Therapeutic farming on the road to recovery

by Trina McDonald

On a sunny midsummer Sunday, people stream in and out of the courtyard of Our Place, a community centre and shelter on Pandora Avenue in downtown Victoria. Individuals representing an array of genders, ages, skin colours, and fashion styles mingle amidst a sea of personal belongings contained in garbage bags, suitcases, and backpacks, piled high atop shopping carts, bikes, and trolleys.

Some stand in small groups and pairs, one strolls along the sidewalk singing, and another spouts a soliloquy. A police cruiser eases down the no-thru road between the boulevard and the sidewalk. Another two cops stroll the sidewalk, stopping in front of a makeshift room formed from shopping carts pushed together, their contents roped down under blue tarps. The cops say a few words to the people sitting inside the room on camping chairs, while “Over the Rainbow” streams from a Bluetooth speaker. On the boulevard, people gather on the grass near a strip of newly laid sod, the remnant of raised garden boxes that languished there for nearly three years before being recently removed.

Inside, a receptionist named Thomas, a good-hearted and easygoing man who appears to be about mid-40s, explains that the boxes were removed because instead of thriving gardens, they grew collections of cans, bottles, and cigarette butts. “They took them somewhere they will get used the way they were meant to,” he says. We don’t discuss the reasons the garden boxes failed to thrive. (Perhaps because it’s obvious: the folks outside have more pressing concerns than tending a garden.) Instead, we skip straight to discussing the initiative’s merits.

As we speak of the benefits of therapeutic gardens, we are joined by Benoit, a bouncy father of twin girls who identifies himself as a social worker and staff member. He is enthusiastic about the inherent value of growing things and believes that giving people plants to care for during recovery is “brilliant.” “It builds self esteem,” says Benoit, “and gives a person the energy they need to go on.” Thomas, who has gone through recovery, adds that gardens provide a good distraction, someplace to put your mind when you are going through a lot.

A 2010 study done by the Mental Health Commission of Canada reports that one in five Canadians experience a mental health issue or illness every year. According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), people with mental illness are twice as likely to experience a substance-use problem and 20 percent of people with a mental illness also experience a substance-use issue. The cost to Canada for each of those years in health care, social services, and income support is $50 billion, around three percent of the 2011 gross domestic product. In the years since the Mental Health Commission study, substance use has reached crisis levels, with a skyrocketing number of deaths due to opioids.

Ultimately, a few garden boxes are not going to solve these issues, but neither, it seems, are traditional treatment methods. Dr. Michael Young, director of the school of humanitarian studies at Royal Roads University, believes that success rates of traditional rehabilitation approaches such as 12-step and abstinence-based programs are quite low—around five to 10 percent. He cites scientific articles debunking the 12-step approach and credits the European Federation of Therapeutic Communities as the source of his belief, but he says it is difficult to get hard data on success rates due to confidentiality concerns and the fact that B.C. does not collect data on how people fair after treatment.

While evidence-backed treatment options exist, people experiencing substance use and mental health issues in B.C. may not be able to access them. Both the Island Health and CMHA report a “treatment gap,” where a majority of resources go to treat the minority of people in need—those experiencing severe crisis. In response to the B.C. government’s 2018 budget, Bev Gutray, CEO of CMHA BC, called for early interventions. “If we want to build a mental health and addiction system that people can count on, we need to move away from relying on police, corrections, and emergency rooms as the main entry point to services,”she said. “B.C. must make firm commitments to build a system that supports people to seek out and receive high-quality supports earlier on, before they are in a mental health crisis.”

Recovery-focused farming initiatives are popping up around the world as people look for evidence-based alternatives. The garden boxes in front of Our Place lacked enough forethought, but they contained the seed of an idea. Farming and gardening programs–if they are thought out and well resourced–can support people in recovery and provide an alternative to homelessness and incarceration.

Like conventional treatment facilities, there is no one-size-fits-all formula. On southern Vancouver Island, a number of therapeutic farming initiatives, in drop-in and residential formats, have come and gone over the years. Current programs include Feeding Ourselves and Others at the Serenity Farm in Saanich and the Hope Farm Healing Centre, run by the Mustard Seed, and Providence Farm in the Cowichan Valley. Probably the most well-known local project, due to the widespread support it received when it opened in 2009 as well as the criticism and barriers that preceded its closing this past December, is the Creating Homefulness Society at the historic Woodwynn Farms in Central Saanich.

