For two years now the Salvation Army has been operating a project unique in the Czech Republic –a farm that gives close to two dozen unemployed people work satisfaction and a sense of belonging. The farm in Strahovice, close to the Czech-Polish border, is in a region where unemployment is traditionally high and for many it presents a stepping stone on the way back to a normal life. I asked Pavla Vopelaková of the Czech Salvation Army how the idea of running a farm emerged.
“The way it emerged is that we had an employee from this small village of Strahovice and his family had a farm there which they didn’t know what to do with, so he said to himself well, since I am working for the Salvation Army maybe some unemployed people can find work there or live there because the capacity of locals shelters was not sufficient for all the homeless people. So that’s how the idea emerged. At the beginning we were able to purchase the farm for a symbolic price and now three to four people live on the farm and another 10 to 15 people –depending on the season –travel from Opava to Strahovice daily and work on the farm. ”
How were they chosen –is it a mixed community of men and women working there together?
“It is mainly men, but we also have some women and the conditions are for the people to have been unemployed long-term, but mainly to be interested and to be willing and to want to do something. And I have to say that we have more applicants for this work than we are able to satisfy. Because it is wonderful work out in the open, taking care of the animals, doing what farm work needs to be done and seeing the results at the end of the day.”
Do they live there like a big family – who does the cooking, cleaning and everything else a farm requires?
“We have 3 to 4 people who are based on the farm so it is the clients who do all the cooking and cleaning themselves. They live like a small community and then there are those who travel there daily and leave at the end of the work day. So it is a close-knit community of people living and working there.”
Who is in charge?
“We have one employee who is in charge and who coordinates all the work. This needs to be done because we are speaking about 12 to 15 people daily who work in different areas. So one of our employees is stationed there, works there and it is his job to supervise these people.”
What do they grow –is that up to them? And what animals are kept on the farm?
“It depends on the seasons, but basically at the moment we have sheep, goats, hens and chickens, pigs and also dogs and cats but they live on every farm. We have also rented nearby fields where they grow produce to sell to the public. We sell the eggs from the farm and many of them work on cleaning the fields and forests and also make wood pellets for heating that get sold to the public. People either buy chopped wood from the forest or the pellets they make.”
So the vast majority of the farm produce is sold to the public?
“Yes, obviously the cost of the farm is still higher than the income from the sold products and goods but we see the benefits elsewhere – in giving the long-term unemployed work. It is a brilliant opportunity to give the unemployed paid work in a safe environment. They get job skills, and learn how to be in a normal working process and this will lead them to the next step of getting normal employment on the normal labour market.”
Are you considering a network of such farms or having more of them around the country – because it is the only one of its kind so far, I believe?
“We have just this one. It would be wonderful to have more farms to be able to give this opportunity to more people. As I mentioned, this farm is still not financially self-sufficient so it is linked to the resources we have. It would be wonderful to have more of them but we do not have the funding to purchase farms. Also it would have to be linked closely to some of our social institutions so it is easily controlled and the clients can get to the farm easily. But having said all that, yes we would like to be able to operate more such farms to give socially-excluded people more possibilities on this level.”
Clearly this farm serves people who are unable to find a job on the job market because here it is easier for you to place them. How many of them get paid?
“Everyone who works there gets paid. Many of the people spend just one or two months there and then they just get a little pocket money, but when they are happy with the work and want to continue then we negotiate with the labour office for the supported work programme. So it is possible and it is workable. Obviously in north Moravia where the unemployment rate is very high it is more difficult for the people to find normal employment afterwards, but so far it is working successfully because they get a reference from us and they usually manage to find employment in cooperation with our social worker.”
How do you sell the produce from the farm?
“We usually sell it to the locals. Obviously at the beginning they were a bit worried about what the Salvation Army was going to do there. It’s a small village so everyone knows everything. But the villagers now see that it is helping the place, the surroundings are kept tidy and clean and we cut grass ecologically because we have sheep grazing everywhere. The local kindergarten and school kids come and visit the farm to see the animals so the communication is really good and the public is now willing to support us by purchasing our products - especially the wood and fresh farm eggs, fresh meat and so on. The locals see it as a way of contributing to charity.”
So you have not had a hostile or negative response from the locals?
“You always get that at the beginning when people do not know what to expect but once they see how we work, once they see the clients it is fine, absolutely fine and I have to say that cooperation with the local municipality is brilliant. They are thrilled that we are there and are engaging in this activity. So there are always worries at the beginning but once people get to know the situation and see that there is not trouble stemming from the activity then it all calms down and they are actually helpful and supportive.”
What about your clients themselves –what feedback do you have from them? It must be good for them to have a job where nobody looks down on them so to speak?
“Yes, you could say that anyone who finds employment with the help of the Salvation Army has this mark on their CV. But I have to say that our clients are really happy working on the farm and there are more homeless people interested in working there than we can find a job for. But I think that the biggest benefit for them is that they do what they really enjoy. Looking after animals, looking after a living creature, for people who do not have a home and family is very satisfying and beneficial on its own. They see the benefit and many people who come and start working there are interested and want to work for a longer time.”
Is this a model that works well abroad as well?
“I think there are many similar models and basically once it is profitable and brings value to the client any model can work. The main thing is to have the right approach and the right attitude. We cannot look down on these people who are living on the margin of society. They are the same as we are – with the same rights and possibilities and that they have a value. We have to work with them as with partners. We can come up with different programmes but it must be in cooperation with them and in partnership.”
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