It has long been known that tending to animals and working the fields can be therapeutic for people, but only now has a movement to promote “care farming” begun to gain momentum in the UK. Robert Bullard reports
The term “care farming” is well known in mainland Europe where farms are used to promote the physical health and mental well-being of people with a range of disabilities, medical or social needs. There are several hundred in Norway, the Netherlands and Italy.
While it may not be such a familiar term in the UK, next week sees the second national care farming conference which is testament to a growing interest in this way of working. The conference is run by the National Care Farming Initiative, which defines care farming as a partnership between farmers, health care providers and participants to combine the care of people with the care of the land.
Research by Loughborough University in 2003 found 44 care farms in the UK.(1) They form just 5 per cent of what is a wider interest in social and therapeutic horticulture – everything from city farms and conservation projects to allotments and community gardens – but with an average of 25 clients per farm they are already providing 1,100 client placements per year. The University of Essex is currently assessing them.
“Care farms are potentially one of the most exciting changes in health care,” says Kim Jobst, a part-time GP and member of the National Care Farming Initiative’s steering group – a group that also includes Dr Michael Dixon, chair of NHS Alliance.
Jobst is confident the idea is gaining a firm foothold in the UK, and offers three reasons why. “It provides a more efficient therapeutic facility than traditional social services; it offers a way to revitalise the farming community; and it reawakens people’s link with farming and the land.”
Noelle Wilson could see the potential in this type of work seven years ago, but her idea almost didn’t reach fruition.
“I have always felt that farms could be a wonderful base for involving young people in training, and as a place to provide therapy,” she says. “So finally I took the plunge and resigned from my job.”
To get her idea off the ground the former special needs teacher went everywhere in search of funding. “Wonderful idea,” they all told her, “but sorry, we can’t help you.” Until finally someone in social services, whose daughter worked in the same area, expressed an interest. It was the break Wilson needed.
A bulldozed bit of land on an old gravel pit wasn’t the ideal place to start a farm. “The soil was dreadful,” says Wilson. “It was silt, there wasn’t a worm anywhere.” But years later she has created an intensive enterprise, the Top Barn Farm special needs training centre, from virtually nothing.
The list of activities taking place at Top Barn, just outside Worcester, is endless. On just one and a half acres there are vegetable beds, a poly-tunnel for growing seedlings, a sensory trail, pigs, chickens, goats, an orchard, and much more.
The mood is cheerful and relaxed, and there are several BBQ areas. “Messy brickwork,” says Wilson, but evidence of enjoyable summer evenings. The hub of it all is Meg’s Kitchen, a spacious wooden hut, which provides warmth and tasty food for 20-30 people at a time. “The staff and students have done all the work. They have built everything,” says Wilson proudly.
Also crucial to the project was neighbouring farmer David Harper, with whom Wilson developed her ideas. “David made it all happen. He is very good at helping others fulfil their dreams.” His 650 acres provide opportunities for clients to get involved in a wider range of activities, such as lambing, tree planting and harvesting.
The land isn’t the only thing that has been transformed in the last seven years, says Wilson. “Gradually, every single organisation that said they could not give us funding is now working with us.”
From an initial contract for helping 50 people one day per week, Top Barn now provides three times that. “When we started there was no provision for alternative curriculum in schools,” says Wilson. “But the government now realises that the national curriculum is not meeting the needs of some groups.”
The therapeutic benefits of being in contact with animals have long been recognised in the US, and recent UK research suggests that the benefits of nature are more pronounced in people with disabilities and those who are socially marginalised.(2) But this is not new; Victorian asylums for the mentally ill had farms or gardens as an occupation for patients, but these were closed during the 1960s and 1970s.
The client list at Top Barn includes people with severe learning disabilities, physical disabilities and brain injuries, as well as mental health patients and disengaged youngsters. About three or four groups, of eight to nine people each, visit every day. Mostly they come one day a week, but some come for up to three days.
Ian Iontton is one. He has had a visual impairment for 10 years and has been coming to Top Barn for several months, where he works as a chef in Meg’s Kitchen. “There is a relaxed feel to the place,” he says. “Being with animals and out in the countryside is better than being in a classroom, all closed in. Here, I am thrown challenges that show me I can do things rather than getting stressed about things I can’t.”
He is also glad to get out of the house, and to be in company and meeting people.
A staff member, Roger Bates, adds his own perspective. “Coming to the farm provides people with an opportunity to achieve something. They can make a connection from making the seed beds, planting things and looking after them. They can see they are not isolated tasks.”
They are exactly the benefits identified by the Loughborough University research, which found that the creation of structure and routine, just like going out to work, was one of the major benefits of social and therapeutic horticulture. Others included being outside, using tools, being away from normal life, and being in contact with others.
Much of the land at Top Barn is divided into raised beds that are bordered by wide woodchip-lined paths. Being raised makes the beds a lot easier for wheelchair users; but there are other advantages as well, explains Wilson. “It’s useful to have a clearly defined area. You can give people a task, like weed or plant, and afterwards you can see where they have been working – and they can see what they have done.”
So is Top Barn viable? “We have to be,” says Wilson emphatically, although she admits to working a 55-hour week in order to get everything done (there are two fulltime and three part-time staff), and being helped along the way by donations in kind, whether it’s bags of cement or help with constructing a new building. They receive £19 for each client visit from social services and earn £2,000-£3,000 per annum from selling eggs, salads, soft fruit, vegetables and herbs through David’s farm shop and to local businesses.
Among the farm’s nine volunteers is Sue Bayliss from the Forest School Camps movement. She is convinced of the benefits of care farms: “They love coming here. Who wouldn’t?”
She recounts today’s feedback from the boys as proof: “It’s better than my Playstation – I like being here, it’s real.” Another says: “When we come here we learn we are not at the bottom of the heap.” Such statements, Bayliss says, reflect the farm’s contribution to building young people’s self-esteem.
The network’s conference next week will provide an opportunity to raise the profile of care farms among farmers, health workers and wider society – and for practitioners to meet and share their experiences.
FIND OUT MORE
● To find out about your nearest care farm, or how to get involved, contact Debbie Wilcox at the National Care Farming Initiative on 01952 815330 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
● The 2nd National Care Farming conference, From Strength to Strength, takes place next week (27 March) at Harper Adams University College in Shropshire. For more details call 01952 815324 or go to the website below.
(1) J Sempik, J Aldridge, Care Farms and Care Gardens, Centre for Child and Family Research, Loughborough University, 2006.
(2) A Burls, Ecotherapy in Practice and Education, Anglia Polytechnic University, 2004. http://www.openspace.eca.ac.uk/
This article appeared in the magazine under the headline “Fields of plenty”