Creating Homefulness was modeled after San Patrignano, a residential recovery centre in the hills of northern Italy. San Patrignano has a 40-year track record of rehabilitating residents and is often held up as proof that therapeutic farming programs work. While Creating Homefulness was unable to replicate San Patrignano’s success, the province of B.C., through BC Housing, stepped in to purchase the Woodwynn property for $6.9 million this July. The province intends to keep providing therapeutic farming opportunities for people experiencing mental-health and substance-use issues as well as those living in supportive housing, while hopefully avoiding the hazards of by the previous program at Woodwynn.

Photos: Sarah Hughes

THE TROUBLE WITH PARADISE

From West Saanich Road, you can look across lush fields of grass where a forest of cedars and Garry oaks once stood and see one of the first buildings erected by settlers in the area—a large white dairy barn built in 1887 by William Thompson. The 196-acre parcel of land, now known as Woodwynn Farms, was occupied for thousands of years by the W̱SÁNEĆ people before the signing of the Douglas Treaties in the 1850s. The farm passed through several owners before being purchased by the Creating Homefulness Society in 2009.

Richard Leblanc, founder and former executive director of Creating Homefulness, says his original vision wasn’t about a farm or that farm specifically. “It was about creating a successful recovery model,” he says. Leblanc, an entrepreneur in his early working life, sold his business in the 90s to run a youth employment program from 1998 to 2001. Greyed hair and a beard frame his smiling eyes, and though he has been in social work for years, he still has the no-nonsense business style of dressing sharp and talking fast. The youth program was Leblanc’s first experience working with a high-risk group. When he discovered the therapeutic community model, he believed he’d found a way to help.

San Patrignano’s oft-cited 70 percent success rate is both dated and debated, but the hype and the hope keeps international visitors, including Virgin mogul Richard Branson, from flocking to Italy to learn the secrets and sing the praises of San Patrignano far and wide. “We take them seriously, to say the least,” says Leblanc.

Leblanc’s study of San Patrignano led him to believe that certain elements–distance from the inner city, space for housing, vocational training, processing food, social entrepreneurship, and community activities–had to be in place to make the program successful. Leblanc still believes this. “The land, the location, and the structures on Woodwynn Farms offer the highest long-term potential to mirror San Patrignano’s success rate,” he says.

Not all of the neighbours agreed with Leblanc and his supporters about the location’s suitability. “A harsh reality is that homelessness, addictions, and mental health are just a mountain of stigma, a mountain of judgement, a mountain of discomfort,” says Leblanc. “Not in My Backyard” was a common sentiment Leblanc faced, especially in the beginning. “Underlying the NIMBY is ‘Oh my god, they are bringing scary people into my neighbourhood.’”

In over eight years, Leblanc says the project in Central Saanich didn’t create the “havoc they feared and suspected” and won over many neighbours, including several who volunteered or shopped at the farmers’ market. But it wasn’t enough. “We did not win over all of the neighbours, and we did not win over enough people on the political front,” he says. “They influenced the politics, they influenced bureaucracy, they influenced the permit process.”

Alicia Holman has been on the Central Saanich council since 2013 and was involved as a private citizen in the public process overseeing Woodwynn beforehand. She does not want to discuss how “NYMBY-ism” played a role in influencing the politics. Holman says there has been a history with Woodwynn of “finger-pointing and fighting” and that citizens are allowed to be concerned if the social contract regarding the use of land is being breached. “We should be embracing, as part of our democratic process, my right to be respected in challenging that,” she says.

Leblanc admits he “pushed the envelope” when it came to breaking bylaws and operating without permits in order to demonstrate how limitations put on Woodwynn were based on unfounded fears. According to Holman, the farm infringed on building code bylaws by operating a public market in the historic barn without a building inspection and permit. However, the main role council played was in overseeing the only formal request that came to their table regarding the project, an appeal to put more housing on the land.

The dozen RVs donated to the project, which could have housed two people each, mostly remained empty as Central Saanich bylaws only allowed for four people to live on the land. “All we were asking for was temporary housing, temporary structures, a slow three-year build up of people, a temporary use permit, not a full rezoning of everything. Everything was temporary, temporary, temporary,” insists Leblanc.

Councillor Holman says the project did not show adequate records of their production—“as in what was being grown, what was being consumed, and what was being sold at market”—to justify approval of the requested housing. The Woodwynn Farms land is classified as A1. “The best soil to farm on we have in B.C.,” says Holman. She would like to see it being farmed to its full potential.

