In October 2016, I was invited by South Korea Rural Development Administration (RDA) and Dr Jan Hassink, care farmer and researcher at Wageningen University, Netherlands, to spend some time sharing care farming practices in South Korea.
‘Hurry, hurry’! is the South Korean motto. When they decide on something, they do it fast: get up to leave a restaurant and they’re gone before you can check whether you’ve forgotten your chopsticks. Relocate a government agency from Seoul to the provinces and new residential tower blocks sprout up in weeks. The same purposefulness is brought to exploring care farming, but before going full-steam ahead, the RDA is investigating its potential value and benefits. They want irrefutable scientific evidence that care farming works.
What are they looking for? Trials are set up to measure changes in the constituents of blood samples before and after a care farming intervention. Researchers measure brain activity by attaching an electroencephalogram to a volunteer whilst he or she sits alone in a room planting seeds into trays, following instructions on the wall.
They seek data in stark contrast to the evidence and instinctive ‘knowing’ on the benefits of care farming that we in Europe already possess. How can you measure affects and effects out of a social context - in a room, isolated in a high rise government building without windows? The requirement for controlled, scientific results comes from using a simplified model. Despite good intentions and a large investment of resources into the first stages of care farming, Korean researchers seem reluctant to shift to a more holistic model.
There are strong contradictions in Korean society - an immensely strong sense of community and social relationships, referring to themselves as an ‘Us’ culture and western culture as ‘I’. Conversely, there is enormous pressure on individuals to excel, gain qualifications and promotion within the uncompromising hierarchy of their workplace. A similar contradiction affects their attitude to care farming: the social outcomes care farming can deliver are attractive, yet – frustratingly for them - cannot be evidenced by a simple theory.
Korea has the highest level of suicide in young adults across the world and increasingly high levels of suicide in older people. Care Farming is being explored as a means to alleviate mental health problems, particularly depression. Young people are isolated: they want to embrace western culture, be individual and independent yet are under huge pressure to have a prestigious job, gain qualifications and even to have been born in the ‘right’ province. Older people are lonely too with the dissipation of the traditional extended family. In rural provinces where tiny, 1.25-hectare farm are cheek by jowl, farmers do not see others for days on end and use pesticides and insecticides to end their lives.
I visited small farms with just a few polytunnels for the growing of vegetables for kimchi (fermented vegetables eaten at every meal) where enthusiastic people are not waiting for the results of reductionist experiments to prove the value of care farming but are going ahead with evolving their new offshoot business. As anywhere in the world, farmers have to counter complaints that they are using cheap labour and struggle to counter prejudice that people with disabilities are frightening and in some way ‘possessed’.
Development in Korea is like care farming throughout the world - a ground-level up movement, led by passionate, inspirational and energetic people who care and are active, hands-on doers who make big differences to individuals. Determined to grow care farming, they work collaboratively with other disciplines. In the province of Suwon, an inspiring Centre for Suicide Prevention, based on a care farm (the only one I saw with animals),where educational, research and counselling professionals work together to help people at risk, suicide attempters and the bereaved. It was a moving experience - so many came to the symposium because they want to learn and make a difference. They believe that ‘Human is Hope. Love is the answer’ and that Care Farming is the way forward.
South Korea is a rapidly developing country; it will be fascinating to observe the progression of care farming over the next few years. I believe that, even with no government financial support, dynamic individuals will make care farming happen and it will gradually evolve as it has in the UK. However, if researchers chose a new paradigm for evidencing the benefits of care farming, care farming will grow exponentially under the backing of government ministries. There has already been a 3-year investment into working collaboratively with the Netherlands and now the U.K. - a significant outlay on which to speculate.
Dr An, an energetic and leading psychiatrist and care farmer in Korea, will be staying at Magdalen Farm in February 2017 with two of his students, to learn how he can introduce our practices in his homeland. We greatly look forward to reciprocating the very generous and attentive hospitality that was given to me on my intense and enlightening visit to South Korea.
Rebecca King, Learning and Wellbeing Manager, Magdalen Environmental Trust, and Trustee/Director, Care Farming UK.
Thanks for support from Care Farming UK and Magdalen Environmental Trust.