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Aquaponics offers an innovative form of therapeutic horticulture, a nature-based approach that can promote wellbeing for people with mental health problems through using a range of green activities such as gardening and contact with animals. Over the past decade, a number of social enterprises have emerged that provide therapeutic horticulture programmes for improving the wellbeing of local communities. The social enterprise approach builds on ‘Social Firms’ by facilitating people with mental health problems to develop new skills and re-engage with the workplace. A Social Firm is a specific type of social enterprise where the social mission is to create employment, work experience, training and volunteering opportunities, within a supportive and inclusive environment, for people who face significant barriers to employment, and in particular for people with a disability (including mental ill health and learning disability), abuse issues, a prison record, or homeless issues (Howarth et al. 2016).
There are particular qualities of the plant-person relationship that promote people’s interaction with their environment and hence their health, functional level and subjective wellbeing. Plants are seen to bestow non-discriminatory rewards on their carer without imposing the burden of an interpersonal relationship and, by responding to care or neglect, can immediately reinforce a sense of personal agency. The efficacy of practising horticulture in a group context has also been demonstrated. Many people with mental and physical health problems face social exclusion because they do not have equal access to opportunities in society, including paid employment, housing, education and leisure. Social networks such as those provided by community horticulture initiatives can act as buffers to stressors, provide a structure for acquiring skills, and validate and enhance an individual’s sense of self-worth (Diamant and Waterhouse 2010; Fieldhouse 2003).
To date there are few examples of aquaponics being used for therapeutic horticulture. In the United States, a small farming business called Green Bridge Growers in Indiana is growing produce all year- round, primarily using aquaponics. The company now employs a number of individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and finds that the scheduling, precision and monitoring required in aquaponics perfectly match with their skills. Similarly, the ACRES Project (Adults Creating Residential and Employment Solutions) in Pennsylvania uses aquaponics to provide horticultural therapy, employment, and community integration for adults with autism and intellectual disabilities. They are involved in all facets of the aquaponics system, from care and maintenance to harvest and sales, and the scheduled procedures and daily routines that aquaponics requires provides them with the stability and structure that they find reassuring. By fostering social, vocational, and self-advocacy skills, ACRES therefore uses aquaponics to help autistic individuals optimize their potential, develop practical life skills, increase social capacity, and transition to work and independence.
The FabLab Nerve Centre in Northern Ireland has set up a social enterprise aquaponic digital farm to teach people with learning difficulties entrepreneurial and digital skills. Using state of the art digital equipment from the Nerve Centre’s FabLab, such as 3D printers, CNC routers and laser cutters, students will receive hands-on training and experience in a range of digital design and making techniques that will allow them to design, build and operate an aquaponic farm. As part of the project a newly created social enterprise will be developed by the young people, allowing them to sell the produce from the farm to local businesses, thereby developing their skills in social entrepreneurship, business and marketing.
Solutions for Change, a social enterprise which is dedicated to solving family homelessness, runs Solutions Farms in California. The aquaponics farm provides training for homeless families in growing tilapia and seasonal leafy greens and herbs which are then sold to local restaurants, markets and schools. It functions as a laboratory for teaching important work values and preparing people for re- entry into the workplace, thereby raising hope, as well as produce.
Asociacíon Huerto Lazo is a social enterprise in the province of Malaga, Spain, which offers internships to young people from troubled backgrounds. The interns are given practical training in aquaponics in a safe environment. The catfish, tilapia and tench are sold to El Sollo restaurant in Fuengirola.
Figure 2: Aquaponics facilities at Asociacíon Huerto Lazo – anticlockwise from top left: catfish tanks in the aquaponics greenhouse; tilapia tanks with Gynostemma pentaphyllum which is sold for medicinal purposes; the water filtration tanks at Huerto Lazo; Ulrich Eich demonstrating his aquaponics system (Photographs: Sarah Milliken).
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