Creating Homefulness was running with only a small handful of people when it closed last year. From the beginning, the plan was to slowly build the numbers up to a maximum of about 90 people. Without adequate numbers, it was difficult to provide the necessary sense of community for the therapeutic value, and, in a Catch-22 scenario, there were not yet enough hands to operate the size of farming operation needed to request the expansion.

Central Saanich council referred the issue to the Agricultural Land Commission, the judicial body for ALR decisions. Leblanc says the commission was “bizarrely unyielding.” The decision took over three years to make and the final answer was “no.”

“They have bent the rules in other areas, like you know there are pipelines going through farmland,” says Leblanc. “How many thousand acres are coming out of farmland for the Site C Dam? In Sidney, 10 or 12 acres are being paved over for a shopping mall. The list is endless, but when it comes to helping people, oh my god, they hold true to the letter of the regulations.”

According to Councillor Holman, the request made by the Woodwynn project was judged “by the same test they would hold any of the land owners of agricultural land in the district.”

Without permission to house people properly, the Creating Homefulness project could not fulfill its mission and the group of philanthropists who loaned the money to purchase Woodwynn Farms risked foreclosure. The lenders finally said, “Enough is enough,” explains Leblanc. The remaining three participants were evicted in December and the property was put up for sale.

Despite closing the doors on a project that Leblanc spent so many years and so much energy on, he is not completely deterred. “I am certainly burnt out to some degree and discouraged in some ways but undaunted,” he says. “When I sit down and take a deep breath, I certainly want to find a way to make this or something like this happen again.”

FINDING SERENITY AT SEVEN OAKS

Just south of Woodwynn in the District of Saanich, among the apple, fig, and Garry oak trees that thrive in the fertile Blenkinsop Valley, David Stott says he faced similar fears to what Leblanc described when he started the Feeding Ourselves and Others program at Serenity Farm four years ago. The lush gardens are located on trich, south-facing agricultural land on the grounds of Seven Oaks, a residential treatment facility for people with severe mental-health issues run by Island Health.

The land lay fallow before Stott, retired provincial court judge Ernie Quantz, and his wife, Ardelle Quantz, a master gardener, came together to start a garden that would serve people with addictions and mental-health issues and people involved with the court system. The group teamed up with the John Howard Society–a social service agency whose wide-ranging services include restorative justice programs, mentorship, employment, and housing initiatives–which acts as an umbrella organization for the project. Island Health agreed to let the program use the Seven Oaks site in exchange for teaching gardening to some of their residents once each week but held some reservations.

“The concern that Island Health had was [that] it was okay for us to be there, but they didn’t want the neighbours complaining about people walking on the road because they didn’t know who these people were,” says Stott. “People were afraid of them.” According to Dave Johnson, the project coordinator and recently retired executive director of the John Howard Society, there have been no complaints from the neighbours that he knows of, just curiosity and approval that the land is being farmed. But Stott admits he also didn’t know what he was going to encounter when he first started.

The scene on a flawless summer morning is of volunteers and participants greeting each other and doing pre-work stretches before spreading out in small groups to clean garlic, plant peas, or do some weeding. The sound of brushes scraping garlic bulbs mingles with the bleating of sheep next door, and despite the hum of construction in the distance, the work atmosphere is relaxed. Here, in the garden, one might easily overlook the fact that participants are mainly connected to the program through the Assertive Community Treatment (ACT), the Victoria Integrated Community Outreach Team, and the Victoria Integrated Courts. These teams work with Victoria’s most vulnerable people, those deemed to have “serious mental illnesses and significant functional impairments.” But Stott says, “We hardly ever have any problems there with people. You know, the biggest problem we have sometimes is that people don’t want to work.”

The program runs from about 11 in the morning until two each afternoon. The work is not a problem for Susan Patterson, who was referred to the program by ACT four years ago and wishes the day were even longer. “Getting out of the city and into the soil, working with the volunteers who are so wonderful, and harvesting the vegetables and everything—it’s just so life giving,” she says.

Participants who come through the courts earn credit for work hours that can be applied to court-ordered community service or probation orders. All participants who come occasionally receive $10, and those who come regularly—at least once per week for an entire session—receive $15. Patterson says she also gets as many organic vegetables as she likes—“which is fabulous!”

