Bevis Watts, Triodos Bank, takes a look at a scheme offering better support for vulnerable people and a boost to rural economies
"I learned to be less aggressive all the time, 'cause it don't get you nowhere", says a teenager from East London. "You can't be aggressive to a sheep."
This student, from Cardinal Pole Catholic School, Hackney, is just back from five days at Jamie's Farm in Bath. It's a charity that offers young people from challenging backgrounds the chance to help out with farmyard animals and get stuck into a range of physical tasks, such as hedging, weeding and fencing. Along with fresh air and exercise, it provides a safe context to engage with animals and adults alike – helping edgy youngsters build self-awareness and esteem.
It's one example of a quiet revolution underway across Europe in the way we care for society's most vulnerable individuals. A network of over 2,000 'care farms' has sprung up in the last decade, offering therapy, education and the chance to learn new skills to people with learning disabilities and mental health issues, and to young adults from deprived urban areas.
Care farming is still a relatively new concept – but it's one with promise. There are already around 150 farms in the UK, hosting as many as 6,000 adults and young people each week. The set-up varies, from smallholdings acting as day centres, to community farms where support workers and disabled people live together.
There's something deeply intuitive about caring for people through nurturing the land – many of us have experienced the therapeutic value of a few hours in the garden. Now, the evidence of its wider benefits is mounting. A three-year study by Loughborough University found that gardening can have a positive impact on the motor, communication and social skills of people with mental health problems, learning difficulties and physical disabilities.
"Many of those who took part in the study were socially excluded and institutionalised in their daily lives [with] little opportunity to get out in the fresh air and work alongside others", said Jo Aldridge, one of the principal researchers. "Being outside in the fresh air, working with nature and nurturing plants all helped to improve health and well-being."
Another study by the UK's National Care Farming Initiative (NCFI) found significant improvements to physical health, self-esteem and confidence among 72 participants from seven care farms. Health care trusts are also starting to recognise the benefits, sending patients out to the farms, too.
It's also a compelling economic proposition. Costing on average £30 a day to provide care for one person, it's considerably less expensive than mainstream care provision: a point that should make it appealing to policymakers at a time of significant cuts in public spending. And for many participants, the opportunity to work in a team is a first step towards paid employment and independent living.
Rural economies also benefit from a new source of income. In the Netherlands, where the number of care farms has increased from 75 in 1998 to around 1,000 today, farms are generating over £50,000 each year from care provision alone. A similar growth rate in the UK could have a huge impact for struggling farmers... But it won't happen on its own, says NCFI's Debbie Wilcox.
"There's growing recognition of the benefits that nature has on an individual's health, and care farming is part of that social movement. "But", she insists, "buy-in is needed from big organisations and government departments to develop the sector and professionalise it."
Getting care farms off the ground isn't just a challenge, says Wilcox: it's an opportunity. And it's one that Triodos Bank has spotted. In the Netherlands, it has lent €46 million to around 50 care farms to support their growth. And in the UK, it supports a wide range of organisations with a care-farming element, including Camphill Communities, the Magdalen Project, Church Farm and Jamie's Farm.
What's not to support? The concept offers effective, inexpensive care provision for some of society's most vulnerable groups, and helps farmers diversify their income. If common sense has anything to do with it, care farming should take off in a big way.
Bevis Watts is Head of Business Banking, Triodos.
Image credits: Peter Mernagh