How social farms can play growing role in tackling mental health

Robin Asquith manages Botton Social Farm in the North York Moors and has travelled the world studying how social or care farms operate overseas. Picture by Richard Ponter.
Robin Asquith manages Botton Social Farm in the North York Moors and has travelled the world studying how social or care farms operate overseas. Picture by Richard Ponter.
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Farms have the potential to play a far greater role in tackling the nation’s mental health problems, insists the manager of a North Yorkshire ‘social farm’.

Robin Asquith believes so-called social or care farms are already delivering invaluable opportunities for people to overcome their problems but that England is lagging behind some of its international neighbours in harnessing the model to make an even bigger difference.

According to the most recent study into care and social farms in the UK it was found that 240 farms are providing 300,000 health and social care placements every year.

Their input is adding nearly £30m to the rural economy and with the right support from policy makers, health commissioners and the farming sector, it is estimated that care farming could increase its value to nearly £90m and provide 500,000 sessions per year in health, social and educational care by 2022.

Social or care farms are fully-functioning working farms that have diversified to provide care for a range of vulnerable groups, including people with mental health problems.

Mr Asquith, 29, runs Botton Social Farm in the village of Botton in the North York Moors and, explaining its ethos, he said: “Our whole idea is that it doesn’t matter what people’s diagnosis is, it is left at the farm gate. We treat them as we would any other colleague and we involve them in all aspects of the jobs we’re doing that day.”

Tasks can include helping out with lambing, moving pigs and cows, harvesting fruit and helping to erect fencing.

More from Robin: Social farms can be part of a cathartic process

Mr Asquith said: “It is a working farm, everything they do here has a purpose and meaning. That tends to be the beneficial thing, they are doing things that have a real outcome. These small achievements add up to a positive feeling and just being outside and in the countryside is uplifting.”

The farm hosts around six people a day and receives local authority and private referrals of people of all ages, from school leavers to those aged in their 80s. It has also just begun supporting people with dementia.

Mr Asquith was awarded a Nuffield Scholarship to study the role that agriculture can play in delivering social care and it took him worldwide to examine care and social farming elsewhere.

“There are a lot of issues affecting the NHS and society that are lifestyle issues – unhealthy eating, depression and anxiety – and I wanted to see how farms could fit into that,” he said. Compared to England’s 240 care and social farms, he found that there are 1,200 in Holland.

“In other countries social farming is more accessible, there is more understanding of their benefits from government and funding that follows these people,” he said.

The Government recently recognised the role of “nature-based interventions” to treat people with health conditions in its 25-year plan for the environment. It pledged to consider how the NHS can establish new working arrangements with environmental voluntary organisations to offer therapies such as gardening, outdoor exercise and care farming for people with mild to moderate mental health conditions.

Some GPs have already adopted ‘green prescribing’, whereby patients are referred to activities such as gardening, conservation, care farms and green gyms to improve their mental health.

A form of this is underway in parts of South and West Yorkshire where the Creative Minds charity, which is “hosted” by the South West Yorkshire NHS Trust, has made over 20,000 “contacts” with people having mental health problems since it was set up six years ago.

By working with more than 130 community partners, the charity offers leisure and recreational experiences for people with mental health problems, including gardening at allotments.

Phil Walters, the charity’s strategic lead, explained the benefits, saying: “At it’s best, it’s life-transforming. If by getting involved you find something you’re passionate about it can make a big difference.

“The NHS can’t do it all on its own. It needs to harness the power of communities to support people’s well being. For me it’s the only way to address the increasing demand.”

Read more in a special series of reports on mental health in farming here