Mary awarded prestigious Churchill fellowship

New Growing Well General Manager Mary Houston in one of the polytunnels

Growing Well general manager Mary Houston has been awarded a prestigious travel grant to research similar ‘social farms’ in Norway and California.

Mary won through a tough selection procedure to be chosen as one of just 150 people from almost 1,800 applicants to win a Churchill Fellowship to research issues across a range of sectors.

The fellowships, set up on the death of Sir Winston Churchill in 1965, offer UK citizens a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel the world to research global best practice in issues facing Britain today, and to bring back and apply cutting-edge insights and solutions to improve communities and professions across the country.

Mary, 36, who lives with partner Alec Smith and their three young children at Crook, has spent all her career in food and farming. Before taking over at Growing Well in October she was Head of Catering Development at Westmorland Family, and was previously manager of the Taste Cumbria initiative for Cumbria Tourism and the Prince’s Countryside Fund Herdwick Project to promote authentic Lakeland Herdwick.

Her Churchill Fellowship application was to study the growing global movement of social or care farms – where farm-based activity is used to help people with mental health problems or provide social or educational support.

She will travel to Norway in June to attend the European Society for Rural Sociology conference and join a working group tackling social innovation in rural areas. She will also visit a number of social farms in the country. Mary then plans to visit California later in the year and will work at the Forget Me Not Farm in Santa Rosa, where agricultural therapy is used to tackle the cycle of abuse in children and young people.

‘I would like to see a Growing Well equivalent in every district of this country, just like in Norway, and when I return I will continue my work in making this aspiration a reality.’

Mary said: “Workplaces of the future will protect and promote people’s mental health and wellbeing not through HR as we know it but in the context of individuals and their whole lives; flexible working patterns, lifelong learning opportunities and supporting people to be healthy and more active.

“Ironically, supported working environments such as Growing Well have successfully been practicing these disciplines as a means of developing emotional resilience in those recovering from poor mental health, for years.”

Mary, who grew up in Allithwaite and attended Ulverston Victoria High School and Leeds University, says that in Norway the respect for social inclusion and people’s wellbeing is formally established and supported, bringing great benefit to the whole population, while at Forget Me Not Farm in California, the therapeutic value of agriculture has been recognised and developed for many years.

“Coming from an agricultural county such as Cumbria, where we are so connected with the landscape, and working in a horticultural setting at Growing Well, I am in no doubt that being in nature, and establishing a deeper respect for the world around us is as good for us as it is for the land,” she said.

“I would like to see a Growing Well equivalent in every district of this country, just like in Norway, and when I return I will continue my work in making this aspiration a reality. Now, more than ever, our farms need to diversify and our population needs to understand the social as well as productive value that they can create for our communities. There are great opportunities here for all concerned.”

Growing Well, on a six-acre site at Low Sizergh Farm, has been working with people living with and recovering from poor mental health for more than 14 years. It provides opportunities for more than 100 people a year to volunteer in its organic growing and catering business, and acquire vocational skills and qualifications.

Employing occupational therapists, trainers and counsellors, it provides a safe, supportive working environment to nurture mental health recovery, working with people on a weekly basis to help rebuild a sense of purpose, to engage in meaningful and fulfilling activity and build hope for the future.

The farm also supplies fresh, local, organic fruit, veg and salad leaves to businesses such as Westmorland, more than 50 ‘crop share’ members receive a weekly veg box, and seasonal produce and chutneys sold at the Low Sizergh Barn farm shop.

Churchill Fellowships are open to any UK resident citizens aged 18 or over to apply, regardless of qualifications or background. Fellows are funded to travel the world for 4-8 weeks, researching innovative ideas and best practice in a practical subject of their choosing. The average grant is £6,000.

The next chance to apply for a Churchill Fellowship opens on 16 May 2019 and includes new categories on ‘Palliative and end of life care’ and ‘Physical activity: making moves for healthier lives’. Application details are online at