Reaping what you sow
The therapeutic benefits of agriculture for youth. 

By Amy Stein
First published in The Natural Farmer, Spring 2005

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June 16, 2005: One afternoon during my internship at an alternative school for at-risk adolescents, I was thumbing through a recent issue of a Teaching Tolerance magazine. An article on therapeutic gardening intrigued me and I raced to the vice-principal's office to share the article. She encouraged my enthusiasm and showed me the way to a closet filled with gardening tools and seeds. Apparently, a horticulture teacher had initiated a garden, but no one had pursued it once she left the position. Dissatisfied and frustrated with traditional therapy and education, I needed to implement an alternative solution. These students had no desire to sit in the confines of a stuffy classroom and discuss their feelings. We were interminably met with a stream of obscenities and airborne objects!

Two weeks later on a morning early in March, we began our "therapeutic" garden. Although the temperature hovered around 32 degrees and snow flurries scattered the air, 12 students diligently raked and dug up the turf, preparing the earth for the first planting season. Another adult leader worked with some of the students to build a compost bin. The students eagerly asked questions and sawed lumber.

Working with these students in the context of psychotherapy groups, I had never seen such enthusiasm or attention to any task. Subsequently, we worked in the garden, took a trip to a nearby farm to milk cows, and cleaned up an abandoned lot for a flower farm. During the farm trip, several inner-city students expressed interest in working on a farm. These trips also served to identify new vocational interests never previously expressed simply because they lacked the environmental exposure.

The majority of the students described were diagnosed with Attention Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder (ADD/ADHD). Infusing environmental education (i.e., community gardening) into alternative or general educational curriculums may be one effective intervention, addressing cognitive and social deficits in children with ADHD.

Why farming or gardening for ADD/ADHD? First, it involves constant physical and manual labor. Movement boosts serotonin levels, a neurotransmitter found to be deficient in those with ADD/ADHD. Second, it is visual learning. I understand concepts such as soil composition and nutrient cycles better when I see it for myself, and the same goes for my students. I have used soil test kits with student to determine the ph, phosphorous, potassium and nitrogen levels from soil samples. I split them into groups and they eagerly fill the tubes, anxiously waiting for the results. How many of them would comprehend this process from reading a textbook in a classroom versus actually seeing it in an experiment from our garden? Third, farming builds community and group cohesion. Students readily help each other and staff members. It lends a sense of accomplishment as we cook and eat food together fresh from our garden, providing lessons in nutrition. Knut Hamsun’s The Village of Segelfoss (1915) focuses on the disintegration of communities, attributing the loss to factories and people who have neglected traditional skills in favor of consumerism, thus resulting in a severed relationship with the land.

Fourth, there is an interminable amount to learn about farming, such as plant physiology, botany, seed structure, fruits and vegetable cultivation, and soil chemistry. Fifth, it is one positive way I can think of to channel addictive behaviors, anger and depression. If movement does indeed boost serotonin and one is so engaged in the work, learning new concepts may be a likely antidote for depression and addiction. It is a natural high that far surpasses a chemical high. If farming ignites the hunger for knowledge in someone, an insatiable craving to acquire knowledge may develop. Hangovers are banished to the past; they consume too much energy and are a frivolous waste of precious time, time that may be spent outside harvesting vegetables, tilling the land, or hiking in the forest and inhaling the scent of white pines. It is a cognitive-behavioral form of therapy for drug and alcohol addiction, as studies have found that exercise is more effective than traditional psychotherapy in alleviating drug and alcohol problems. People with drug and alcohol problems in traditional psychotherapy programs report higher rates of relapses.

Farming may also be considered a cognitive or rational emotive form of therapy as maladaptive thought processes may be restructured; one is challenged on a daily basis. Learning concepts such as soil science may increase self-esteem as one acquires knowledge and gains confidence in his or her abilities, thus enhancing self-efficacy. Farming also serves to help identify vocational careers, perhaps as a farmer, horticulturalist, plant geneticist or biologist. Furthermore, these are tangible results as opposed to traditional psychotherapy where there is more of an emphasis on cognitive results. Positive thoughts replace the spiral downward of negative thoughts that often cause one to become trapped in a centrifugal force, an overwhelming sensation of drowning with no hope of resurfacing.

Sixth, maintaining an organic food diet improves health and provides energy. By enhancing one’s diet, often a benefit of farming and gardening, health invariably improves. In one study, DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid found in green leafy vegetable, walnuts and flaxseed oil, increased P300 brain waves, which are often decreased or persistent in those with ADD/ADHD. Another study revealed that approximately 40 percent of children with ADHD had an omega-3 deficiency.

