Care farming is an idea more common in the UK than it is here in the USA. In the UK, as it is with certain farms in the USA, farms provide classes for particular populations of people to come “work on the farm”. These classes are usually centered on what that farm produces… animal husbandry, crops, or any other farming interest specific to what that farm provides in their classes. And by being involved in the farm’s activities, these folks get the feeling of personally being involved with nature and farm life. This therapeutic activity helps these people reconnect with nature and can help them work through their own personal struggles.
I became interested in this sort of “therapy” a few years ago. I like to think that I provide some of the same benefits as do the farms that have scheduled classes on a regular basis. But instead of scheduled classes with a specific group of people, I provide a “day at the farm” for those that feel the need to break away from their routine life and see what it is like “living on a farm”.
I don’t contract out with agencies that are seeking this type of experience for their groups of people. Instead, I get private requests to come visit my “farm”. What I take for granted thinking about the chores that need to be done, the people who come to visit with me see a different perspective on life then what they are used to living in their city lives.
One of the benefits I personally achieve by these visits is how easy it is to get wrapped up in day-to-day events, problems and my own personal do-list of things that need to get done. Through another’s eyes, I see “country life”. I see a garden that produces more than enough fresh vegetables that we not only enjoy throughout the summer but also have an abundance to process and store for the upcoming winter months. And then there is even more that we will donate to our local food bank.
I see chickens, aka my “ladies”, that are hand-tamed and like nothing better to eat out of anyone’s hand. My hens produce enough eggs for us throughout the year plus an ample supply of eggs we also donate to the food bank. I usually send home a dozen eggs or so with our visitors so they, too, can enjoy what a “farm-fresh egg” really tastes like; something you just don’t get from your local grocery store. And, I usually send a “double-yolker” home with our guests. Again, something grocery stores weed out long before their eggs ever hit their shelves. And there is my rooster. He is fine-looking fella that is nice enough to readily accept visitors although he surely will entertain us with a few crows and “cock-a-doodle doo’s” to let us know he is the one in charge of HIS ladies.
Moving on, there are the goats. I have three Nigerian Dwarf goats that also like to be hand-fed grain. This is a special treat for them as my three have become somewhat rotund and are on “diets” now. The goat play yard has a variety of climbing areas that the goats will readily climb and prance about… all for a bit of that grain! This time of year, they are growing their thick winter coats that while they are not the same as say sheep, one can see and feel how they keep themselves warm come the cold winter months. I don’t breed or milk my goats but visitors are always interested in hearing how that happens. And about how goats ruminate to digest their food. Kix, my youngest of the three and the doe I hand-fed as a kid, is the friendliest. She accepts being handled to show visitors where her horns would have been had she not been dis-budded as a baby. And she allows petting her ears that are always twitching and are as soft as velvet.
But the real highlight of the visit are always the donkeys, Jack and Jill. The donkeys share the barn in the stall next to the goats. Their immediate response to visitors is curiosity. They readily “warm up” to the attention of visitors especially if hand-fed a treat! Depending on the time of the year, we may be able to pull a few carrots from the garden on our way out to the barn for them. Jill enjoys being petted and is so calm, visitors have a hard time believing she is the one really in charge of the two. Jack, on the other hand, is more likely to be more demonstrative with pawing the ground (he is letting me know he is frustrated by what I may be asking him to do or wanting everyone’s attention to be on him). Or, he may “perform” one of the many “tricks” I’ve taught him to do… Retrieving a ball to my open hands, targeting mats laid out in his paddock, or allowing me to pet/hug him around the neck. He will almost always offer his nose for a kiss when asked although for safety reasons, I don’t allow visitors to kiss his nose. One needs to really be able to assess his “mood” before asking for this behavior.
Jack and Jill, too, are on “diets”. I explain their feeding protocol and how we weigh their daily feed. I show visitors our routine for mucking their stall, run and paddock. And since I’m there, I will pick their hooves that we routinely do every day anyways. They, too, are growing their winter coats for the upcoming cold winter months. Their coats are deep and thick emanating the warmth that will keep them warm. Or if in the summer, they are sleek and shiny and can be quite svelte. As part of my getting these two used to being handled, I enjoy brushing those coats until they shine. Well, at least until their next dust bath they so enjoy.
The visits with the donkeys are good for them. In their previous lives before coming to live with me, they were not so well cared for or admired. Jack, more-so then Jill, still carries an element of distrust with strangers. Any time I can provide a positive experience for him with other people is one step closer to making him realize that his past life of abuse is in his past. But donkeys never forget anything!
If a visit occurs in the fall, which is probably the best time for one of these visits, we can not only pick fresh carrots for the donkeys but I may have pumpkins to give away. I usually plant pumpkins as a cover crop; it is fun to watch the bright blooms turn into rather large pumpkins seemingly overnight. While I could never compete with the large pumpkin patches available for folks to “go pick their own pumpkins”, more often than not, folks are happy to pick pumpkins from my garden to take one home. The other pumpkins? Well, that is another trip to the food bank!
And then there are the dogs. My beautiful Golden Retrievers like nothing better than to be doted on my newcomers. Our French Bulldog puppy, our “other dog”, keeps up with the Goldens and enjoys any attention she can get. My sweet but old Cavalier is accepting of strangers also. She makes her appearance and follows us out to the barn never far from my side. She can’t hear very well these days and is rather annoyed by the bouncy Goldens or the rambunctious Frenchie puppy, but she is there too. And usually, my barn kitty will come greet visitors too. For being a “working cat”, he is very friendly and will insist on at least a bit of attention letting all know he is “on the job” in the barn.
At the end of the visit, folks leave with a full experience of “farm life”. Living in the country is not something we ever thought about until our move here. Now, I can’t imagine living anywhere else. Just the quiet alone, sans crowing rooster, is a change from the norm for most people. The noise of city life is replaced with birdsong and potentially the distant sound of a diesel tractor somewhere working the open fields that surround us. And for me, I get the satisfaction of sharing “my life on the farm” with others who may not otherwise have this experience. For some, it is an afternoon outing. For others, it may be a bucket list activity to have that one-on-one time with my animals and life here at our farm. But for all, it is a positive experience away from normal city life.
I feel renewed after these visits. My problems are put into perspective. That garden weeding will get done eventually or that tack room will someday get cleaned. As I look at my life through the eyes of another, I realize how truly blessed I am to be where I am at here and now. No one can predict the future but for now, I know I am exactly where I am supposed to be on this specific day. And I think, who really is on the receiving end of these therapeutic visits? Again I am reminded… Count your blessings and be kind to one another. It is never about the destination but the journey that we all must walk together.