What surprised a Polish researcher about Dutch care farms

By Ilona Matysiak, visiting guest of the Maria Grzegorzewska University in Warsaw, Poland

The idea is quite simple: to combine agricultural production with health and social services provided to people with different types of disabilities. However, it’s really hard to imagine or understand a care farm if you have never seen such a thing. One of the most important goals of my four-week research stay at the University of Wageningen was to unburden my imagination and see them for real.

I managed to visit three care farms this winter: De Hoge Born located next to the University Campus and two more distant ones – ‘t Paradijs close to Barneveld and Hoeve Klein Mariëndaal in the natural reserve at the outskirts of Arnhem. “I don’t have the proper shoes for wandering on farms”, I thought before setting off. I left my trekking boots in Poland. The leather shoes which I wore, might not survive this trip. To my surprise, I was completely wrong about it. I was surprised also by several other things.

First of all, I was amazed at how well organized these farms are. All of them have many clients: 50 people in De Hoge Born, 90 in Hoeve Klein Mariëndaal and 120 at ‘t Paradijs. Moreover, clients are grouped according to age and type of disability. For example, in ‘t Paradijs care recipients include elderly people with dementia – an especially vulnerable group that Dutch care farms opened up to only recently. In De Hoge Born there is a group of long-term unemployed. In Hoeve Klein Mariëndaal the clients include a group of youths with intellectual disabilities who are being trained in the maintenance of green spaces. Each group of clients has their own schedule, space and tasks to do, like taking care of vegetables or feeding animals.

Obviously, there is a great deal of human resource behind it. ‘t Paradijs employs 25 professionals, De Hoge Born – 5 and Hoeve Klein Mariëndaal – 12, mostly part-time. These employees include professional farmers, carers, occupational therapists, teachers and psychologists as well as administrative staff. Apart from that, there are also groups of volunteers supporting the farms and activities provided – from 10 people in De Hoge Born to around 40 in ‘t Paradijs. I used to imagine a farming family as the essential workforce engaged in agriculture and care provision on the farm, maybe supported by a few employees and volunteers. Reality turned out to be far from it. The founders of the care farms were in fact managers coordinating an organization, not farmers in the traditional sense.

While observing these well-organized care farms, I wondered whether there was still room for flexibility, e.g. changing the day care schedule according to family caregivers’ needs. What about including some new categories of clients into the system in the future? For example, what about seniors without dementia or other people not eligible for public funding but who could still benefit from being on a care farm? Would it be possible to broaden target groups of care farms by introducing funding sources for their services, other than public money?

Secondly, I was quite surprised that the care farms were much less like agricultural farms than I thought. They reminded me more of social enterprises and the role of farming itself seemed to differ in each of them. In the case of ‘t Paradijs, an ecological farm of 25 ha, agricultural production is a source of 30% of the farm’s income. Vegetables, fruits, eggs, meat and other products of ‘t Paradijs are sold on the farm, in shops, restaurants and street markets in nearby towns. Agriculture is also a source of meaningful jobs (e.g. feeding animals, cleaning eggs, packing meat) for clients who feel more important and useful when participating in the production process. In contrast, Hoeve Klein Mariëndaal resembles a set of small vegetable gardens scattered on the area of 2.5 ha and collectively managed by clients. It seems that farming activities are basically the tool of care provision. The animals present on the farm include a few cows, ships, horses and hens, but they are not a part of a production process. It seems that their primary role is to create a “rural” landscape and atmosphere. De Hoge Born, with 2 ha of cultivated land and the production of eggs, seems to be somewhere in between the other two care farms. I wondered to what extent these care farms are still part of the of agricultural sector.

Thirdly, I was really amazed that care farms in the Netherlands are so deeply rooted in almost “utopian” ideas of living communities based on specific systems of values. For example, De Hoge Born is clearly anthroposophic. The founders of ‘t Paradijs, IJsbrand Snoeij and his wife Caroline, are strongly motivated by their Christian faith, seeing their farm as a way to make the world a slightly better place.

Last but not least, it was a nice surprise that my shoes not only survived my trip, but also didn’t need any cleaning. In each farm, open spaces were arranged in a rustic and cosy way, they were clean and well taken care of. Not that I was expecting the second Woodstock, but no mud in the farm’s courtyard?

Will it be possible to start care farming in Poland? Our farmers are rather poorly organized and there is no political will, so far, to include new types of providers in the Polish healthcare system. We also lack a strong ideological base for such initiatives and people are not so keen to volunteer. Also, there is usually at least some mud in the courtyards of Polish farms. Nevertheless, despite all of this, there are some local activists, public officials and farmers who are not afraid to experiment and are bringing care farming to Poland. Initially, this is only a few small-scale local projects. Time will tell whether they will succeed.


I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Bettina Bock who kindly agreed to host me during my research stay at the University in Wageningen, to Robin Asquith from the Camphill Village Trust who allowed me to join him during the study visit in De Hoge Born and ‘t Paradijs, and to Jan Hassink who invited me to visit his care farm Hoeve Klein Mariëndaal.