Farming may be analogous to the benefits of meditation: teaching patience, the ability to focus on a task and prevention of distracting thoughts. Farming, as a meditative activity, may induce alpha waves, another possible deficit in those with ADD/ADHD. Farming also teaches the Buddhist concept of mindfulness as it creates a full awareness of living in the present moment, as well as an outlet for channeling aggression and frustration. Living on a farm has irrevocably changed my life; it is a drastic reduction in the frenetic pace that most of society lives. Because I am not bombarded by extraneous stimuli, the silence allows time for contemplation. On highways, people speed recklessly by, honk horns and shout expletives. Parking lots are accidents waiting to happen and as a result, tempers flare left and right. The congestion, noise, and pollution are enough to easily provoke a nervous breakdown in any healthy person. While living on a farm, my greatest days were watching a cow meander in the road, holding up “traffic”, perhaps a car or two. As the sun set, I took lengthy bike rides past neighboring farms, inhaling the pungent scent of cow manure, and watched baby lambs frolic in the pastures.

Finally, it is the lifestyle that is most appealing. Farming demands excessive energy for the arduous, physical labor, yet paradoxically it is relaxing. It is a return to an agrarian past. Hands down, I'd choose picking blueberries any day over sitting in a traffic jam, inhaling carbon dioxide fumes. Cooking and eating butternut squash soup from your farm with the company of friends is an ideal way to spend fall and winter evenings. I find great enjoyment picking fresh arugula and radishes from my garden for a spring salad and farm markets are an opportunity to swap stories, produce, advice and build friendships with local farmers.

At another alternative school, my coworker, Stephanie, and I worked with four girls from a foster home designing and building a farm stand to sell our produce. We initially designed it on paper as a group, integrating geometric formulas such as the Pythagorean theorem. Although geometry is typically taught indoors, it can be taught on an interactive level and experientially in such woodworking and carpentry projects. As an interdisciplinary approach, environmental education also involves other mathematical concepts: measurement, weights, graphing, recording data, designing, and observational skills. The students work together to formulate a solution instead of struggling alone with pencil and paper. If students are working as a group towards a tangible goal, it is likely to generate enthusiasm. In addition, I have observed students directly give each other support, encouragement and praise during these endeavors. Students also conquer fears of learning; one student admitted a fear of math and refused to measure a piece of wood. We worked with her to read the tape measure and she triumphantly smiled when she measured a piece on her own, her eyes aglow with pride.

I spent the following year organically farming, designing and maintaining a ¼ acre on a nearby farm, as well as teaching organic farming and art to youth in the community. One of our students, Megan*, helped me forage for the larvae of the enemy, which this particular summer was the cucumber beetle. She overturned the massive, prickly leaves and cried out “larvae,” her blue eyes widening with excitement. She crumpled the leaf, gleefully squashing the larvae together. During the egg stage, she enjoyed folding the leaf over the miniscule, golden eggs and listening to them pop, like the popping of bubble-wrap packaging. While we checked the leaves, we gently harvested zucchini, patty pan and yellow squash from their vines. During their peak in mid-July, I harvested between 200-250 pounds of squash on a weekly basis. We piled them in large, straw baskets and lugged them to a cooler filled with water, where we scrubbed the soil from their green-and-yellow elongated bodies and separated them into different baskets at the stand. Megan and I headed back out to the fields to cultivate the weeds with hand hoes between rows, a tedious job that must be done on a weekly basis or the weeds spread like wildfire.

As we hoed, I asked her about her home life. Earlier in the summer, she told me that her parents divorced and she lived with her mother.

“I’m going to try and live with my aunt here,” she suddenly said.


“Because I don’t want to live with my mom, anymore.”

“Do you get along with her?”

“Not really.”

“Why not?”

“She drinks too much and I’m sick of it.”

I quietly paused for a moment before responding and continued hacking away at a weed clinging to the soil.

“Have you tried talking to her about it, letting her know that it bothers you?”

“Yeah, but she doesn’t listen. She just goes out to bars and gets drunk.”

“Who picks her up?”

“My dad.”

For the next hour, she disclosed to me, while hoeing, her feelings about her mother’s alcoholism. The conversation served to support my theory of “spontaneous” therapy, particularly when it occurs in the context of nature, not in an office. Students often discuss their personal lives in the context of a garden, on a camping trip, hiking or canoeing when it is on their terms; they feel comfortable and can relate to someone they do not perceive as an authority figure.

In our agrarian past, labels such as ADD/ADHD did not exist because we applied concepts. Society consisted of active and interactive professions such as farming, blacksmithing, and woodworkers. Students were encouraged to pursue such occupations and they certainly did not stay isolated indoors, vacant eyes staring into computer screens or television. Communities evolved and supported one another during times of hardship, thus instilling values such as loyalty, work ethics and cooperation. Admirably, the Amish build community and family relationships. One finds children and adults outside working together, maintaining their homesteads. Indian tribes, such as the Iroquois, practiced sustainable agriculture and lived in communally based extended families. The psychological, social and physiological benefits of agriculture for at-risk youth irrefutably need to be further evaluated in studies and incorporated into our educational system.