Farming feature: Getting down to earth with a new approach to wellbeing at Diss care farm conference

Care farm conference at Corn Hall, St Nicholas Street, Diss. Pictured right is The National Farmers’

Care farm conference at Corn Hall, St Nicholas Street, Diss. Pictured right is The National Farmers’ Union’s Regional Director for East Anglia - Pamela Forbes. - Credit: Gregg Brown

More work needs to be done to work out the financial benefits of care farming, a conference heard this month.

More than 200 people from across Suffolk and Norfolk attended the care farming event, held at Diss, to hear from a range of speakers including political heavyweights Health Minister Norman Lamb and Suffolk County Council leader Mark Bee, both of whom expressed support for the concept.

Preliminary studies appeared to back the idea that the farms were cost-effective in helping individuals, they heard, and there were moving accounts from various speakers, as well as through videos between speeches, of how the burgeoning care farm sector was helping some of the two counties’ most vulnerable residents.

The event, which was geared towards aspiring care farmers and smallholders, policymakers and commissioners, health professionals, educationalists supporting vulnerable groups and local people and groups who could benefit from care farming, was chaired by National Farmers’ Union regional director Pamela Forbes.

Delegates were told that academics have been trying to work out the cost of using “Farming on Prescription” for people with various mental health conditions versus other treatment methods.

University of East Anglia occupational therapy lecturer Rod Lambert explained how he had carried out preliminary studies of users of the service, which is based on the idea that bringing people into contact with nature and the outdoors through carrying out activities on farms, can bring health benefits.

Various studies carried out with users of conference organiser Doeke Dobma’s Clinks Care Farm at Toft Monks, Beccles, had shown that care farm users’ conditions improved in the course of the day spent on the farm, he said.

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“I have worked with Doeke and Iris at Clinks Farm for a number of years now,” he said. “I’m totally sold on the idea of care farms but I’m also sold on the idea we are now in a healthcare environment which is struggling with funds.”

If care farms are to continue, it’s important to show they are cost-effective compared to other ways of treating patients, he argued.

Researchers looking at Clinks Farm had developed a questionnaire composed of several parts which separated out the different client groups, which included those suffering from anxiety and depression, those with personality or social issues, people with learning difficulties and others with psychosis or with brain injury. Most were on Farming on Prescription, a pilot scheme championed by Clinks Farm and healthcare professionals in Waveney.

The preliminary studies found that Farming on Prescription was “very much cheaper” than other referral schemes, but Dr Lambert stressed that this was a “very early stage investigation” and further work needed to be done. Researchers used an EQ-5D health state questionnaire both in the mornings and the evenings, which showed that in the course of the day, the vast majority of clients’ mental state had improved.

“People feel better for having a day there,” said Dr Lambert. Researchers calculated that this improvement cost about £23 for those with anxiety and depression, and more for those with other conditions, he said.

It was possible to collect data from care farms which would show the benefits to healthcare commissioners of having the care farm referral route available to them, he said. However, for these figures to mean anything to the scientific community and those in the healthcare sector, larger numbers were required.

Mr Bee said care farming was a subject “very dear to my heart”, and something he believed in passionately.

“I am very proud that Suffolk County Council supports Suffolk care farms,” he said. “I believe politics is about creating the best possible environment in which people can thrive.”

Even in the best of times too many people get left behind, he said, and the difficult economic climate will have only exacerbated this situation.

“The need for care farms is now greater than ever,” he said, but the financial constraints would continue to get tougher over the next few years.

“Underpinning everything, we are about providing good-value-money services while keeping council tax down,” he said.

He supported personalised support which best suited individuals’ needs. “I can think of few better examples of this than care farms,” he said.

“The truth is over the years too much has been about the service we provide and not enough about the individual needs of the people we support. That’s changing.”

Care farming had a great role to play in meeting many of the council’s objectives, and helped the county’s rural economy, he said.

The county council, which owns 12,500 acres of land, is one of the three biggest landowners in county he said, and had a potential role to play. There was currently one care farm at Lakenheath on council-owned land and another in the pipeline at Lowestoft, and it was a trend he wanted to encourage.

“I’m extremely grateful for the work done by care farmers here. Congratulations for all you have achieved. I look forward to seeing more care farms in years to come,” he said.

Suffolk County Councillor James Finch said the council was looking at making smaller farms “that could easily become care farms”, and focusing on how the farms might be brought into line with some of the authority’s wider objectives.

Mr Lamb said he “fascinated” by the concept of care farming and felt it offered “an enormous amount”.

“We need to shift the emphasis in the mental health services,” he said.

It was important to convince the Treasury of the return on investment in improving people’s lives, he said.

“I’m really interested in this and as the evidence emerges and develops the case for investing in it, it seems to me will become overwhelming,” he said.

He expressed support for bringing mental health into line with the rest of the health service, and treated equally to it, with the same standards for access and waiting times for mental health patients as for those with a physical ailment, and the same principle as for patients admitted to hospital that “the money goes with them”.

“We have to address this institutional bias,” he said. “We have to in my view end the isolation of mental health.”

He praised the “brilliance” of the preventive work done by care farms and other systems in helping those suffering a mental health crisis and the positive moves being made.

“The system has no ambition to improve their quality of life and that seems to me simply has to end,” he said.

He added that the high proportion of people with mental health problems, autism and learning difficulties ending up in the criminal justice system was “a scandal of our time”.

Easton and Otley College principal David Lawrence said he saw farming as “critically important”, and said it was an opportunity for a specialist diversification.

Mr Dobma explained how the care farm system was changing lives.

“We have seen at Clinks Farm some major transformations and development of people,” he said. “You combine the care of the land with the care of the people and magical things happen.”

He added that he was encouraged by Mark Bee’s speech and said the potential was there to develop the concept across the UK, where there was currently about 170 care farms. However, it needed support at government and council level.

In his native Holland, where he had benefited from a care farm in his youth, the system was far more developed, he said.

But conference-goers were warned that care farming was not an easy route and needed careful thought for those thinking of taking the plunge. Diana Nettleton, senior agribusiness consultant at Bidwells, set out various funding options would-be care farmers could explore and advised them to take advice.

Debbie Rawlinson, who recently moved her care farm to Monk Soham, near Debenham, told the audience of her own experiences in setting up a care farm three years ago with her partner, Jane. She had decided to set up the farm on her smallholding after working for years with troubled youngsters and unemployed adults, and discovering how well they reacted to the environment of the farm and its livestock.

She stressed the importance of communicating with local people and said she was celebrating after gaining planning permission for the new site.

“I can’t tell you how much I enjoy what I do,” she said. But she added: “Don’t be fooled: it’s hard work. It’s a 365 day job. I don’t get away from it. You can’t get away from it.”

There are currently 13 care farms which have officially launched in Suffolk and a further four in the process of setting up. Essex has three and another three being created. In Norfolk, there are six with five in the process of setting up.

In the Netherlands there are 1,100 care farms supporting smaller farms to diverse their operations into health and social care. Breaking this figure down and applying them to Suffolk, Mr Dobma has expressed a hope to see up to 60 care farms in the next 10 years supporting more than 2,500 vulnerable children, young people, adults and elderly people.

Mr Dobma described it as “an incredible event”. “I am extremely proud of what we have achieved so far,” he said. “The number of care farms set up is increasing and there remains a strong interest of other farmers and smallholders to follow.”