Care farming: the natural health service

Fresh air, brown earth and human kindness. These are the seeds of a revolution in the way we care for society’s most vulnerable individuals, which is taking shape across Britain’s farms and fields

Care farming already touches the lives of thousands of people. It provides meaningful work for those with learning disabilities, mental health issues or a history of substance addiction, and is a source of confidence and inspiration for young adults from deprived urban communities.

Combining farming practices with structured care – including therapy, education and rehabilitation – is a relatively new concept in the UK, but its effectiveness is already proven in the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe. A network of over 2,000 care farms has flourished on the continent over the last decade and the initiative is now gathering momentum here, with around 150 farms providing care for over 6,000 adults and young people each week.

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. The farms provide a supervised, structured programme of activities such as animal husbandry, crop and vegetable production or woodland management, and are often commissioned by agencies such as social services and health care trusts.

Transforming lives

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, or how a quick walk in the woods can help counter the stresses of modern life. So it’s not surprising that care farming is proving to be highly effective.

Research commissioned by Care Farming UK, the national body promoting care farms, found that people participating in the schemes experienced significant improvements to physical health, self-esteem, wellbeing and self-confidence. The individuals also receive the practical benefits of learning farming skills and experiencing structured work as part of a team.

The most powerful confirmation of care farming’s results comes from the clients themselves. Jamie’s Farm, a charity based near Bath, is traditional mixed working farm, which sells its produce locally and has been carefully set up so that visitors can participate in its running. Established in 2010 with support from ethical bank, Triodos Bank, the farm specialises in engaging young people from challenging backgrounds who are at risk of social exclusion.

The farm provides a safe environment built upon mutual trust and respect, where a positive family culture is modelled

Many of these young people 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 create positive relationships with both their peer group and adults.

Activities such as feeding and caring for livestock, fencing, cleaning the farmyard, or harvesting fruit, are combined with daily walks, food preparation, creative art, music and drama sessions as well as one-to-one sessions with the farm’s psychologist. The farm provides a safe environment built upon mutual trust and respect, where a positive family culture is modelled. For some of the young people, the transformation can be life changing.

“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,” says a year 11 pupil from Cardinal Pole school in Hackney. “Here, everything’s just jiggy. I can 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.”

Teachers report significant behavioural changes in the young people, whose outlooks can shift dramatically following short stays at Jamie’s Farm. “It has had a very big impact on my home and school life,” says a year 8 pupil from Waverley school. “It has made me see that you have to work hard for what you want in life.”

Supporting the rural economy

Care farming is also a compelling proposition financially. Costing an average of £30 a day to provide care for one person, it’s considerably less expensive than mainstream care provision such as day activity centres. 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, a care farm can generate an average of more than £50,000 each year from care provision alone. If the role of care farming grows at a similar rate in the UK, it could have a huge impact for struggling farmers.

“At the moment there’s a social movement that recognises the benefits that nature has on an individual’s health,” says Care Farming UK network coordinator, Debbie Wilcox. “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 truly pioneers and can help shape it for the future.”