Dedication to diversification
PUBLISHED: 09:33 23 July 2014 | UPDATED: 09:33 23 July 2014
Diversification has been a buzzword in agriculture over the last generation and one Great Bardfield farmer has turned his attention to nurturing the learning and development of the county's children with the launch of a novel new venture
Diversification in the ways our farmland is used has seen fast-paced change over recent years. While farm shops or commercial and property lets are common place, there are also many imaginative, niche ventures that have been introduced, but few are quite like the plans of Great Bardfield farmer, Nicholas Reed.
Nicholas, the new CLA Essex branch chairman, and Mel Sims, owner of Chelmsford-based marketing agency Frank Comms and chair of the Dunmow and Braintree branch of the National Childbirth Trust, are about to launch The Nurture Barn on land at Bluegate Hall Farm. The Nurture Barn will be a place where parents can bring their little ones for ‘play through learning’ and ‘open-ended play’ to support early learning.
Described by Mel as, ‘modern Swedish-style learning meets old-fashioned play’ this is an exciting, new venture for her and Nicholas.
Nicholas has been at Bluegate Hall Farm in Great Bardfield, near Braintree, since he finished university in 1984, but it has been in the hands of his wider family, which also runs William Reed Business Media and the publishers of The Grocer magazine, since 1978. Five years ago, Nicholas bought the rest of his family out of the farm and so it now belongs exclusively to him, his wife and their three grown-up children.
Traditionally the farm has been home to pigs and more than 1,000 acres of arable fields, but recently it has moved away from livestock. This left a number of old buildings that had been used for pigs, which have now been used for diversification. There is now a farm shop, a livery yard with around 30 horses and commercial property lets including a joystick manufacturer and a company that produces robots for use in packing potatoes. Nicholas also has a cafe and gift shop, called the Blue Egg, which is where Mel approached Nicholas about her idea for this new venture two years ago.
‘I’m always looking for new opportunities,’ explains Nicholas. ‘When I decided to get rid of the pigs, I already had the buildings there and I was thinking of things to do with them. I got planning for an indoor tennis court with a gym next to it and I had all sorts of other ideas, including the livery yard.
‘Then I remember talking to a neighbouring farmer who had done the same thing five or 10 years before me. He told me not to worry about it and that opportunities would come. He was right, because over the course of time people will see you as someone with space that welcomes opportunities, and they will come to you and ask for buildings for certain uses. In terms of the livery yard, I actually advertised that before any building work had taken place and got some interest. It took off from there.
‘Once you have done something that works, you have the confidence to then throw more effort into something else. So for someone to come to me with a completely different idea that I haven’t thought of is a no-brainer. Mel’s enthusiasm is tremendous and it’s been fun and refreshing to work with someone with so much drive.
‘It is a risk, in as much as I don’t know how it’s going to work out with income for the business. The two things that negate the risk is Mel herself, because she is marketing orientated and very driven to succeed, and that the building will lend itself to either an office or a house, so there is always that back-up option.’
The idea behind The Nurture Barn came to Mel when her daughter Olivia, who is now four, started crawling and exploring. Mel wanted to meet parents similar to her, ‘for good coffee and healthy food’, but found that it was just impossible and felt awkward looking after young children in cafes.
Mel explains: ‘I questioned a lot of parents and carers about what could be done locally to improve things and the overwhelming opinion was to have a high-quality drop-in centre, where mums, dads, grandparents and childminders could relax and watch their little ones interact with high-quality wooden toys, using their imagination, putting an emphasis on “play through learning” and “open-ended play” to support early learning and improve outcomes for their children.
‘I approached Nicholas at the Blue Egg, where my daughter and I love to go and shop, and asked him if he was interested in getting behind my vision. He was. So the barn to the right of the Blue Egg, which is starting to take shape, will soon be a beautiful, interior-designed imagination centre for babies and toddlers, and the grown-ups that accompany them. It will open this month.
‘It can be used in all weathers, barn style, with indoor and outdoor spaces for the children with access to high-quality wooden play equipment, nature, healthy food and happy grown-ups. This will not be a soft play centre, as they already exist locally. This will be an imaginary feast for both adults and little ones — and strictly no chips or chicken nuggets will be available. I want the children to come as much as the parents want to, and it to be a really cool place and a hub for those who have under fives.’
The Nurture Barn, described as a ‘metropolitan idea’ by Mel, will be on two floors. Downstairs will be the play area for babies with a café area alongside, while upstairs will be the party room to hire, plus a whole floor dedicated to toddlers and pre-school children featuring a wooden village including shops, kitchens and cafes, building blocks, car garages, a stage, dressing-up areas and a tree house.
‘Books will play an important role upstairs too, for basic early years provision, and we will hold a planned daily storytelling session as well as impromptu singing sessions,’ adds Mel.
Outside will be two fenced gardens with wigwams and sandpits and beach huts with deckchairs. ‘There will also be climbing, a mud kitchen, a boat and everything I wanted to play with when I was little,’ says Mel. ‘I want the children to get dirty.’
Mel is unsure whether her idea would have ever become reality without the security of having a landowner behind her, especially one as open-minded and supportive as Nicholas.
‘I could never have done this by myself as a project,’ admits Mel. ‘If I had just bought a plot of land and gone for it alone, I wouldn’t have been able to take on such a massive job. For example, the fields behind the barn are being looked after by Nicholas, who enjoys gardening. I wouldn’t have a clue where to start, but he has been happy to be very hands on, roll up his sleeves, get on his tractor and lay it out for me.’ n
For more information about the Nurture Barn, visit www.thenurturebarn.com or www.facebook.com/thenurturebarn