It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking about sustainable growing in strictly environmental terms. But in addition to being an environmental essential, farming sustainably can also be a powerful tool for social good. Increasingly, a number of social enterprises are using these methods of growing to the benefit of some of society’s most vulnerable groups.

Improving health and wellbeing

Every year an estimated one in four people in Britain experience a mental health difficulty. Engagement with nature and being outside is widely acknowledged to promote good mental health and wellbeing, with nature-based activities in this context being referred to as a kind of ‘green care’.

In Cumbria, Growing Well is one such organisation using sustainable farming to support mental health. Supplying 80 homes with seasonal, organic vegetables every week, the farm simultaneously works with local people experiencing mental health problems.

The concept is that volunteering with Growing Well reduces social isolation, enables the development of useful life skills and leads to feelings of increased hopefulness, improving both mental and physical health. Measured using the same depression and anxiety scales as GPs, the organisation sees notable improvements amongst its volunteers.

According to Clairelouise Chapman, Growing Well’s organisational coordinator, the social enterprise has worked with over 400 individuals since its launch in 2004. “We support up to 20 people per day, four days a week, and 12 people within our therapeutic community on a Friday,” she reveals. The results are so promising that there are currently plans in place to expand the organisation’s existing support capacity, allowing more people to benefit from engaging with the farm community. 

Training and employment opportunities

Farming sustainably is generally more labour intensive than its industrialised counterpart, providing both vocational training and employment opportunities. Working in these environments can offer valuable skills in agricultural production, horticulture and areas of sustainable development such as permaculture and regenerative agriculture. These are skills that are broadly transferable to related areas.

It’s little wonder, then, that a number of social enterprises have emerged that turn to sustainable farming as a means to provide vulnerable groups with the skills, experience and qualifications they need to find work in a competitive market place.

Cultivate London was founded in 2010 with three aims: to convert derelict urban spaces into vibrant urban gardens; to supply the local area with fresh, organic food; and, importantly, to provide training and job opportunities to young people aged between 16-24, who are more than three times as likely to be unemployed than the rest of the population. Since then, the enterprise has gone from success to success. In 2012 it was named ‘Producer of the Year’ by the Observer Food Monthly, and today the business offers a wide range of edible and ornamental plants, as well as a landscaping service.

Similarly, The Severn Project is another social enterprise using sustainable farming as a means to boost employability. It works with individuals who face significant barriers to entering the workplace, such as those with offending backgrounds, substance abuse disorders or mental health issues.

Steve Glover, the project’s founder, feels that individuals who work with The Severn Project also benefit from, “an understanding of how empowering it is to be part of a local food chain and consequently a useful member of the community, and that it is possible to make money from growing food.”

Building resilience

While many social projects work with a specific goal in mind – such as moving a long-term unemployed person into employment – building resilience is a more holistic, long-term objective. Rather than aiming to ‘fix’ a specific problem, increasing resilience is being advocated as a long-term, cost-effective solution to many social challenges – a kind of ‘inoculation’ against future hardships. 

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The Grange in Norfolk is a space of sanctuary and peace for vulnerable individuals, particularly those who have survived torture, violence and persecution. The social enterprise is a family home, smallholding and permaculture demonstration site all in one. “The initial idea was quite vague. We knew we wanted to offer a safe, welcoming home for survivors of torture and other people living on the margins of society,” recalls Ben Margolis, The Grange’s founder and co-director. “What it has become is an amazing experiment in resilience really – not only the resilience of the individual, but also the resilience of our ecosystems, and the resilience of our society, community and culture.”

Many of The Grange’s visitors grew up living off the land, yet now find themselves transplanted into cities. Returning to the rhythms of nature is, for many asylum seekers and refugees, an extremely therapeutic experience. One that has been shown to have a positive healing effect on survivors of torture and trauma. For Margolis this makes sense, given that permaculture is a holistic approach dedicated to creating landscapes that can feed all of a community’s needs – not just physically, but also emotionally and spiritually.

Margolis is also keen to emphasise the reciprocal nature of the relationship The Grange has with its visitors. “Many of our visitors grew up living ‘permaculture’ lifestyles and have so much to teach us,” he explains. “For some, the idea that they have things to offer – rather than just being the recipient of charity and help – is a massive breakthrough in their confidence.”

Reaching more people

So what’s stopping projects such as these from becoming more widespread? When asked, the answer from the people running these projects was unanimous – funding.

“There are lots of amazing projects around the UK where people are opening up their homes, gardens and projects to marginalised groups,” Margolis states. “I think we need to work together to develop a funding model that isn’t reliant on grants which take a lot of time and are always precarious.”

Chapman from Growing Well agrees, “The desire to support is out there, but we are almost entirely dependent on charitable giving. If the situation were turned on its head, and there was a budget allocated by health services, the third sector would provide services.”

But what social enterprises engaged in sustainable farming are fast proving is that they can bring a high return on investment for the authorities who commission them.

In one study, supported by mental health charity Mind, it was found that introducing just five people with mental health problems to these ‘eco therapies’ saved the state an average of £35,000 annually in healthcare costs and income support. Similarly, in Lincolnshire, The Master Gardener Programme, which teaches people in deprived areas how to grow their own food at home, found that an investment of just £1 generated social, economic and environmental benefits averaging £10.70.

A positive future step would be a change in policy and funding models to reflect this fact, allowing organisations such as The Severn Project, Growing Well and The Grange to thrive and disseminate their learning to wider networks. Until this occurs however, the myriad benefits of social enterprises engaged with sustainable farming and growing will sadly remain out of reach to many of our most vulnerable citizens.

Photographs: Nate Steiner and Ben Margolis ©

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