Despite the pay, Serenity Farm is not a job. “It’s a nice little perk,” Stott says, adding that participants don’t get the stipend if they don’t work, which deters people from coming to just hang out.

Gardening is all the “therapy” the therapeutic gardening program offers. This is enough for Patterson. “It’s helped a lot with anxiety,” she says. While the team at Woodwynn Farms was a mix of social workers, support people, and farmers, the volunteers and staff member at Serenity Farm are not social workers. Support workers who bus out with participants are there to intervene if someone is having a rough day. Everyone else is there to get their hands dirty.

“We are there to provide them a good gardening experience and to work with them, and we are all there to learn,” says Stott. He introduced a teaching initiative in which the participants and volunteers take turns giving a 10-minute presentation to the rest of the group over lunch. Topics he has suggested range from “What is soil?” to “What does bringing your best self to this project mean?”

MODELLING SUCCESS

The program has grown slowly and organically. Stott has a background in international development and founded the non-profit organization VIDEA (Victoria International Development Education Association) before going on to be an organic farmer. He also helped to start nine community gardens in neighbourhoods across Victoria, most of which were intended for people on social assistance or employment insurance. But he had never created a therapeutic gardening program before and struggled to find local models. The only other farming program he came across that worked with similar populations was Sole Foods in Vancouver.

Amidst the skyscrapers and bustle of the big city, brilliant green rows of lettuce, arugula, and chives stand out from the concrete. Four empty city lots cover a total of five acres in Vancouver’s downtown core, making up what Sole Foods claims is “the largest urban farm project in North America.”

Michael Ableman, who also owns the historic 120-acre Foxglove farm on Salt Spring Island, co-founded Sole Foods in 2008. The aim was to provide meaningful jobs for people dealing with addictions and mental-health issues, primarily from the Downtown Eastside. The 25 to 30 employees now manage the annual production of over 20 tonnes of high-quality produce, which they sell through a CSA program, downtown markets, and to restaurants.

Ableman says the social enterprise brings in about $350,000 in revenue, which pays employee’s wages. They also raise an equal amount from donations to pay for social programs for employees, such as a breakfast program and life-skills classes in things like cooking or driving. But he says the real success is harder to measure than pure economics. When asked whether he thinks there are therapeutic benefits to the jobs Sole Foods provides, he says, “All farming is therapeutic. All farming is for recovery. Recovery for the land and for the individuals classified as having issues. That’s why I farm. It’s good for my mental health.”

David Stott recalls asking Ableman for guidance on how to create a therapeutic farming program. Ableman was supportive of the idea but pointed out key differences: Sole Foods is an urban agriculture business, whereas Feeding Ourselves and Others is a drop-in therapeutic program. However, the conversation with Ableman inspired Stott to sell some of the produce from Serenity Farm.

The rich soil at Seven Oaks provided a surplus of food in its first year, so they expanded the gardens from 6,000 square feet to just over 14,000 in 2014 and began selling produce at a farm stand on Blenkinsop Road. This brought a small amount of income to the project, which Stott says has never run with more than a $50,000 annual budget. About 15 percent of the project’s budget now comes from the cash sales of their produce. The rest comes from donors.

Despite a lack of early guidance, the program at Serenity Farm has fared pretty well. Participation increased from just a few people the first year to as many as 15 regular participants. Feedback in the annual yearbook ranges from “I loved and met some great people!” to “Yes, I can’t complain. It gave me something to do and I got paid.” Despite these successes, Stott explains that the program is limited to two days per week, due to a lack of money and staff.

In the beginning, there was a lot of support from big funders like the United Way and Victoria Foundation. But that has changed. “It’s starting to become more difficult to access that funding,” says Stott, “because most funders will say after a few years that you should be relying on the community now.” Donors often help projects get off the ground but expect them to find another stable source of funding, develop a partnership, or become self-sufficient. “It’s a great line. It sounds great on paper but it’s difficult to do year after year,” he admits.

The team did a community outreach campaign a couple of years ago and plan to do it again this year to connect with potential new sources of funding and support, such as from the business community. In the meantime, Stott continues to work on the project past retirement as an unpaid volunteer. He doesn’t seem to mind. “It’s the best project I’ve ever been on,” he says.

