The benefits of care farming
Care farming provides health, social and educational care services through farming-related activities on farms. The three key elements for care farming are purposeful work, social interaction and being outdoors.
"There was a palpable sense of passion, enthusiasm, clarity and drive from the overseas participants." - Joy O'Neill, Fellow
Care farming is aimed at vulnerable people such as those with learning disabilities, acquired brain injuries, physical and mental health issues, individuals recovering from drug or alcohol abuse, offenders, young people at risk of exclusion from school, elderly people and those experiencing work or day to day stress and anxiety. It may also be known as green care farming, social farming or social care farming,
In 2018, while supporting a young person at risk of exclusion from school, I visited a care farm in the hope that it might offer an alternative educational placement for them. Later, while learning more about the subject, I arranged visits to almost 50 care farms, city farms and social or therapeutic gardens across the south-east of England.
Most of the people running these shared their private concerns and worries, which usually centred around funding and attracting enough clients, and explained that it had taken several years for them to break even financially. I began to wonder if there were any real benefits in a care farm set-up for anyone other than the clients.
I reached out to farmers and farming consultants in the UK to ask what they thought the barriers were for UK farmers who were considering setting up a care farm within their family farm. In general, they said that they were concerned about the health and safety implications of having visitors on site, about the built environment that is required (such as any physical changes required to be made to the farm) to take clients, and about the cost involved. They also expressed concerns about the training needed to set up and run a care farm safely, and how they could identify and secure sufficient numbers of funded clients to ensure the financial success and sustainability of the enterprise.
After a delay of 14 months due to the global pandemic, I began a digital Fellowship, making online contact with care farm professionals in Australia, Austria, Ireland, Israel, Italy and the United States. My research looked at the benefits of care farming to farmers, to the local community and the rural economy, examining existing care farms overseas to identify best practice that might be beneficial to family farmers in the UK who might set up a care farm. These practices may also prove useful to existing UK care farmers.
I noted that, regardless of the location or country context, every overseas participant confirmed that they had indeed faced the same issues as those described by the UK participants, albeit that they may have tackled them in slightly different ways.
There was a general view from the overseas participants that, while farmers in the UK were right to consider these issues thoroughly, they should not be dissuaded from proceeding if they were serious about establishing a care farm, because the obstacles were not insurmountable. With the right mindset, a desire to support vulnerable groups, a willingness to train and demonstrate their skills and knowledge through accreditation, they felt that funded clients could be secured and viable care farms established.
Overseas participants commented that, in their experience, working with commissioners in the health, care and education sectors required a very different approach than the one that many farmers would be familiar with. Understanding what commissioners look for, when they purchase services for clients, and how to demonstrate to them that your farm can deliver those services, would be invaluable information for farmers. Many participants felt that where regional support coordinators were available, they played a crucial role in guiding farms through the commissioning process, helping them to understand what high quality care farming looked like, and often acted as a broker between farmers and commissioning bodies.
However, having willing and highly motivated farmers involved, farmers who are appropriately skilled, running care farms that have met high standards of accreditation, is only part of the story. If policy-makers, and those working in the social care, health, and education fields do not see the value of care farming and the benefits that it can bring in meeting the needs of their clients, then it is unlikely to ever reach its full potential.
There was a palpable sense of passion, enthusiasm, clarity and drive from the overseas participants when they talked about their care farms or research projects, and I found that to be inspirational. I believe that learning from their experiences, capturing and sharing best practice where seen, making best use of evidence-based research to underpin and shape future policy would be of immense benefit to the development of care farming in the UK.
My recommendations based on my research are:
- Develop a robust care farming information package that would help prospective care farmers (including those based on small family-run farms) to make well-informed decisions.
- Develop a comprehensive training programme for farmers who are considering setting up a care farm. This should include business, funding and financial advice and information about the establishment of charities or social enterprises.
- Establish a peer-to-peer global social care farming network, which could include opportunities for mentorship programmes.
- Conduct further research into the perceptions of commissioners when they are considering social care farming placements.
- Establish a working group with partners to investigate how care farms might introduce more sustainable farming approaches.
- Form a global social care farming research centre within a recognised university or organisation, to promote multi-disciplinary social care farming research.
My immediate priority is to run several farmers’ focus groups in September 2021 which will consider the issues highlighted in my report. The group will discuss the need for and role of regional support coordinators, how to secure contracts and access appropriate training, and the need for a more formalised form of quality assurance and accreditation.
I am currently in conversation with farming organisations to discuss collaborative ways of designing and developing introductory information and training programmes for farmers interested in setting up care farms. I am looking forward to undertaking my final research project this autumn, as part of my education doctorate in the perceptions of commissioners in care farming.
The views and opinions expressed by any Fellow are those of the Fellow and not of the Churchill Fellowship or its partners, which have no responsibility or liability for any part of them.