1 November 2021

Care Farms and the coming of spring

By Rachel Sloane
At Poppies Care Farm, Ipswich

Back in January 2020, in an article for Suffolk Norfolk Life, the young wildlife photographer Alfie Bowen, was full of praise for the benefits he had got from being involved with Clinks Care Farm at Tofts Monks, Beccles. The farm is one of many care farms in our two counties and, run as not-for-profit social enterprises, they offer placements to disadvantaged people to use the farm activities as ‘a therapeutic space and a place to learn and grow’. The umbrella organisation, Social Farms & Gardens, have a Code of Practise for their members, and care farms (and city gardens) apply to renew their registration every year.

Speaking on Zoom from the newly extended kitchen at Clinks Care Farm, (built following a Just Giving Appeal last year) the co-founder of the initiative, Iris van Zon, explained how she and her husband Doeke, came to set up it up, on a county farm in Norfolk.

Both Dutch, in 2002 they had been shown round a care farm in Holland, by a farm helper who beamed with confidence and a real sense of achievement in his work. (Care farming is much more developed in the Netherlands where instead of living in a care home, some elderly people even live on a care farm).  

“I had worked in health and social care,” explained Iris, “and Doeke worked on a farm as a teenager, and then in forestry. We were passionate about the idea of having care farms here in East Anglia.”

“In November 21009 we applied for the tenancy of a Norfolk council farm. We didn’t really fit the criteria as we were over 45 and didn’t have an agricultural background, but ourbusiness plan and what we wanted to do obviously inspired the council and we got the tenancy. We started the care farm in May 2010. Care farms are about working with people and treating them as equals, having something to offer despite their disability. They have a skill and can shine, getting confidence and self-esteem, while building skills.”

They started with just the two of them and some volunteers, but now, eleven years later, Iris and Doeke have a team of twelve, including a produce co-ordinator, an occupational therapist, support workers and administration staff.

The clients or ‘farm helpers’, twelve a day, come from a mixed background, referred by social workers, the mental health services, or are self-referred.  On 143 acres, and in seven poly-tunnels, they raise livestock, and grow crops, fruit and vegetables, and they learn about the importance of good food and caring for yourself.

“Spring is our favourite time of the year, especially lambing. In 2019 a farm helper delivered her first lamb which was quite emotional and created such a sense of achievement. Sadly, the farm-helpers missed lambing last year because we were closed to them because of the lockdown rules. This year they will be here, socially spaced and wearing masks.” 

“Social care services pay for placements for people with learning difficulties and mental health problems, and educational placements (for under 18’s) are paid for through Suffolk and Norfolk county council  educational departments. Some people self-funding. We were ran a successful pilot for ‘Farming on Prescription’, social prescribing from local doctors, and you could see people really change over the twelve weeks there. But in 2018 it was decided the project couldn’t be funded anymore.”

Apart from the funded places, how is the farm financed?

“We are a local food producer and passionate about it. We sell in our farm shop and have regular orders for 95 vegetable boxes. Our meat has become very popular locally, with our customers seeing there is a social value to what we do.” 

Clinks Care Farm, is about to launch a Crowd-funding appeal, “Life after Covid”.

“This is for sessions for people who have Long Covid or PTSD and are struggling to return to or sustain work. People will come to the farm to do six or twelve weekly sessions of graded therapy work and slowly build up their ability. People will have got oversensitive to everything that’s going on around you, so you slowly build up and, at the end, people will hopefully be able to go back to work. It will run for a year when, hopefully, Long Covid won’t be so much of an issue. We hope it will provide more evidence of the value of farm therapy.”

Everyone at Clinks Care Farm is looking forward to spring, with the light evenings, warmer days and lush greenness everywhere.

“By April the polytunnels will be chock-a -block with vegetable seedlings. We lamb in May and farm helpers get involved as much as possible when a sheep needs help.”

In Suffolk, Poppies Care Farm, just outside Ipswich, is a much smaller enterprise than Clinks Care Farm, with just seven and a half acres, and four polytunnels for growing fruit and vegetables. As well as growing crops, they also care for seven goats, two donkeys, rabbits, chickens, guinea pigs… and six alpacas! 

The farm was set up by Liz Marley and Lee Smith.

“We had moved to the farm in 2011 and we were both still working to pay the bills,” remembered Liz. “My manager’s wife said that we should do care farming – and we had never heard of it!  We’d both had experience of working with adults with learning disabilities as volunteers, so it wasn’t a complete leap of faith. Doeke from Clinks Care Farm was the first person we spoke to and he became our mentor. There wasn’t any formal training for people who wanted to be care-farmers but Doeke was promoting care farming and we spent several days at Clinks, shadowing his team.  Then he helped us to get accredited and put policies in place.”

With support from Suffolk County Council, Poppies Care Farm opened on 1st January 2014.  

“We opened one day a week with one client and then two, and it very gradually built up. In October 2014 we became a Community Interest Company, a social enterprise, which formalised the farm and also enables us to apply for grant funding.”

Now open five days a week, the Covid restrictions, have meant that only two or three clients a day go to Poppies rather than the usual six or seven. Places are funded by Suffolk County Council for people with learning difficulties, after a referral from a social worker. 

“Suffolk County Council have been very encouraging of care farms. To me it’s a no-brainer. You are outdoors, getting fresh air and exercise – we are a working farm. People get involved with the vegetable production, the animal care and all the maintenance, plus they get all the social interaction.” 

The produce grown at Poppies is sold to Growing Places, another social enterprise, for vegetable boxes, to “Hullabaloo”, a vegan café in Ipswich and it is also sold at the monthly Ipswich Farmers Market. 

“April will be a very exciting time on the farm. Two of our goats are pregnant so hopefully four kids will be born, and we should have some chicks. The market garden will have really taken off with the trestle tables in the polytunnels full of trays of seedlings ready for planting out,” said Liz.

Because of Covid and lockdowns, people have appreciated nature more on their daily walks, but many people have no idea of the work of the care farms in their communities. The support the farms are giving to adults with learning disabilities or mental health issues should be even more widely understood and appreciated. Look out for the nearest one to you on https://www.farmgarden.org.uk

(This article was first published in Suffolk Norfolk Life magazine, April 2021)