Farms offers visitors with disabilities soothing break from it all


A recent funding overhaul is expected to make it easier for farms across Flanders to involve people with disabilities in their daily activities, fitting into a growing trend that recognises the importance of a natural environment to well-being

Green care

A recent overhaul of disability subsidy regulations will make it easier for farms in Flanders to open their doors to people with physical and mental disabilities. The move is being hailed as a milestone by both care providers and government officials, who say that groene zorg, or green care, can play a hugely beneficial role in the wellbeing of people with disabilities.

By offering them the opportunity to interact with nature and animals, they say, such initiatives provide a critical break from care institutions and a boost to their self-confidence. 

“The people who come here are often tired of therapy, of being seen as a person with problems that need to be treated,” says Sylvia Goossens, who runs a care farm in East Flanders. “Here they can do something pleasant and useful in a relaxing environment, with a lot of freedom to do what they feel like.”

Experts have long touted the benefits of interacting with nature on our mental and physical health. In recent time, it’s also become increasingly clear that working and relaxing in a green environment has substantial therapeutic effects for persons with a disability.  

A milestone in the development of green care in Flanders was the launch of the non-profit Steunpunt Groene Zorg, a collaborative effort by the Boerenbond farmers’ union, Leuven-based co-operative Cera and the Ons umbrella network of women’s associations. This support centre, founded in 2004, helps care institutions find an appropriate farm for the disabled. 

Getting started in green care

Groene Zorg, based in Leuven, helps green care providers organise and improve their services and activities and also offers info sessions and trainings, screens green care providers and helps them get started. 

“You can compare the whole process with the placing of a child in a foster family; both parties need to be prepared and protected,” explains Willem Rombaut, a Groene Zorg adviser. Green care providers, however, are under no obligation to seek support or advice from the centre.

While Groene Zorg started out with a network of 50 green care providers 13 years ago,  there are now some 900 in Flanders, which together welcome 2,250 guests per year. Most of these affiliated providers are professional farmers who take one or two people under their wings. 

The new regulations will encourage other organisations – such as children’s farms and animal shelters – to start up green care initiatives

- Willem Rombaut of Groene Zorg

The government used to offer such care farmers a subsidy of €40 per day, regardless of the number of individuals they hosted. According to Tine van der Vloet, a member of the Flemish parliament for N-VA and an expert on the topic, this evolution in the disability sector is part of a broader trend in society.

“It’s more and more understood that a green environment is beneficial – on school playgrounds, for example, and in rest homes, working environments and prisons,” she says. “And creating a more natural environment doesn’t require big investments, but mostly a change in mentality.” 

Two recent legislative developments are expected to significantly diversify the green care landscape in Flanders. A major funding overhaul adopted under Flemish welfare minister Jo Vandeurzen will gradually shift the management of government subsidies from care organisations to people with a disability and their caregivers, in the form of a personal care budget.

At the same time, the government also introduced a law that makes it possible for people with disabilities to spend those personal care budgets on green care. Care farms will moreover not be required to obtain a permit from a care organisation, so that visitors will be able to pay them directly. So while the government used to pay care farms €40 a day, now the guests will pay themselves, according to agreements with the farms.

Quality of care

“This will encourage other organisations that aren’t professional farms – such as children’s farms and animal shelters – to start up green care initiatives,” explains van der Vloet. “The changes will also enable such initiatives to take care of larger groups,” she says, noting that care providers will receive compensation for each person they assist rather than a flat fee.

To safeguard the quality of green care, the government has established a number of requirements covering safety, insurance, hygiene, transparency and cost, which farms must meet to obtain official recognition. To get this government stamp of approval, green care providers must register at the Flemish Agency for People with a Disability, while the government’s Zorginspectie (Care Inspection) agency will monitor the quality of the care offered.

Rombaut of Groene Zorg still sees limitations to the system. “The changes will be limited because underage people and psychiatric patients, for instance, are not entitled to a personal budget yet,” he says. Only adults with a physical and mental disability currently fall under the new rules.

But since the reforms, a handful of new projects have already cropped up. These include the “living farm” De Kanteling in Herzele, located on the eastern border of the Flemish Ardennes and run by Goossens, a former special-needs teacher. 

Diverse activities

Seven young people with a disability work on the farm, which used to house Goossens’ construction company. One of De Kanteling’s staff previously assisted adolescents with special needs.

At De Kanteling, the youngsters take care of the farm’s horses, donkeys, chickens and rabbits. The farm also boasts an orchard, a vegetable garden and a workshop where visitors can take part in activities such as working with wood.

They might also be asked to help prepare meals in the kitchen of the farmhouse, where Goossens and her family live. The farm’s large grass field often serves as a football pitch as well.

The space and freedom here relaxes them, and the work gives them a sense of fulfilment

- Green care provider Sylvia Goossens

“An advantage of care farms is that the providers are not care professionals, like in institutions,” Rombaut explains, “so the relationships with the guests are much more spontaneous, more equal.” 

Rombaut’s view was echoed by the guests at De Kanteling while they ate their sandwiches together on a recent afternoon. David* explained how much he enjoyed the comradeship at the living farm, while another guest, Wim, described the wooden enclosure he built for the farm’s rabbits. Meanwhile, Ben noted that he enjoyed spending time with the farm’s animals when he felt like being on his own.

Goossens’ ambition is to have the same group of people come on the same days, so that they can become friends over time. “If all their time is spent being supervised in a limited space, people with behavioural or emotional problems can explode,” she says. “The space and freedom here relaxes them, and the work gives them a sense of fulfilment.”

Goossens hopes to double their number of daily guests to 14 by 2019 so that they can earn enough to become a fully self-sufficient care farm. The plan is to gradually make the necessary infrastructure adjustments for people with physical disabilities, such as those in a wheelchair. 

Building social skills

Increasing the number of guests also increases the diversity level – someone with Down syndrome, for instance, requires a completely different approach than someone with autism. This is where staff experience with special needs, such as is available at De Kanteling, comes in handy.

De Kanteling also sometimes lends neighbours a hand with small chores such as raking leaves, which further builds the social skills and self-confidence of their guests and fosters a positive communal atmosphere. “Instead of feeling different and dependent, they understand that they are able to help others, which increases their self-worth,” says Goossens.

Groene Zorg, meanwhile, will have an important supporting role as the new regulations come into force. They will develop a manual for green care providers, help them work with larger groups and help them correctly price their services.

Although the care farms will now be able to set their own prices, Rombaut also emphasises that many of them offer their services for free and will continue to do so.

Increased visibility

“We are also considering the development of a quality label with website that would describe the initiatives in Flanders with this label,” says Rombaut. “This will give the most successful initiatives the chance to improve their visibility,” says Rombaut.

Rombaut notes that care institutions could stand to adopt a more positive attitude during the current transition phase. “A close collaboration with care institutions would be beneficial for green care providers, as they could then rely on their extensive expertise in case of any problems,” he says, noting that many have adopted a defensive attitude for fear of losing their funding.

Groene Zorg also receives project subsidies from the Flemish and provincial governments. “We hope to be awarded structural funding in the future,” he says, “so that we are sure that we can continue providing our support during the next government administration as well.” 

*Names of guests at De Kanteling were changed due to privacy concerns