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Farm-based activities can support mental wellness. Why aren’t there more care farms in the U.S.?

Jesse Zilberstein and her family have taken annual trips to the Selah Carefarm for the past seven years since the death of her youngest son, Gidi.

Care farms are agricultural places for people with physical or mental health challenges to process their emotions, while performing farming tasks and working with animals. Participants are able to receive formal or informal care to address things like anxiety, depression and grief. It’s a popular concept in Europe that hasn’t gained as much traction in the United States yet. But a new national network hopes to change that.

The Zilberstein family saw how care farms can help through a rough time.

They went through a tragedy seven years ago when they lost their youngest child, Gideon or Gidi, seven years ago in a boating accident. His brothers, Oren who was 8 and Zeve who was 10, were there when it happened.

“I was really young when Gidi died, so I feel like I’ve really been processing it the most, recently,” Oren said. “When I was that age, I wasn’t really aware, really, what happened. Obviously I knew that Gidi died, and that was just kind of something that I knew and people told to me, but I didn’t really process the scale of that. ”

The Zilbersteins worked with a grief therapist who met with the family as a group and individually, which helped according to the mother, Jesse. They also enrolled the boys in a 10-week group therapy program for kids, but they didn’t enjoy traditional therapy.

That’s when she looked into the Selah Carefarm in Sedona, Ariz.

“It’s almost like the trauma of Gidi’s death is associated with the memories of grief therapy because all we did was talk about traumatic things there,” Jesse said. “So when we think about that office, or the place where the office was or the drive to the office or any of those things, at least for Oren, it feels traumatic. The care farm has never felt like that.”

Care farms participants are allowed to engage with animals or work on typical farming tasks –– like feeding animals or repairing irrigation ditches. Some of the farms, like the one the Zilbersteins went to, also have counselors on-site to support.

Oren appreciated the care farm allowing him to process his grief the way he wanted to instead of following a curriculum and having to complete specific tasks.

“There were games that we would play, or we’d write in journals or on pieces of paper, but I never really enjoyed that as much,” Oren said. “At the care farm I’m able to just be with my thoughts and kind of walk around and pet animals and help out. And I think that’s a much better way of processing things for me.”

Oren and Zeve Zilberstein pet horses at the Selah Carefarm near Sedona, Ariz. The death of their brother, Gidi, has been something they’ve constantly processed over the past seven years. Jesse Zilberstein / Submitted

Do care farms help improve mental health? 

At its core, care farming allows people to connect with nature, which has its own mental and physical health benefits, but also allows for a range of activities. Some studies suggest participating in nature-based tasks like gardening and farming, especially done with other people, can improve the mood and reduce anxiety.

While care farms are not officially considered a form of health care, a few studies involving people with learning disabilities and senior citizens have shown care farms can support mental wellness, with the potential to reduce recidivism.

But more research is needed to specifically show the health benefits of care farms, according to a2018 study. The researchers pointed to the small scope and limitations in the methodology of other studies on care farms. They also said that because the definition of care farms is so loose, it’s hard to study their benefits.

“The farms that we studied ranged from having very well-developed rehabilitative elements, able to support clients with challenging behaviour and substance abuse issues, to very little support available and limited opportunities for clients to interact with nature, the study authors said.

In the U.S., there is a dearth of mental health resources in many rural communities where 60% of residents live in areas with a shortage of providers. Studies suggest that looking at farms, which are already prevalent in rural areas, as a resource to provide mental and emotional support could be valuable to these communities.

But expanding care farms in the U.S. can be difficult because the concept is still emerging and resources haven’t been streamlined to make the creation of these farms accessible.

Can the U.S. catch up to the Netherlands? 

Other countries are a lot farther when it comes to developing care farms. Researchers believe there are roughly 6,000 to 10,000 care farms in all of Europe.

Maarten Fisher, the director of the National Federation of Care Farms in the Netherlands, said the government has put its weight and money behind a national organization that supports care farms. Fisher said government funding allowed the National Federation to develop care farm handbooks, a quality certification program, and plenty of communication and training courses.

“That was a tremendous help that’s not available in the U.S.,” Fisher said.

The Netherlands is home to more than 1,300 care farms while the U.S. only has around 200. There are multiple care farm locations listed across Midwest states. At least two are in Indiana, one in Iowa, nine in Ohio and 10 in Michigan, as well as other areas. Care farm networks, like the one Fisher manages in the Netherlands have been crucial because they allow care farms to share input and learn from one another.

“So, in the U.S., most people still have to figure that all [out] for themselves,” Fisher said.

Having a network like that is one step the U.S. can take to expand care farms across the country, he said.

Andrea Barnhart with Maryland-based Red Wiggler Community Farm started the Care Farming Network — a network that lists care farms across the country. Researchers say it is one of the first national networks in the U.S.

The Red Wiggler Community Farm in Germantown, Md. allows people with and without developmental disabilities to engage in farm-based activities like picking crops.
The Red Wiggler Community Farm in Germantown, Md. allows people with and without developmental disabilities to engage in farm-based activities like picking crops. Woody Woodroof / Submitted

The Red Wiggler Community Farm recently received a $257,000 sustainable agriculture and education grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to expand the network over three years. That will allow Barnhart, the network’s program manager, to build community and research among care farmers in Northeast states. The network will develop programming, such as mentoring, farm tours and training opportunities. They are also conducting research to identify what should qualify as a successful care farm, and the impact care farms have on participants.

As Barnhart researched care farms across the country, she said some people didn’t even know their business qualified as a care farm until she reached out to them.

“A lot of farms in the United States do not know of the care farming terminology,” Barnhart said. “And so while they’re doing that work, they don’t consider themselves a care farm. We’re kind of like, giving them that definition.”

There are also many different types of care farms. Some allow people to earn money by working on a farm. That’s the type Barnhart works for, which employs people with disabilities to work on the farm, and receive therapeutic benefits through the outdoor work environment.

Other carefarms focus more on mental rehabilitation to process grief, anxiety and other emotional or mental health challenges. The different care farm definitions can make it harder for government funders to discern what does and doesn’t qualify for funding.

“All [care farms] are unique. That makes things very difficult for government funding streams, there, it is very difficult to make it a cookie cutter situation,” said Woody Woodruff, who has run the Maryland care farm for 30 years.

Advocates and experts say a lot of these issues could be addressed as the national network expands.

The Care Farming Network plans to unveil a mentorship program next year to support new care farmers in the Northeast. Barnhart hopes this will be a step forward to eventually expand the program across the country.

Contact Side Effects Public Media’s health reporter Elizabeth Gabriel at egabriel@wfyi.org Side Effects Public Media is a health reporting collaboration based at WFYI in Indianapolis. We partner with NPR stations across the Midwest and surrounding areas — including KBIA and KCUR in Missouri, Iowa Public Radio, Ideastream in Ohio and WFPL in Kentucky.

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