Multifunctional farming (an umbrella term to indicate a combination of agriculture and services to society, wur.nl) has been a research subject for the Rural Sociology Group for decades, as multifunctionality is one of the diversification strategies employed by farming to sustain their farms and connect with various groups in society such as consumers or tourists. The first multifunctional activities were nature conservation, agritourism/recreation, care farming, farm shops/short chains, farm education and agricultural day care. These activities, however, are subject to constant change. This leads to new research topics and new collaborations for the Rural Sociology Group.
One such new activity is education at the care farm: developed out of care farming it combines care with educational services for children for whom a regular or special school is (temporarily) not a great fit. Hence, the difference with ‘farm education’ as one of the first multifunctional activities – simply put: school classes visiting the farm for one or more lectures – is that it concerns children who do not go to school, and who also need care. Currently around fifty Dutch care farms offer such educational services. These farms are facing similar struggles as once the care farming sector did.
The Netherlands is one of the pioneering countries when it comes to care farming: the sector is well-developed with regional and national collaboration structures of care farmers. However, the pioneers who developed the sector faced major challenges in their attempts to collaborate with the care sector, such as lacking legitimacy and having limited access to care sector budgets. In a recently finished project on care farmers offering education, we identified similar challenges: difficulties with financing, a lack of recognition and hindering regulations (e.g. education is only allowed to be provided at formal education locations, and policies draw a clear distinction between care and education). These difficulties are a pity, because for several children these farms are of great value.
This week I finished analyzing interviews with children, parents, teachers and farmers, conducted by two MSc students who took part in our project. One of the aims of this project was to understand what education at the farm means for children. The interviews highlight that one of the most important features of education at the farm is the space offered. ‘Space’ should be seen in a literal sense – the green environment surrounding the farm with little distractions – but also figuratively: children receive education in small groups with ample attention for their personal situation and learning goals. This means that children can walk away when they get upset, that they can go and walk the dogs when they need to clear their heads, and that education is tailored as much as possible to their individual needs. Space to be oneself, animals to get comforted by, the option to make mistakes: it creates a feeling of ‘rest’ (relaxation, ease). Problematic behavior decreases and children enjoy learning again. As a result, after a period ranging from a few months to two years, several children return to school.
The creation of new multifunctional activities – and overcoming the hurdles associated with forming a new sector – shows the versatility of the Dutch agricultural sector, and the continuous development of multifunctional farming, proactively responding to new demands from society. Studying the expanding diversity of multifunctional activities within agriculture is facilitated by (and requires) cooperation between Rural Sociology and other chair groups, as such interdisciplinary collaboration enables an integration of knowledge about farming, wellbeing and education. Indeed, the project described above was a collaboration with Health and Society, but we also worked together with Education and Learning Sciences, as well as with Wageningen Plant Research. Such collaborative efforts are not as such new, of course, but on some topics chair groups are leaning more towards each other. This means that we can approach similar topics from different disciplinary viewpoints, painting a richer picture and increasing our understanding of the Dutch farming sector.
Hassink, J., Veen, E. J., Pijpker, R., De Bruin, S. R., van der Meulen, H. A., & Plug, L. B. (2020). The Care Farming Sector in The Netherlands: A Reflection on Its Developments and Promising Innovations. Sustainability, 12(9), 3811.