Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Hearts and minds

The USA first used the phrase 'hearts and minds' during the Vietnam war and it has fallen into regular use since to foster trust in communities, particularly during wartime.

The phrase came to mind last night when I attended a meeting in Crymych about proposals for the Plas Dwbl biodymanic farm at Mynachlogddu. This farm has for decades been educating students from around the world in the processes of biodynamic farming and the ethos of Rudolph Steiner. Now, however, it faces difficult financial times and its new owners, the Responsive Earth Trust, are looking for ways to make the 100 acre farm sustainable in the 21st century.

Unfortunately this is where they have lost the hearts and minds of the local community. Rumours were rife that Plas Dwbl was to become an open prison and the room was packed with around 400 people who wanted reassurance that their quiet crime-free community wasn't going to be spoiled by the arrival of groups of vulnerable, possibly dangerous, people.

Representatives of the Trust - Jane and Shaun - explained that what they would be doing at the farm is using farming projects to help adults with learning difficulties, school children and people referred by the probation service to learn new skills and play a better part in society.

Their aim is backed by the Ruskin Mill Educational Trust and its founder and director, Aonghus Gordon, had flown back from a trip to the USA to explain how the trust's work helps vulnerable youngsters. He did have the hearts and minds of the people at the meeting; Ruskin Mill's work was worthy and impressive. He explained the problems caused in youngsters by food poverty and the ways in which working in food production and simple farming methods could help these youngsters.

But there was unease in the room, most of it focussed on Shuan and Jane of the Responsive Earth Trust. A neighbour of Plas Dwbl stood up and told the meeting that she had been visited by Jane White who had told her that prisoners would be coming to Plas Dwbl. Her voice cracked with emotion as she explained that she was afraid, living in such close proximity to Plas Dwbl. Her claims were refuted by the Trust.

Then Shaun, asked if he had been talking to prisons about the possibility of bringing prisoners to Plas Dwbl said: "No comment." Qualifying it by adding: "People are entitled to their privacy."

Well yes they are, but people living near by are also entitled to know if a former peaceable biodynamic farm is to house people who have been put into prison for a reason.

Then, when asked about the educational side, Shaun said local school children had visited Plas Dwbl, implying that it was part of the scheme. He even named the school, completely unaware that the head of special needs of that school was in front of him in the audience. She was furious that his comments implied that those children had visited as part of the scheme. They had not. Their day trips - small groups of children with special needs - had happened before the formation of the Responsive Earth Trust when Plas Dwbl was still being run by the previous caretakers.

So the members of the Responsive Earth Trust lost the hearts and minds of their audience by failing to be open and clear about their plans, past and present; they also tried to claim kudos for work with local children that wasn't theirs to claim.

Ultimately it seemed like a cynical money-grabbing opportunity. Plas Dwbl is facing hard times, as are all farmers. It seems they have been considering various ways of solving those problems by taking on difficult cases; cases that would attract large amounts of grant aid.

But who, at the end of the day, pays the bill? Taxpayers, local and national, fund these resource-hungry schemes. Yes they have benefits for the wider community in helping vulnerable people find their place in society, but such people are already well catered for in Pembrokeshire.

Plas Dwbl is in a very isolated area. The roads are narrow, it is difficult to find. Ruskin Mill projects can get quite big, Aonghus Gordon spoke of creating 200 jobs without realising, perhaps, the impact that such a huge set-up - almost a college - would have on such a tiny rural community.

I would like to think that there is a future for Plas Dwbl, but I think first the Responsive Earth Trust has to win back the hearts and minds of the community and, going by the evidence of last night's meeting, that is going to be a tough hill to climb.


  1. This is really sad, PM. But it is one of those "signs of the times" that are frankly frightening.

    Your very well-written piece is a good "wake-up call" for a lot of us, not just those at Plas Dwbl. I hope you can get the scheme to work for the benefit of the whole community around Mynachlogddu. Without swamping the community with 200 new workers. That would be a huge change to the "context" of the community.

    I recognize that life is complicated; I also understand the danger, at the local level, of failing to keep the community context in mind.

  2. PM, this is so well reported. Your writing is terrific. Sounds as if the Responsive Earth Trust needs someone to advise them on public relations.

    It definitely sounds as if there was a very big missed opportunity at that meeting, and that the RET folks were a bit oblivious, too caught up in their own aura.

    Hoping that in the coming weeks, all might do some more visiting with each other.

    Please do keep on reporting. xo

  3. Hmm, thanks for reporting this, Mags. Good to read about it from someone who was at the meeting especially as that someone was you.


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