The temperature hovers at little more than six degrees on a brisk Autumn morning at Densholme Care Farm.
But when the group who spend each Friday there arrive for their 10 o’clock start, they are eager to get outside, layering up to brace the cold for the first of the day’s tasks - feeding the farm’s pigs, goats, sheep and chickens.
For some of them, communication is limited, but all those I speak to give the same answer when asked why they attend - it makes them feel happy. Some allude to a sense of fulfilment from being able to help with work on the farm, others talk of their enjoyment at being part of a social group, “a family”.
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“It’s really therapeutic,” explains support worker Lesley Bellerby, who has been involved in the care farm since its beginning. “Some people say they might have been bored where they live with nothing to do and they can come here and work really hard within their abilities. The farm lends itself to that and there’s that fulfilment when you do something within your capabilities.”
“I think belonging is a really important thing too,” she adds. “It’s a family and everybody feels like the farm is theirs for the day. It’s lovely.”
Every Friday, the farm in East Yorkshire opens its doors to vulnerable adults, its mission to enrich their lives through nature-based activities. On other days, it hosts educational visits, works one to one with young people excluded from school and supports asylum seekers and women who have experienced domestic violence.
For 22-year-old Mikey Brown, who has a range of complex needs, visits to the farm for the past four years have had a transformational effect on his wellbeing. “He likes animals,” his carer Austin Brown tells me, “and actually being able to engage with them, getting amongst the goats for example, has completely controlled his anger issues.
“The animals only approach people when they feel safe anyway and with them coming towards Mikey, it’s diffusing his anger. He hasn’t lashed out for anybody in the last two-and-a-half years.
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"And relieving the tension for Mikey is also stopping his epilepsy...He feels now as though he’s involved in something rather than being isolated from things and I can imagine possibly that’s what the majority of frustration was for him.”
Densholme Care Farm is run on a voluntary basis by farmer Denys Fell and is set up as a social enterprise, separate to his commercial farming business. It began life in 2007, when Denys invited several groups, including three young men from a local care home, to join him with jobs on the farm.
Involved in the East Riding Rural Stress Initiative, a scheme to help address the rate of farming suicides, Denys believed bringing vulnerable members of the community to farms could be a way to tackle loneliness and social isolation and help farmers with their mental health, whilst sharing the benefits of the natural environment with a wider range of people.
Fast-forward a decade or so, and the care farm is run by four volunteer directors, with a team of paid staff and operates at capacity, welcoming 15 clients each Friday. Its vision hasn’t changed though - to share the farm with those who may benefit and to become an invaluable asset to the country’s health and education sectors.
“A lot of the reasons farmers get under stress and pressure is that they’re by themselves a lot,” Denys says. “And here’s an opportunity where you can help someone come out to your farm and you are also helped. It’s broadened my horizons.
“If I had to trumpet a message, it would be that yes farmers are strong and independent, because we have to be - no one is going to kick us out of bed on a morning - but that independence can lead to being on your own.
"If you think about social care farming, there are people who can help us as we help them. The benefits are to both sides - the individuals who come and the farmers.”
Care farms like Densholme are becoming more widely recognised by health, specialist education and social care commissioners across the UK. Around 250 are now in operation, providing services for a range of individuals including those with learning disabilities, dementia, mental ill health or drug or alcohol addiction as well as for ex-service personnel with post-traumatic stress disorder and for children excluded from school.
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According to national charity Social Farms and Gardens, it is the “powerful mix” of being in nature, being part of a group and taking part in meaningful activities such as caring for livestock, land management and growing crops and vegetables that make care farming so successful.
Earlier this year, a £1.4m Growing Care Farming project was launched as part of the government’s nature programme. Its aim is to increase the number of places available each year and help to tackle England’s “large and growing” mental health issue, whilst reducing the strain on statutory services and the NHS. It went live in Yorkshire and the Humber, the first region, last week.
Robin Asquith, the chair of the Yorkshire Care Farmers Network, is a regional facilitator in the project and has run Botton Social Farm in the North York Moors since its founding in 2016. It is part of the larger Botton Village site, a rural community with specialist support and opportunities for people with learning disabilities, autistic spectrum disorders and mental health conditions.
Up to 12 people, many from outside the village, are able to attend the farm each day and for the past year, it has also opened its doors to those with dementia to help improve their quality of life.
“Since we started doing that, the biggest impact we’ve seen is on the people who care for them, their family members at home,” Robin tells me. “It gives them freedom and independence to get their own life back. For the people that come, it doesn’t slow the decline but it keeps them active and physically fit for longer, which has to be a good thing.”
He’s told one of the farm’s dementia patients only ever smiles when he’s at Botton. “His wife thinks it’s because when he’s at home, it’s a constant reminder of all the things he can’t do, whereas when he comes here, there’s things he can do. He can be part of a team and interact with other people.”
For all those who attend, Robin, who was awarded a Nuffield Farming Scholarship to research the role agriculture can play in delivering social care, says there is an end goal. For some, that might be learning a day-to-day skill and living a more independent life, for others it’s about working towards gaining an apprenticeship, securing a job or returning to the workplace.
“They’re given responsibility and real jobs to do with a purpose,” he says. “For some individuals, they’ve gone through systems where they couldn’t necessarily see the point in what they were doing, so we make it as meaningful as possible.
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“It’s a massive difference, the change you see in people. They grow in confidence. A lot of the people we support, they’ve been in some kind of system or medical intervention for the majority of their life and have always been judged or pre-judged. We work on the mantra of we leave the diagnosis at the gate.”
One of the first to attend the care farm was 24-year-old James Coates. He has just completed a horticulture apprenticeship with the farm and now is planning to move on to work with a local grounds maintenance company.
“It’s been really good for me personally to grow,” he says. “As time has gone on, I’ve grown in confidence and I’ve grown in social circles. I never used to talk - now they can’t shut me up!”
James is one of thousands of individuals up and down the country who has benefited from care farming - and clearly there is scope for more.
But with many care farms charging clients a fee in order to cover overheads - money that is typically funded by service users or their families, commissioning services or through personal budgets paid to individuals for social care by local councils, Robin says he is not sure Government cash is going in at the right level.
He believes care farming has an important role to play in both social care and mental health support but says more money is needed across the whole sector if growth is to be achieved.
“It’s alright training more farmers how to run care farms, but if social services don’t have the money to refer people, if the farms haven’t got clients to come and pay, it’s not sustainable.”