Care farming is the therapeutic use of farming practices, from planting seeds to caring for animals. It is well documented that more time spent outdoors can have a positive impact on mental health and general wellbeing; with this in mind, care farming is an alternative – or addition – to traditional types of care.
The number of care farms has grown by 34% since 2019/20, with around 400 care farms operational in the UK. There are an estimated 220 care farms and sites in development, with care farms delivering around 675,269 places per year in England alone. While most care farm referrals currently come from families and carers (55%) and social care, there is a significant potential for care farming to expand as an option in health, social and educational care.
Care farming is about working with people with a defined need – it could be a clinical need such as dementia or mental ill health, a social need or a special education need. My interest in care farming began at around the same time I was conducting research to see how green exercise impacted on people’s mental health. We found that those with, for example, lower self-esteem than others in the study benefitted more from exercising while looking at a countryside view. At this point, I also discovered care farming and realised that this concept really was ‘green care’ in action.
Back in 2003/4, the newly created National Care Farming Initiative held its first conference on care farming and we wondered how many people were care farming in the UK. In the early days, it was very much about promoting care farming as a concept, whereas now we have moved to highlighting how care farming is person-centred, bespoke care – perhaps as part of somebody’s rehabilitation or care programme. The sector has professionalised over the years with Quality Assurance, training and measuring client outcomes.
Where care farming differs from a community garden project, for example, is that it caters to those who need more specialist support. Being able to get this support while out in nature and as part of a group has many benefits, from psychological restoration – feelings of calm and safety – to an increased attention capacity. Service users gain a sense of belonging and develop new skills, which all adds up to a feeling of achievement, responsibility and confidence. The work is meaningful – the crops have to be tended; the animals must be fed and nurtured every day, regardless of how you are feeling. It’s enormously empowering – especially for those people who are looked after by someone else every day. For a time, they step into the caring role. You could call it horticultural therapy with animal intervention.
I’ve seen people with dementia for example suddenly come to life, as something is triggered in their memory. People often eat together as they grow things together on the farm, so you see them eating better. For some people with dementia, to see them eating at all is wonderful. You can see anger levels drop and people gain a purpose. They say, ‘I’m a farmer today‘ and they are. Some care farms also have other a commercial enterprises on site, involving their service users in the running of a shop or café.
The one or two days a week that people step out of care and into a care farm can be transformative. Calming. They come back with something to talk about.
Referral pathways and mechanisms differ; in some areas, social services and local authorities work really well with the local providers. The most frequent referral pathways are through social services, personalised social care budgets and from family members and carers directly. When it comes to referrals from GPs, CAMHS and social prescribing, the amount of referrals with associated funding are really quite small, so it’s quite difficult to provide places if there’s no money to follow it. Quite often, people want to refer to care farms but they don’t know how to find their local care farm or green care provider. Social Farms & Gardens has a map at www.farmgarden.org.uk where people can search for care farms in their area.
We have Quality Assurance through the care farming code of practice – a Green Care Quality Mark. Care farms and other initiatives that have gone through the code process give local authorities, for example, confidence that the place they are referring people to adheres to good practice and will have safeguarding in place, be risk assessed and be a financially transparent operation. Some of our care farms are also CQC registered and some are Ofsted registered, depending on what they offer.
Bringing green care into the care home
What can care homes do to bring green care to their residents who can’t leave the care home? Well, it can be as simple as bringing nature in. Care homes with gardens can let their residents access those gardens, rather than looking longingly out of the window. Open windows and doors if you can and grow things inside. Plant seeds. Many care farms have a ‘care farm in a box’ service, where they bring animals or growing resources into the home.
For the residents who can leave the home, consider forming a partnership with a group or charity in your area. There are many organisations, such as Dementia Adventure, who are there to help care staff to develop the skills to take people outside and experience the benefits nature has to offer.
We still have work to do in educating Social Prescribing link workers and other health professionals on the benefits of green care and ecotherapy but there can be no doubt that the outcomes are powerful for a wide range of people.
- Social Farms & Gardens, in partnership with Thrive, is delivering the Growing Care Farming project, a Government funded project that aims to significantly increase the number of care farm places available each year. www.farmgarden.org.uk/GCF.
- Alive Activities is one of the leading practitioners in the UK of meaningful activity for older people in care, providing meaningful engagement in care homes, community activity and support through its Meeting Centres and community gardening. www.aliveactivities.org.
- Prospects Trust is a real farm providing work experience and producing organic products and produce. The farm specialises in providing therapeutic horticulture to people with learning difficulties, disabilities and those with varying health needs. www.prospectstrust.org.uk.
- The Green Care Coalition was established in 2016 to promote the commissioning and use of Green Care services, and to give voice to the many organisations in the UK who are committed to delivering or supporting the delivery of high-quality and cost-effective green care services, www.greencarecoalition.org.uk.
Have you considered green care for your residents? Would you? What has been your experience of this type of therapy? Leave a comment below to share your views.