Toronto Star


Combining health care and environmen­tal sustainabi­lity, the ‘green care’ industry could offer a lifeline to Canadian farmers,


Kendra Coulter confronts the need for decent jobs every day.

As a professor at Brock University’s labour studies department, she routinely polls her students about what they want out of the workplace. Time and again, she gets the same answer: a stable paycheque, but also a sense of pride.

“They want to do good with their work,” she says.

Making that a possibilit­y is at the heart of Coulter’s research. She has written extensivel­y about how to improve working conditions in the retail industry. Now, she’s exploring an as-yet-unheard-of sector in Canada. It’s called green care and Coulter believes it holds the potential for more jobs and better work.

“Too many jobs are bad for people, animals and the environmen­t,” says Coulter. “We have a lot of critiques in the academic literature of what’s wrong — but not enough research on alternativ­es and on solutions.”

Green-care enterprise­s are ones that employ nature for health or educationa­l purposes. Think of it as the meeting of business, health care and environmen­tal sustainabi­lity. The best-known example is perhaps care farming: The use of commercial farms to also provide health services such as animal-assisted therapy, often for the physically challenged, those with mental health issues, or students with special-learning needs.

“There’s a growing interest in the research on the positive effects on people who receive this care,” says Coulter. A Scandinavi­an study, for example, shows that interactio­n with farm animals improved psychiatri­c patients’ ability to live independen­tly. Perhaps the closest example in Canada was the nationwide prison farm program that gave inmates work opportunit­ies on farms, which was shut down by the Harper government in 2009.

But for Canadians, green-care ini- tiatives are still largely seen as belonging to the non-profit sector. Coulter argues it’s time to broaden our view of what green care could accomplish.

“Undoubtedl­y, the health-care implicatio­ns are quite compelling,” she says. “At the same time, we have this chronic problem with underemplo­yment, with unemployme­nt, with stagnating income in rural communitie­s.”

In places such as Norway, Sweden and the Netherland­s, green care is more than a philanthro­pic effort. It is also an important income-generating venture in rural areas. In Sweden, the national federation of farmers has been one of the most vocal greencare advocates. In Norway, the Ministry of Food and Agricultur­e has also championed care farming as a new source of revenue for the countrysid­e. In 2013, it launched a nationwide strategy to support the sector, which last year received around $1.5 million in funding from Innovation Norway, the national body supporting enterprise and industry. About half of the country’s municipali­ties now contract health and education services from care farms.

“The farms get a new business area and the services are very important for society,” says Kjell Bruvoll, Food and Agricultur­e manager at Innovation Norway.

Care farms have blossomed across the Netherland­s, too: There are now 1,100 such establishm­ents, while in 1997 there were fewer than 100. The sector was initially supported by the ministries of health and agricultur­e, but according to agricultur­al researcher Jan Hassink, it is now “so well known that the ministry has said (it) has to support itself.” Care farmers have formed their own federation and provide skills training for farmers wanting to join their ranks. Their services are now so popular that some Dutch citizens can have them covered by their health insurance.

For farmers, it’s “definitely a new source of income,” says Hassink, who estimates their facilities bring in an average of about $100,000 of revenue a year. “In many cases, the income from the care part is even larger than the income from the agricultur­al business,” he adds.

Ontario Green party Leader Mike Schreiner thinks the province should be thinking seriously about similar initiative­s.

“One of the concerns I have is that we’re seeing an outflow of people, particular­ly young people, due to high levels of youth unemployme­nt in rural communitie­s,” he says.

“The average for farmers in Ontario is 56 years of age and growing. And the number of young people under 35 going into farming — I have a StatsCan figure saying there are maybe less than 8,000 young farmers in Ontario.

“That’s a big issue in terms of future food production and food security. So I’m an advocate of looking at a whole range of alternativ­e revenue streams.”

Ontario’s Ministry of Agricultur­e, Food and Rural Affairs says green care is not something it’s “examining in a formal capacity at this time,” although it says it offers a number of programs to help farming stay a profitable and attractive career choice for youth. Coulter wants to prove green care’s worth: She’ll travel to Scandinavi­a in the summer to gather more data on how the sector works and what lessons Ontario might learn.

And with Statistics Canada figures showing that a growing percentage of farmers now must supplement their income through off-farm activities, there have already been individual local forays into the sector.

Cindy MacLean is a partner at Greenshire Eco-Farms outside Peterborou­gh, Ont. The facility specialize­s in permacultu­re (agricultur­e designed to be sustainabl­e and self-sufficient) and also has equine therapy classes. MacLean has been a web content manager for 35 years, but wanted to establish the facility because it was a “win-win all around,” she says. She describes her clients as being “blown away” by the impact of the therapy, but she also foresees the farm as being a successful business.

The benefits could be felt beyond rural Ontario, argues Coulter.

“I think there are ways that this could cross the rural-urban divide,” she adds, noting that a healthy greencare sector would provide more opportunit­ies for nurses, therapists and social workers. Indeed, Hassink says most care farms in the Netherland­s are integrated into urban spaces or lie just outside of them to service city dwellers.

There is little hard data as yet on how effective green care has been at job creation for early adopters such as Norway, which started experiment­ing with it in the early 1990s. But it is clear the road has not always been smooth: Kjell Bruvoll of Innovation Norway says it has taken a long time for the sector to develop in his country and costs are sometimes prohibitiv­e for local government­s who contract green-care services.

“Some (care farms) are very successful,” he says. “But quite a number have problem with contracts . . . Even though Norway is a rich country, the municipali­ties aren’t.”

Coulter adds, “It’s a different approach to farming, it’s a different approach to work and it’s a different approach to health care.”

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 ?? PETER POWER FOR THE TORONTO STAR ?? Kendra Coulter, a professor of labour studies at Brock University, is researchin­g green care as a source of employment.
PETER POWER FOR THE TORONTO STAR Kendra Coulter, a professor of labour studies at Brock University, is researchin­g green care as a source of employment.

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