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From a childhood in Malawi to opening the first community-owned farm in his native NI... the inspirational journey taken by Jonny Hanson

The 32-year-old father-of-three oversees a 13.5-acre site on a hillside overlooking Larne Lough. Linda Stewart hears how the initiative benefits locals, those with learning difficulties, refugees and asylum seekers

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Jonny Hanson, Jubilee Farm. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/ Newry.ie

Jonny Hanson, Jubilee Farm. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/ Newry.ie

Jonny Hanson

Jonny Hanson

Jonny Hanson with his wife Paula on the farm

Jonny Hanson with his wife Paula on the farm

The couple with their children Joshua, Bethany and Sophia

The couple with their children Joshua, Bethany and Sophia

Jonny Hanson, Jubilee Farm. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/ Newry.ie

The seedlings are just beginning to appear in the polytunnel and the pair of geese have laid their first eggs. Spring is beginning to make itself felt at Jubilee Farm close to the village of Glynn on the Co Antrim coast.

Jonny Hanson says he and his family have just celebrated the first anniversary of the ground-breaking farm, along with the numerous member-owners who now have a stake in the 13.5-acre site.

Thanks to a gargantuan effort, he and his organisation managed to raise £309,020 in just six months - between August 2018 and January 2019 - to buy and equip the farm. Not only do they now run Northern Ireland's first community-owned farm (the first of many, he hopes), but they run the community-supported agriculture scheme here and operate the first social and care farming scheme to work with refugees and asylum seekers.

Now 32, Jonny is married to trainee counsellor Paula (33) and they have three children: Joshua (9), Bethany (8) and Sophia (4). The children love their new-found life on a farm, he says, but adds: "I think they're fair-weather farmers in that they are more enthusiastic when the sun is shining in the warmer months than in the depths of winter.

"We have a wonderful view over Larne Lough, which is therapeutic in its own right. Inevitably there are ups and downs, but the constant view in front of our house is a source of inspiration and relaxation all the time.

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Jonny Hanson with his wife Paula on the farm

Jonny Hanson with his wife Paula on the farm

Jonny Hanson with his wife Paula on the farm

"The upside of the commute is that it's 10 seconds to the office but the downside of the commute is that it's 10 seconds to the office! You need to be very careful to balance things so that it doesn't take over.

"There are things to be done seven days a week but you need to make sure to take time away from the farm."

Born in Lisburn, Jonny spent his very earliest months in Malawi, but grew up in Ireland before returning to Africa during his high school days.

He was steeped in Christian faith from an early age as his dad, the Rev John Hanson, was a Presbyterian minister and his mum Rosemary was a music teacher. His parents now live in Dromore, Co Tyrone.

"When I was nine months old we moved to Malawi. I learned to walk and talk there," Jonny says. "But we returned home after about a year because my father was quite ill and then we moved to Ballybay in Co Monaghan. It was a small rural community and most of my friends were farmers' kids, so I was exposed to farming a lot at that stage."

Jonny lived in Ballybay from two until 11, and then the family moved back to Malawi, where they stayed until he was 18.

"It was a big change from Ballybay, but I suppose I always knew there was a high likelihood we would return and I was steeped in stories of life in Malawi ever since I was small, so it was not as big a shock as if we were going out without any prior exposure," he says.

"Having been in a rural farming community but watching David Attenborough documentaries to learn about wildlife, I went from watching wildlife on the screen to seeing it in real life.

"We were in the largest city, Blantyre, but I remember monkeys in my garden and I remember finding a snake in my school bag one morning. On the edge of the city there were leopards and hyenas. You rarely would have ever seen them but when you went for walks you would have seen signs of them.

"In the national parks there were elephants, buffalo, lions and everything else - it was a transformative experience being able to see these up close."

Jonny says it was also transformative to have been exposed to the terrible poverty of Blantyre. "There were people begging almost at the front door if it had been a bad harvest, there was crushing poverty all around. I became interested in reconciling environmental, social and economic needs," he says.

He returned home every summer, but it wasn't until he became a student of medieval history and archaeology at Queen's University Belfast at 18 that he returned to Northern Ireland for good. It was a choice between his two passions of history and zoology, and history won the day, but every summer was spent doing environmental work with animals and wildlife.

"Every summer I was off interning and volunteering all round the British Isles - the monkey sanctuary in Wicklow; the Cat Survival Trust in Hertfordshire, which was my first time working with snow leopards. I spent a summer working in Canada as a zookeeper," he explains.

"I did a Master's in business management and sustainability and then worked in nature education at the Ulster Museum. I had spent 22 years accumulating all this useless information and was suddenly being paid to impart this useless information to kids of all ages and it was fantastic.

"It was a great place to hone my communication skills, communicating with people from three years up to 93, and finding ways to communicate well about nature and wildlife."

After this Jonny spent two years in fundraising work with Christian Aid, and then moved to Cambridge with his young family to embark on a PhD in snow leopard conservation.

At the time it was a balancing act with being a carer for his wife Paula, who had been living with ME since the age of 16.

