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The Milk House: Aging into farm chores

Ryan Dennis for Progressive Dairy Published on 24 November 2021

One of the cruel aspects of getting old, for those lucky enough to have made it that far, is requiring care from someone else. Nursing homes, in addition to being expensive, are the biggest fear of the elderly heading toward dependence.

Trying to figure out how to provide the best care for loved ones can put a strain on a family.

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The Netherlands have long been pioneers in the dairy industry, from breeding the Holstein Friesian cow used around the world to being on the cutting edge of recent innovations like the milking robot. Now, they are leading the way with another type of agriculture.

Since the late ’90s, Dutch farmers have been providing social services on their farms in addition to traditional agriculture. On these “care farms,” youth offenders are allowed to work with animals in order to learn new skills – those with intellectual disabilities or mental health concerns can help out with chores in order to feel useful and find a sense of community with other participants, and those with dementia can be given simple tasks outdoors in order to get to enjoy nature and have a purpose. In particular, providing attention to elderly residents has been an increasingly attractive alternative to nursing homes in the Netherlands.

The first farmers to turn their farm into a care center did so on their own. At that time, there was no financing or support available. Eventually, however, the concept garnered enough attention that the Dutch ministries of Agriculture and Health, Welfare and Sports created the National Support Centre of Agriculture and Care. From 70 operations recorded in 1998, the total number of Dutch care farms was estimated to be approximately 1,250 in 2018. In other European countries, care farms tend to be managed by community organizations or healthcare associations, but in the Netherlands it is the family farms themselves that run them.

The benefits to those who reside or regularly visit care farms are easy to anticipate. Ellen Langer’s classic study in the 1970s had shown that nursing home residents lived longer if they were given a plant they had to water, revealing how imperative it is to have a sense of purpose in life. Those on care farms are not called “clients,” as they are in nursing homes, but rather “participants” or “assistants,” as they are allowed to engage in simple tasks such as washing eggs, feeding animals or picking vegetables. Having a duty tends to give their day meaning in a way that allows them to be more active and engaged, as well as more sociable with other participants.

On the other side of the coin, the advantage of care agriculture for farmers is also obvious: extra income. Like in many western countries, farmgate prices can be volatile, and farming can be a tough occupation to make a living from. Although caring for vulnerable individuals takes extra staff, time and training, it offers an additional and diversified way to keep practicing agriculture and have an income not dependent on markets. Viewing agriculture as a multifunctional occupation has been one way farmers have avoided having to expand their operations.

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Although the Dutch care farm is one of the most well-known models, social farming exists in a variety of forms all over the world. Geel, Belgium, has a history of taking intellectually disabled boarders on their farms that dates back centuries. In Italy, children can go to an agri-asilo, which is a form of pre-kindergarten education that happens on a farm. The ability for farms to offer physical activity outdoors, routine and general responsibility has been taken advantage of by programs that do everything from assist former prisoners with re-integration to providing a peaceful environment for abuse victims, to giving individuals with burnout a place to find themselves again.

The Dutch care farm model highlights some of the most attractive features of agriculture. In a time when increasing farm sizes has challenged the consumer’s traditional perception of farming and growing environmental concerns has put it in the spotlight, celebrating the benefits such farms provide to society can be useful in regard to political capital. It helps reclaim some of the “agrarian ideals” Jefferson and others after him have promoted in their concept of national identity. In addition to that, it starts to address the question – or at least adds to the discussion – of the best way we might care for the elderly or vulnerable. It provides at least one example that might be worth exploring further in North America.  end mark

Ryan Dennis is the author of The Beasts They Turned Away, a novel set on a dairy farm. His website is Ryan Dennis

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