Farm therapy merges nature and nurture
European “Care Farming” concept takes root on a Charles County farm
Story by Conni Leigh James and Priscilla Wentworth; photos by Conni Leigh James
Karen Malkin is a lawyer, specializing in program appeals and litigation. She’s also a Reiki master, and a teacher and coach specializing in cognitive energy therapy. But most importantly, she is a self-proclaimed “Care Farm Pioneer,” a job description that speaks to a facet of agriculture that is cutting-edge contemporary and, at the same time, very ancient.
“People are suffering from a real nature deficit in general,” said Malkin, who bought a run-down horse farm in 2014 with the intention of creating a destination farm where people would come to relax, interact with animals, heal and learn. “My interest in farming came from my love of animals,” said Malkin. ” I’ve always had this great affinity for animals. I’ve been saving money since I was a teenager to bring animals and people to interact together.”
For the past three years, Malkin has balanced her job as a Washington, D.C. lawyer with the demands of rehabbing the farm and stocking it with laying hens, goats, guineas, king pigeons, pigs, donkeys, a cow, a horse and various other rescued animals. On many evenings and weekends, she has made the long drive to this rural corner of Indian Head from her Silver Spring home, sometimes with a guinea hen or king pigeons in a cage in the back seat of her truck, escaping the pace of urban living for the brief respite that farm provided. She finds her time here rejuvenating, and she is betting that when the farm officially opens this fall, her visitors (many from the inside-the-beltway crowd) will too.
When she bought the property, 66 acres of woods and farmland on the Potomac side of Charles County, it came with overgrown fields, broken-down fencing, a farmhouse that was barely livable, and a stable that had once housed racehorses associated with the nearby Rosecroft Raceway. By mid-summer of 2017, much of the renovations are finished and most of the animals are in place.
She is hoping to have the soft-launch opening of Kaizen Parks Care Farm this fall. “Kaizen” is a Japanese term that strictly translates as “change for better” but is generally used to imply a philosophy of continuous improvement, or improvement of processes. And the concept of “care farms,” somewhat new to Southern Maryland, describes a farm where raising crops and livestock provide the setting for various healing therapies.
The Farm as Therapy. According to Care Farming UK, arguably the most comprehensive authority on the subject, “Care farms provide health, social or educational care services for individuals from vulnerable groups, including people with mental health problems, people suffering from mild to moderate depression, adults and children with learning disabilities, children with autism, those with a drug or alcohol addiction history, disaffected young people, adults and people on probation. These farms may also provide a supervised, structured program of farming-related activities, including animal husbandry (livestock, small animals, poultry), crop and vegetable production, woodland management etc.”
While people have known for centuries that exposure to nature could enhance mental, emotional and physical health, the idea of tailoring (and marketing) destination farms specifically for therapeutic purposes arose several decades ago in Europe, as that country struggled to diversify its farming in the wake of livestock epidemics and economic sanctions that forced farmers to expand into non-traditional agriculture endeavors. Care farms are fairly prevalent there now, and their healing properties have been so documented that many healthcare insurance policies in Europe provide coverage for therapeutic farm care.
But the idea is just starting to be recognized as a viable farming alternative in the Southern Maryland region, which is also diversifying its farming activities after the decline of tobacco ravaged the industry in the 80s and 90s. For example, Greenwell Foundation in St. Mary’s County provides therapeutic horseback riding for disabled veterans and handicapped children, and Farming 4 Hunger in Charles County trains incarcerated men as farm workers to grow food for families in need. Care farms are structured differently from “agritourism” farms, which typically provide ag-based educational and entertainment activities not specifically geared to be therapeutic.
In Malkin’s particular vision, the therapeutic benefits to Kaizen Park Farm visitors would come from several sources. “I plan to have all the animals on the farm currently available for visitors in different ways. We’ll be inviting small groups for activities; it will not be a petting zoo or open to the public, it would be by appointment only for events and classes.”
“I am a yoga instructor. I want to do yoga and meditation with the donkeys (I have three) and some of the other animals.” Malkin also has five mini-pigs, which she plans to incorporate into the therapy experience.
Malkin is willing to customize the farm experience for visitors’ needs. “We are open to having elderly people, kids and small groups come here for activities and classes and some focused, animal-assisted therapy. I want to help people overcome trauma and anxieties in the farm setting.”
But she will also offer courses, classes, services and workshops that simply make the most of the natural farm setting. “I would like to offer a retreat and art therapy piece to the farm. Yoga and cooking classes would be offered, and soap making, and art around animals. For example, I might offer classes in soap making using our goats’ milk.” In the newly renovated farmhouse, there are rooms designed for Reiki, meditation, yoga and more.
Building the Dream. At its heart, before the classes begin and the visitors arrive, Kaizen Care Farm Park is still a full blown working farm. It already produces eggs and herbs, specifically dried herbs for teas and spices.
Malkin is searching for a farm manager to help with some of the day-to-day farm chores, and she has enlisted help from other farmers and mentors as she finishes the remaining renovations and improvements. She is looking to hire additional help get the farm up and running, someone with interest and experience in agriculture and also social work. She is working to turn a large pasture into a hay field, hoping to perhaps sub-contract that task to a nearby farmer who’ll have the expensive equipment on hand.
Malkin also participated in SMADC’s Mentor Match Program through Maryland Farmlink. ” I worked with Jolanda Campbell, who is the executive director of Greenwell Foundation. She was definitely very helpful. She gave me great ideas on the equine side of the business,” said Malkin. Campbell also shared invaluable info on how to start up and run a non-profit, ag-related business.