You may have heard of care farms before, especially if you read last year’s popular blog on care farms. It’s a fantastically innovative idea bridging health and nature that I think we’ll see a lot more of in the coming years. But when a farm environment is also offering therapeutic health services, how do we make sure they know what they’re doing? Simply put: what are care farm best practices?
Welcome to another installment in my “What is EcoMedicine?” series, part of my goal to create a compendium of well-researched scientific blogs on the various kinds of ecomedicine or nature therapy. Since there are so many kinds of ecomedicine out there, I want to help you find what you need to begin to feel better—with actual scientific facts about what works and what doesn’t.
Today, we’ll be asking and answering the questions: what are care farm best practices? Now, the answer to this question isn’t technically a form of ecomedicine, but it’s highly relevant for those of us concerned with the intersection of nature, food, science, health, and climate.
What are care farms?
For a real in-depth look at what care farms are, check out my detailed blog on that subject. The research has only continued to grow: in this 2020 special issue of Sustainability, 17 peer-reviewed analyses on care farming were published, ranging from agroecology to social farming.
Simply put, a care farm involves the therapeutic use of farming practices to facilitate personal healing. Also known as green care, social farming or therapeutic farming, care farming is supervised and structured, providing “farming-related activities for individuals with a defined need.” These may include activities involving animal husbandry (livestock, small animals, poultry), agriculture, horticulture, woodland management, produce collection, craft-making, woodworking, garden tending, habitat restoration, meal preparation and more. Each activity allows working in nature to become the primary intervention for healing.
Care farms provide structured and supervised care services, usually as part of an educational or rehabilitative program. They have been found to be successful for a variety of vulnerable groups, such as people with mental health problems, people suffering from mild to moderate depression and anxiety, adults and children with learning disabilities, children with autism, people with a drug, digital or alcohol addiction history, adults with mild dementia and caregivers (including urban forests), disaffected youths, and people on probation.
Care farms are most popular in the United Kingdom and Europe; there are thousands of care farms in European countries, often connected to their social service programs, and places like Norway, Sweden, Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands have a well-established—not to mention well-respected and well-researched—care farming industry. In contrast, the number of care farms across the entirety of North America still numbers in the dozens, and the research and institutional support for these therapeutic farms is still sorely lacking in the US.
The care farm code
So how do we know a care farm is ready and able to take on the hard work of healing people using natural therapies? The answer to this question is different across the globe, but one of the approaches I like most is one that incorporates a code of practice, like the UK.
In the UK, one of Europe’s most vibrant care farming hubs, there’s something called the Care Farm Code of Practice developed by the folks at Social Farms & Gardens. So what is the code of practice? It’s a quality standard for care farms, a set of minimum standards designed to ensure that farms which go through the process can maintain high quality service provision. It was established by care farmers themselves who realized the need for some sort of quality assurance or minimum standard.
Interestingly enough, it is voluntary code, not a formal accreditation; not only does that make it less of a financial strain on care farmers, it was thought that raising and maintaining the quality of standards through mutual support was a better approach than just policing. The code is reviewed annually and updated in response to changing political, social and other realities as care farmers learn more and more about what they need to thrive.
Why adhere to the code?
So if the code is voluntary, why adhere to it, you might ask?
There are a number of benefits to adhering to the code — both to care farmers, their clients, and to care farming as a practice in general.
The code helps provide guidance and support to care farms as they figure out how to deliver their much-needed services to the community. It also provides reassurance that all the necessary policies and procedures when it comes to legal realities are taken care of, and it helps create a framework for keeping up with those necessary requirements all in one streamlined place. That way farms can focus on the real work of providing therapeutic services to their clients.
Voluntary adherence to the code can also be used as evidence that the care farm is working to a quality standard, which helps care farmers in promoting their services to people who need it, gaining referrals, and even securing additional funding or grants so that they can expand or enhance their services.
But that’s not all it does! “Having the Code of Practice has enabled us to network and build links with other farms across the country,” said a farmer from Windmill Hill City Farm, Bristol. “It has also helped in raising the profile around the health and social care work we do.”
Adhering to the code allows care farmers to learn from and support each other in building a national network. What’s more, it actually bolsters the profile of care farming itself as credible, making it more likely that more and more people will see it as a legitimate therapeutic intervention. Adhering to a code like this is a win-win-win for care farmers, their clients, and the community at large.
What are the elements of the code?
The UK code has four main parts to it, each framed as a promise to its clients/patients.
