Science - March 17, 2005

Therapeutic farm communities on the rise

The beneficial effects of farming and nature on handicapped and sick people are being discovered outside the Netherlands. Scientists from Europe and the United States meet this week at an international congress in Wageningen to discuss the opportunities that therapeutic farming can provide.

Therapeutic farms are on the rise in the Netherlands. Many handicapped people and psychiatric patients work in horticulture. Therapeutic farming is done in other countries as well, but in different ways, as is clear in the book ‘Farming for health across Europe’ that Dr Jan Hassink presented on Wednesday evening 16 March during the congress on therapeutic farming.

In England there are now over eight hundred ‘health gardens’, allotments and neighbourhood gardens where residents can recover or receive therapy supported by working with plants. Experiencing young plants growing can restore someone’s faith in the future, Hassink gives as an example. Unlike Dutch therapeutic farms, these gardens are not intended to produce food; the focus is on improving the well-being of the patient. A wide range of forms of therapeutic farming is found in Germany, but they are all initiatives from within the care sector.

It is also noticeable that there are more therapeutic farms in countries with intensive forms of farming, such as the Netherlands and Belgium, and in countries where there are small-scale farms such as Italy, Austria and Norway. Farms in the United States are generally too large to be able to offer therapeutic facilities. Care institutions there do make use of nature and the environment in their care of problem children. It is more difficult to set up therapeutic farms in the US because of the claims culture: if accidents happen the institutions are sued.

As yet there is little use of animals for therapeutic purposes, but according to Hassink there is potential here. Animal therapy is furthest and most accepted in Finland, where especially horses are used. A PhD researcher at the Animal Production Systems group in Wageningen will soon examine which kinds of animal are suitable for different types of client. / JT

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