Social farming, or care farming as it is also called, defines short or long-term activities that use agricultural resources such as animals and plants to promote and generate social services in rural areas. Examples of these services include rehabilitation, therapy, sheltered employment, life-long education and other activities that contribute to social inclusion (Di Iacovo and O’Connor, 2009).
Social farming activities emerged in the northern European countries (e.g. Belgium and the Netherlands) in the mid-20th century; and they soon spread throughout Europe as a result of a growing perception of the positive impacts on both the social and the economic welfare, particularly in peripheral rural areas (Gallis, 2013). While social farming has developed differently in the European countries, it can be seen as a way of addressing specific social needs and promoting innovative patterns of rural development that are rooted in local resources. On the one hand, social farming activities, by combining the agricultural environment with rehabilitation and care services, benefit peoples’ quality of life and their social inclusion. On the other hand, social farming activities represent an opportunity for farmers to broaden and diversify their multifunctional agriculture, to open up new markets and offer alternative services that go beyond food production.
In Italy, social farming is quite a recent phenomenon; interesting social farming experiences have developed since the early 1970s, when social farming was mainly based on the ideas of ’68 movement and on other community-based initiatives (i.e. the community-based, Barbiana School of Don Milani, Community of Capodarco); however, their establishment increased once psychiatric institutions closed down in the 1980s. Social farming activities present in Italy are considered a reliable system of social care today. The providers are normally organised in social cooperatives. However, there are also private farmers offering social farming services. They offer a range of initiatives, yet the two main fields are work placement and employment oriented initiatives, and childcare, education and training.
The employment-oriented initiatives aim at labour integration and social inclusion on the farm and address specific people with different problems and disabilities (i.e. people with moderate physical disabilities, with mental health difficulties and learning difficulties or people experiencing social exclusion) or vulnerable target groups (i.e. long-term unemployed, ex-prisoners, addicts). They are included in agricultural activities such as horticulture, vine or olive growing, animal care, food processing, direct selling of farm products, or other activities such as working in the farm-restaurant. In this way, these vulnerable groups of people have the opportunity to increase their capabilities and skills, improve their social life and experience an alternative practice of reintegration into society and the labour market.
Childcare and educational initiatives include flexible care and education of children and students with the aim of transmitting sustainable nutrition and environmental education by directly involving them in farm activities. In Italy, these educational farms (called fattorie didattiche), have grown considerably in recent years, and have become important, especially in rural, peripheral and peri-urban areas as they provide a significant contribution to the social welfare system, where services (i.e. social, health or care) are marginally available or lacking.
Italy has strong regional, social farming networks that bring together providers and demanders and are a key component of marketing, as they serve as platform where farms present their specific practices. In addition to the regional networks, Italy has a national forum on social agriculture that was initiated in 2011. It is a driving force in promoting social farming as an innovation of the agricultural system (Newsletter FNAS Italy). Only 4 years later, on 18 August 2015, Italy implemented the national framework law n. 141, providing a framework of principles and procedures for recognising social farming practices that respect the social needs of the territory, the local available vocations and agricultural resources.
An interesting initiative of social farming in Italy is the social cooperative “Mit Bäuerinnen lernen-wachsen-leben” (Learning- growing- living with women farmers) located in the Autonomous Province of Bolzano-Bozen/ South Tyrol. The history of social farming in the Province of Bolzano is relatively young and is connected to the foundation of the cooperative in 2006. The cooperative initiated its activity in 2007 by offering day care for children on farms with the objective of providing childcare by women farmers or other family members and encouraging the interaction with nature. Thus, the farm has been expanded to a place of learning, offering a complementary and alternative setting for environmental education. Away from the classical environmental and nature education towards a direct integration of agricultural resources and the environment as teaching elements, the farm aims at stimulating the curiosity of children in learning, as well as developing their awareness for environmental, sustainable and rural resources. The childcare service includes individually adapted care accommodating up to six children, flexible care hours, the integration into the family structure, the transmission of traditional and cultural values, environmental education, and summer care as well as care for children at different events. The currently active 106, day care mothers, who are organized in the social cooperative, offer effective, childcare services in South Tyrol. Especially in peripheral areas, this service supports existing public services and responds to local demands.
Some of the social cooperative members also offer educational farm activities for school children, were they spend a few hours on the farm and practically get to know the cultural environment of the farm life.
In 2014, the social cooperative expanded its social farming services offering elderly care due to a pilot project. With this service, the providers directly react to the steadily growing number of old people in South Tyrol; while in 1975 the Province counted 43.500 in 2015 it increased to 100.000 (ASTAT Info No. 64 09/2016). Originally 10 women farmers that have increased to 32 today offer the service on request, whereby they can normally accommodate a maximum of two old people up to the second level of care. Besides responding to the aging society, the service also addresses the growing concern about the efficiency of the institutionalized and available public services. Thus, it allows old people to receive family orientated care and be actively integrated in farming life. The qualified course “elderly people on farms” as well as the course for “day care mothers” are a prerequisite for offering these services.
Besides the valuable contribution the social cooperative is offering, it is expanding its existing activities across the territory and is also planning to introduce new social farming activities. Potential new activities could include activities for people with disabilities, holidays on farms with specific care service, horticulture and animal therapy. Adopting new practices stimulate new cooperation between the farms and private and public institutions, but also strengthen rural- urban relations.
Social farming activities have been established due to the changing demands of today’s society (i.e. ageing population, changing family structures, revalorisation of rural life in an ever urbanising society, high influx of migrants and increase of people with chronical diseases). They are a practical and innovative response to societies needs that many institutionalized social services are not able to provide adequately. Hence, social farming contributes to social and economic wellbeing as it stimulates vulnerable people’s independence and their personal development based on active collaboration and help on the farm. It promotes women farmer’s empowerment. It provides an additional income in peripheral rural areas as women can directly practice their pedagogical, health, care or therapeutically profession on the farm. Moreover, it stimulates the economic sustainable development of peripheral areas by guaranteeing services to people in order to prevent further depopulation.
The innovative aspects of social farming are twofold: on the one hand, innovation includes the development of new initiatives for specific target users (e.g. social farming for cell-phone dependent children and youth, art therapy for autistic children…); on the other hand, innovation is grounded in the creation of new forms of horizontal and vertical collaboration (e.g. between the agricultural, social, economic, health care, educational, tourism and regional development sectors), as well as the establishment of new private-public partnerships.
Di Iacovo, F., O’Connor., D., (eds.), 2009: Supporting Policies for Social Farming in Europe. Progressing Multifunctionality in Responsive Rural Areas. ARSIA, Firenze.
Gallis, C., 2013: “What is Green Care? Introduction, History, and Origins” in: Gallis, C. (ed), “Public Health in the 21st Century, Green Care for Human Therapy, Social Innovation, Rural Economy, and Education”, Nova Science Publishers, New York.
O`Connor, D., Lai, M., & Watson, S., (2010). Overview of Social Farming and Rural Development Policy in Selected EU Member States. NRN Joint Thematic Initiative on Social Farming.
Provincia Autonoma di Bolzano – Alto Adige, Istituto provinciale di statistica, ASTAT Info N. 64 09/2016, 1 Ottobre 2016 – Giornata internazionale delle persone anziane.