Nature and nurture
12-09-2010 | Rooted in raw materials provided by nature in abundance - fresh air, brown earth and human kindness - the seeds of a revolution in the way we care for society's most vulnerable individuals is taking shape in our farms and fields. Care farming already touches the lives of thousands of people, from providing meaningful work for people with learning disabilities or mental health issues, to those with a history of substance addiction, through to being a source of confidence and inspiration for young adults from deprived urban communities. And if the experience of the Netherlands is anything to go by, care farming is set to have a big impact in the UK.
Natural health service
Care farming uses farming practices to provide opportunities for structured care - therapy, education and rehabilitation - to some of society's most vulnerable groups of people. While it's a relatively new term and not yet widely recognised in the UK, its effectiveness has been proved in the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe, where a network of over two thousand care farms has flourished over the last decade. Care farming's gathering momentum over here too, with around 150 farms providing care for around 6,000 adults and young people each week. And, with the right support, it could become a big part of mainstream care provision.
Care farming covers a wide range of agricultural settings, from smallholdings and community farms providing day care, to whole communities where able bodied and disabled people live and work together. Likewise they care for a broad group of people, including those with mental health problems, physical or learning disabilities, a history of drug or alcohol addiction, and young people at risk of social exclusion.
While the rural setting provides the therapeutic environment, there's a lot more to care farming than just turning up and mucking in. Care farms provide a supervised, structured programme of activities including elements such as animal husbandry, crop and vegetable production, woodland management, and are often commissioned by agencies such as social services and health care trusts.
There's something deeply intuitive about caring for the individual through care for the land. Many of us have experienced the therapeutic value of a few hours in the garden after a hard day's work, or how a quick walk in the woods can help counter the stresses of modern, industrialised life. So it's not surprising that care farming is proving to be very effective.
Research commissioned by the National Care Farming Initiative (NCFI), the national voice for care farms in the UK, found clients experiencing significant improvements to physical health, self-esteem, well-being and self-confidence. Care farming clients also have the practical benefits of gaining farming skills and the experience of structured working as part of a team.
The most powerful confirmation of care farming's results comes from the clients themselves. Earlier this year Jamie's Farm borrowed money from Triodos Bank to buy a farm near Bath. The charity specialises in engaging young people from challenging backgrounds who are at risk of social exclusion. Many of these youngsters are from urban areas with high levels of deprivation, and often their five days spent on the farm are their first real experience of rural life. Jamie's Farm focuses on building their self awareness and self esteem, helping them to build positive relationships with both their peer group and adults. For some the transformation can be life changing.
The description of one year 11 pupil from Cardinal Pole Catholic School, Hackney, demonstrates the reality of urban life for some teenagers, and how just a short stay at Jamie's Farm helped to change his outlook: "Being in the country, you don't have to watch your back. I can sleep out here. I don't have to worry about being shot or stabbed or robbed or anything like that. Here, everything's just jiggy. I can play with the pigs or horses or something. I can just relax.
"There's no stress. The chip's off my shoulder and my attitude's better too. Before, I'd say something without thinking. Now I'll stop and think before I act. If I'm going to get angry or agitated, I'll just walk out of the room or bite my tongue. I won't say something that's unnecessary or cause an argument. I'll just keep my mouth shut."
Supporting the rural economy
Care farming is also a compelling proposition financially. Costing an average £30 a day to provide care for one person, it's considerably less expensive than mainstream care provision such as day activity centres: a point that's bound to make it appealing to policymakers when widespread cuts in public spending are on the cards.
It also provides a new source of income for farms and the rural economy. In the Netherlands, where the number of care farms has increased from 75 in 1998 to around 1,000 today, care farms generate on average over £50,000 each year from care provision alone. If the role of care farming grows at a similar rate over here, it could have a huge impact for struggling farmers. But support is needed if, in the UK, we hope to achieve such significant growth.
"At the moment there's a social movement that recognises the benefits that nature has on an individual's health. Care farming's one part of that. But to develop the sector and professionalise it, there will need to be more buy in from big organisations and government departments," says the NCFI's Debbie Wilcox.
Triodos Bank is already playing a role in the sector's development. In the Netherlands finance from Triodos Bank has played an important role supporting the growth of care farming, lending EUR 46million to around 50 care farms. In the UK Triodos supports a wide range of organisations with a care farming element including Camphill Communities, the Magdalen Project and Ruskin Mill - as well as the projects featured on these pages. And in a growing sector we hope to do a lot more.
"There will be challenges in developing care farming in the UK, but because it's new and growing there are also exciting opportunities. The people and organisations involved in care farming now are pioneers and can help shape it for the future," adds Debbie from the NCFI.
A win-win situation
Offering effective, inexpensive care provision for some of society's most vulnerable groups, and helping farmers diversify their income, it's common sense that care farming should take off in a big way. But it will need support to help it to grow, and Triodos will be there to provide the financial backing and understanding care farming needs to flourish, working closely with NCFI to continue to develop the market and help care farming realise its potential.