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The couple with their children Joshua, Bethany and Sophia

The couple with their children Joshua, Bethany and Sophia

The couple with their children Joshua, Bethany and Sophia

"I did the PhD part-time, in part because of Paula's health concerns and being a carer. For both of these reasons, we returned to Northern Ireland part of the way through the PhD and I wrote most of it from Carrickfergus, having come back to Northern Ireland unexpectedly because of health concerns," he says.

It was at that point that the idea for Jubilee Farm began to emerge.

"I had started to think about what was to come after the PhD, and I engaged with people about creating an organisation that would engage churches and Christians with environmental and agricultural issues," Jonny says.

"I suppose it goes back to the early childhood days in Monaghan. I wanted to be a farmer and a conservationist, and Jubilee tries to reconcile these two things.

"We had been members of a community farm in Cambridgeshire and that put some flesh on the bones of the idea. It was a stage in the journey to helping us envision what it might look like in Northern Ireland."

The first step was to set up an enterprise for a short trial period at the walled garden in Drumalis retreat in Larne, but Jonny realised it would be better to have a place of their own for the things they wanted to do.

In August 2017, after several years of planning and consultations with churches across Northern Ireland, they established Jubilee as a community benefits society. They secured some seed funding to buy fixtures and fittings, and then identified a small farm outside Larne as the place to found the enterprise.

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Paula and Jonny Hanson on Jubilee Farm at Carnduff, Glynn, Larne. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/ Newry.ie

Paula and Jonny Hanson on Jubilee Farm at Carnduff, Glynn, Larne. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/ Newry.ie

Paula and Jonny Hanson on Jubilee Farm at Carnduff, Glynn, Larne. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/ Newry.ie

"There was just a small problem, that we had to raise around £300,000 to purchase and equip it," Jonny says.

"We chose a community benefits society because you issue community shares to raise capital, so people don't necessarily donate, they invest and become members."

By February 2019 they had raised all of the money from 55 individuals and organisations and were able to purchase the farm. The sum includes £184,020 in community share capital, £115,000 in peer-to-peer loans and a £10,000 grant.

Since then Jubilee Farm has gone on to win a number of awards, most notably the One to Watch category at Social Enterprise Northern Ireland's Gala Awards Dinner in October 2019, while Jonny was named the inaugural winner of the Young Social Entrepreneur of the Year category.

As for the members, they get to be involved in a project that has added environmental and spiritual value, knowing that their money has been put to good use, he says.

"It's a bit like having grandchildren who you can hand back at the end of the day. You can dip a toe, come to volunteer, but you can hand it back at the end of the day. It's a collective community enterprise, and together we can achieve more than if we were just doing our own individual thing."

The work of Jubilee Farm involves three main strands. It's a community-supported agriculture project which was the first of its kind here.

I think in Northern Ireland it's really important to develop common ground for people of all faiths, no faiths and all backgrounds to come together

"It's an economic transaction. People subscribe to the farm, and they can sign up to a quarter pig, half a goat, a Christmas bird or a seasonal veg box," he says.

"Anyone can sign up for that, you don't have to be a member of the farm.

"It's also about putting the culture back into agriculture, so that people are reconnecting with the food and where it comes from and the people and processes."

The second strand is care farming: using farm-based activities to improve the wellbeing and skills among a number of vulnerable groups.

"Since last January we've been running a pilot care farming programme with refugees and asylum seekers and it's the first of its kind in Northern Ireland," he explains.

"They volunteer on the farm one day a week and they've been involved in all sorts of different activities in getting the farm up and running. There are people from the Ivory Coast, Eritrea, Syria and Iran."

Two days a week there are referrals from the Northern Ireland and Social Care Trust, including adults with special needs and learning difficulties.

"Earlier today I was packing veg boxes with them and moving goats and clearing up felled trees as part of our woodland management, stuff like that.

"Getting out into the great Northern Ireland countryside, even on a windy day like today, there are many benefits that come from being outside and engaging in what goes on in the countryside on a farm, the cycles and the sounds of life."

The third strand is conservation education and management, teaching people about and engaging people in agricultural and environmental stewardship.

It includes everything from school trips to church visits and last year's Bioblitz festival, documenting the biodiversity on the farm while providing live music, a farmers' market and food.

"It's about making the great outdoors and nature fun and accessible, as well as welcoming groups to visit the farm," Jonny says.

The team has applied for planning permission to build a new multi-purpose barn and is hoping to ramp up the production of vegetables and rare-breed pigs.

"We've just launched a church partnership programme which is all about engaging congregations with environmental and agricultural stewardship and linking them directly with the form and what we are doing here," Jonny says.

"One of our planned projects will be to regenerate the woodland area, which is overgrown by brambles, and we're hoping to use the pigs to regenerate the woodland area.

"There's a small wildflower meadow which is overgrown with brambles, and we're hoping to regenerate it with conservation grazing. It's about farming for nature in a way that encourages other forms of life to flourish alongside human beings."

Jonny says he would love to see lots of community-owned farms here.

"I think in Northern Ireland it's really important to develop common ground for people of all faiths, no faiths and all backgrounds to come together," he says.

"It's really important given our troubles in the past, and I think farms like this and other community spaces are really important for creating community growth."

For more information visit www.jubilee.coop

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