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Farming feature: A care revolution on East Anglia’s farms

06:00 14 June 2014

Glebeland Primary School pupils visiting a field close to Clinks Care Farm to celebrate Care Farm Week. Conservation volunteer Karen Day helping children look for different insects in a bug hotel which they made.  Picture: James Bass

Glebeland Primary School pupils visiting a field close to Clinks Care Farm to celebrate Care Farm Week. Conservation volunteer Karen Day helping children look for different insects in a bug hotel which they made. Picture: James Bass

Archant Norfolk © 2014

It might seem strange to find a Dutchman running a 143-acre holding in the East Anglian countryside but the Netherlands was one of the first nations to discover - or more accurately re-discover - the remarkable ‘healing’ properties of the countryside.Doeke Dobma takes pains to point out that “care farming might be a modern expression but it is something that was going on in the past”.

“Forty or more years ago when agriculture was far more labour intensive, farms used to be part of the rural community and even people on the fringes of society used to become involved in activities such as the harvest,” he said.

In the days before labels such as Asperger’s and ADHD were found for people, they might naturally have found their niche working in the fields.

Mr Dobma was first struck by the potential of people with learning disabilities while working as a contract manager for a London local authority, responsible for parks and estates, a decade ago.

“I noticed that the parks they were looking after looked fantastic. They had so much enthusiasm and their work had such a positive benefit on their self-confidence and independence,” he said.

His sister, a mental health nurse working in the Netherlands, had introduced him to the concept of care farms which took off there during the 1990s.

He said: “Small dairy farmers were feeling the pinch and, as a diversification, began inviting people - from youngsters to the elderly with dementia - onto their farms. The benefits of working outdoors swiftly became apparent.”

When Mr Dobma opened Clinks Care Farm in 2010 his was one of only a handful in the region and initially he had only enough clients to operate one day a week.

Today, the farm runs five days a week with 40 regular clients and the 14 Norfolk and Suffolk care farms which opened their gates to the public this week show the rapid advance of a natural therapy which surely must be seen as a healthy antidote to the modern-day reliance on medication.

While some of them operate purely as care farms, others are commercial operations giving over a few acres to care farming. Clinks Care Farm’s support leader Mike Jackson, who was showing round an enthusiastic party from the village’s Glebeland Primary School on Wednesday, has seen amazing changes in clients refered to the farm by GPs and social workers.

Josh, 22, arrived on a 12-week course with a low mood, went on to a 24-week programme to inspire young people not in education or training, and has become an enthusiastic farm volunteer. “He has gained so much confidence,” said Mr Jackson. John, 20, also now a volunteer, rarely ventured out before he started working at the farm, spending nearly all his time playing video games. Now he has discovered he is great at fixing farm machinery.

Mr Jackson said he had seen other clients who had been able to drastically reduce medication for depression and anxiety after working in the farm’s two market gardens and with their sheep and pigs.

Teacher Clare Williams, leading the school’s regular visit to the farm, checking the ‘bug hotels’ they had built and weeding in the woodland they had planted, said she had noticed the positive benefit of outdoors learning.

“Some children who are not so confident in the classroom find this is an environment where they can be successful,” she said.

“Some children are more confident here and it is also good for team-building.”

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