While Richard Leblanc understands the importance of financial support, like Stott, money was not what drove him to work so hard, for so long, on the Creating Homefulness project. Before the focus became land permits and political processes, it was on providing an alternative to conventional treatments for mental-health and substance-use issues. Though on a much smaller scale than San Patrignano, and more slowly than Leblanc may have liked, many of the elements Leblanc deemed necessary to the operation’s success were happening at Woodwynn Farms.

In the eight years that the program operated, residents awoke at 5:45 a.m. amidst the gently rolling vista of fields, the farm’s heritage buildings, and the surrounding forest. They practiced yoga and ate in community—three meals per day, 365 days per year—before heading to work on one of the many farm projects underway at any given time. One of those projects was the Peace Garden. Between 2013 and 2015, artist Deryk Houston and many helpers turned almost of acre of the farm’s fields into a walking labyrinth, filled with lavender, sage, blueberry bushes, apple trees, and giant metal sculptures created by Houston.

A major factor in the success of such programs, stresses Leblanc and San Patrignano’s website, is the long-term nature of people’s stay. This gives the beauty of environment an important role. “Nobody in their right mind would go and stay in an institutional setting for three and a half years. Nobody in their right mind would live in a hospital or prison for three and a half years,” Leblanc emphasizes. “You have to be in or create an environment where a person would want to stay long-term.”

As stunning as the backdrop of the farm is, Leblanc says it took time and effort for the momentum and a community dynamic to unfold that would inspire people to stay longer. However, he says the last five people who lived on the farm before it was shut down stayed there an average of 21 months. “They were solid. They were grounded. They were clear-headed, clear minded, and physically healthy.”

THE TIDE TURNS

The momentum Creating Homefulness gained may have been lost when it shut down in December, although there is still a chance to revive it. Leblanc is not presently involved in Woodwynn Farms nor does he plan to be in the future, but his therapeutic farming vision lives on. BC Housing is the new landlord, and the corporation plans to work with Central Saanich and the Ministry of Health and Addictions to develop a long-term plan for operating the property and providing programming.

In an announcement released by the Ministry of Municipal Affairs and Housing, Judy Darcy, the minister of mental health and addictions, tipped her hat to Leblanc and Creating Homefulness, saying, “Providing people with a secure home, a supportive community and a sense of value is so important to the journey of recovery.”

According to Leblanc, this is a step forward for treatment options in B.C. “I’d say I was about 10 years ahead of the community’s learning curve.” When he began talking about the therapeutic farming project 12 years ago, the focus of social services was mainly harm reduction—things like safe injection. “The problems are much bigger today than when I started,” he says. However, he acknowledges that the tide is turning. “Awareness is shooting through the roof, and today, if you talk prevention and treatment, you get far warmer reception in the conversation.”

However, Leblanc’s vision of on-site housing will not be included in the new plan. BC Housing will abide by the ALC’s decision and work with clients from supportive housing projects across the CRD. Central Saanich councillor Alicia Holman is all for having another therapeutic farming program at the Woodwynn property. “I think there is opportunity to focus on collaboration and creativity to meet a variety of needs,” she says.

The province further indicated its commitment to this form of treatment by investing $4.7 million in a therapeutic community treatment centre run by the Our Place Society at the former youth detention centre in View Royal, which temporarily served as housing for residents of a former tent city. The province released a statement, again nodding to Leblanc, saying the abstinence-based recovery centre is being modeled after San Patrignano. Project director Dana Young says they’re still in the early phase of planning, and while farming is not a main focus, gardening will be one aspect of “work as therapy” in a large on-site greenhouse.

To an outsider, the crowd outside of Our Place can feel chaotic. By contrast, inside seems calm. Thomas’s position behind the desk, and the tags Benoit wears around his neck to distinguish him as a staff member, add to the air of officialdom. As Thomas describes the way a person can be built up through something as simple as caring for a plant, the path to helping people with addictions issues appears so simple. The simplicity is lost when Benoit speaks to the challenges involved in creating and sustaining these programs, calling the bureaucratic red tape, which Leblanc also lamented, “ridiculous.” As the speed of the crisis unfolding on the streets is met by the slow movement of revolving governments, his sentiment is easy to understand.

Yet the recent investments by the current provincial government are reasons to be optimistic. And there are successes and failures in the field of therapeutic farming to look to as officials go forward in making plans. Who knows, even the garden boxes that withered away outside Our Place might one day be filled with a harvest of ripe tomatoes and cucumbers—and a few seeds of hope for the future. ♦