetime of experience and skills to the venture. Don is a drug addict who has been clean for 10½ years and Hester calls herself a ‘recovering grudge-bearer’. They both follow the 12-step programme. 

“One of the main ethics of the 12-step programme is you only keep what you have by giving it away,” Don explains. “So I have to help other people, the way people helped me when I was first in recovery.”

“When I came out of rehab I found myself going to King’s Community Church.  The guy who ran the coffee shop there – after I told him I was an addict just out of rehab – said to me: ‘do you want to come and help in the coffee shop?’  I thought, ‘that’s a bit odd, somebody giving me a chance’.  Now I run that coffee shop and I’m employed by the church.

“When I was in drug treatment and people started talking about voluntary work, there was a lot in catering and pushing paper around. But if you didn’t want to do either of them you were stuffed.  And a lot of people want to get their hands dirty with animals and be outside.”

Don grew up on a farm in Suffolk where he developed an understanding of animals and love for tractors and motorbikes.  He has a degree in business and economics and now manages volunteers in the coffee shop.  “It’s great,” he said. “You get people who actually want to come to work, not because they want to pay the bills. It’s about feeling part of the family, its working, and it’s giving people self-esteem.” 

Hester trained in social work and teaching but for the past 19 years has worked as a therapist at Hebron Trust, a female residential drug and alcohol rehab centre.  Many years ago she visited an alpaca farm in Sheffield with a basic café and has since had the desire to start something similar.

“When we first started going out we were sharing our stories,” Hester said, “and Don said, ‘I could never go back to farming’ and I said a bit despondently ‘Oh, so you wouldn’t want to start a goat farm?’ and he said, ‘Actually I would!’.  He totally flipped. So I thought that was like a God moment really”.

The couple have both completed CEVAS training in care farm management and share a clear vision of the initiative. 

“We’ve just got loads and loads of ideas,” said Hester. Don adds, “There is just the slight issue of premises.” 

They would ideally like to rent or buy a piece of land covering 5-15 acres in Norwich or accessible by bus.  As well as supporting a few goats and chickens, there would be space to grow vegetables and a kitchen garden.  Mobile buildings and cabins would be used to set up a café hub, counselling pods, rentable meeting space and a workshop.  They would also love woodland, an orchard and access to water.

Their search for land has been a struggle with several possibilities thwarted.  “It’s been quite frustrating to be honest with you,” said Don.  “I’m an addict and one of the characteristics of an addict is wanting everything now so the lack of premises has been quite a struggle. 

“But I do believe when the time is right it will happen. You just have to put yourself forward and have faith that something will happen.  I’m convinced something will happen.”

If you would like to get involved and help Don and Hester realise their vision for City Goats, contact them at citygoats@outlook.com 

Farm dream: Don and Hester Irving

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