1) About our care farm
In this section, farms applying to be certified by the code give an overview of what their site is like, what kind of therapeutic interventions they offer, and who their users are. What makes care farms so exciting is that there are so many different kinds of farms — urban, rural, agricultural, and many more — and so many different types of health problems they’re trying to solve.
Whether it’s beekeeping for troubled teens, animal husbandry for folks with autism, or craft-making for former addicts, there are so many different kinds of care farms out there with so many different missions. It’s important to identify and delineate each care farm’s specific aims first in order to make sure they have the unique resources and support they need to succeed.
2) We run a responsible care farm
This section covers things like rules of governance, finance, and the care farm’s legal obligations to its workers and clients. High-minded ideals of helping people can quickly fall into disarray when duties and responsibilities like this are neglected, so the code provides participating care farms with the information they need in order to run a legal, responsible, and financially solvent care farm, allowing them to focus on helping people without wondering the business is about to go under.
3) We care about the people we work with
Of course, a care farm has responsibilities not just to its clients but to those who provide said therapeutic services. This section of the code covers safeguarding measures for members of staff to make sure that they’re supported enough to provide high quality services to patients. Some of the services offered on care farms require training — not to mention boatloads of patience, compassion, and empathy — so making sure staff is taken care of is a huge priority.
4) Our site is a safe place to be
Finally, the last section of the code is all about ensuring that the site of the care farm is a safe place to be and heal. It covers areas like healthy and safety, access, equipment safety, emergency procedures, and more. The work that goes on at a care farm can often require emotional fortitude for practitioners and patients alike, so it’s important that it’s a safe place in more ways than one!
Do American care farms have a code?
Unfortunately, not yet! We’re still very much behind the curve here in the US. If a care farm did have standards in the U.S., one might expect it to be general: the inclusion of both health care and farming clinicians; the presence of a structured program consistent with evidence-based best practices for a patient’s particular clinical condition; the inclusion of measures of well-being, occupational and recreational assessments, as well as medical and laboratory measures, again, specific to the patient’s condition; and the ability to remain connected with the nature and farming experience, especially as patients return to an urban setting.
There are care farm organizations across Europe, such as the Agriculture & Care Federation (Netherlands), Care Farming Scotland (United Kingdom), Care Farming UK (United Kingdom), Green Care Plattform (Austria), Green Care – Plattform für Akteure und Nutzende im Bereich Umwelt und Gesundheit (Schweiz), and Support office for Green Care (Flanders, Belgium) — but nothing like this yet exists in the US.
There are a handful of care farms in the US doing exciting work, but so far, no unifying organization with a standard for care exists like in Europe. However, there are some smaller local organizations such as Southeastern Social Care Farming Collective and the mid-Atlantic Care Farming Network trying to expand the profile of care farming as well as connect more care farms to one another—wonderful work which I hope they continue.
I hope to see more organizations like this — as well as larger national ones that include a rigorous best standard of care — in the near future as we try to grow the exciting burgeoning field of care farming from a niche interest to a legitimate medical intervention.
Two Exceptions: Equine Therapy and Residential Mental Health Programs
There is a sort of care farm which is often not residential in the U.S. that does have explicit standards for the farm and the care to be delivered. Three organizations—PATH, NL Lifemanship and Eagala—all have written standards for training and collaborative work for horsemanship and health care. And residential mental health programs, which are often state funded and mediated, can be part of the American Residential Treatment Association. They may be farms or ranches, or simply residential, but the former have evaluative criteria by which patients are assessed, usually by mental health professionals, to determine their “graduation” from the program.
As you can tell, despite care farms being a relatively “green” (in every sense of the word!) concept, there are a number of dedicated individuals putting in the work to make sure that care farms are safe, functional, and thriving spaces for people of all kinds to heal from their health issues with the help of nature. I hope that a similar unifying code of best standards is created in the US to follow in Europe’s footsteps, and that the urban care farms that are popping up to serve an urban population can learn from their rural and suburban pioneers.
(Remember: ecomedicine is a far more diverse and interesting field than people might realize—it’s much more than just “going outside!”—and so the purpose of these blogs is to show you the exciting range, diversity, and nuance of the many therapeutic interventions that fall under the umbrella of ecomedicine. You can check out the other blogs I’ve written on the site, on topics like gardening for dementia, therapeutic horticulture, pet therapy, adventure therapy, blue care, ecotherapy, care farms, forest bathing, hydrotherapy, breathwork in nature, earthing and grounding, greening the indoors, light therapy, culinary medicinal herbs, and culinary medicinal spices.)
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