When you turn in the driveway at 401 Main Street in Bolton, MA, the first thing you see is a big red barn with a painted rooster on the door and a rainbow flag out front.
The second thing you see? Well, that depends. On a recent afternoon, a small pasture full of woolly sheep caught our attention, though the flock of clucking guinea hens prowling the grassy parking area in search of bugs was hard to miss too. Over a wooden fence, several horses gazed at us expectantly while a pair of shaggy donkeys grazed nearby.
This is Cultivate Care Farms, a seven-acre therapeutic farm designed to treat children, teens and adults struggling with an array of emotional, developmental, and psychological challenges. Founded by director Andrew Lapin in 2015, the farm is based on a Dutch model of social inclusion and mental healing, designed to use the farm’s calming natural environment and interaction with animals to help clinicians serve clients outside of a traditional counseling setting. The farm offers individual and group counseling, parent coaching, a “Cultivators Club” for teens on the autism spectrum, and treatment for clients in recovery from substance abuse.
Learning at Lesley
Expressive arts therapist Samantha Sundermeyer graduated from Lesley in 2014 with a master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling: Art Therapy and started at the farm as a volunteer, then became a counselor. Like the rest of the clinical staff, she had no prior experience with farm animals before coming to Cultivate, though she grew up riding horses and has two Bernese Mountain dogs, Sherlock and Cooper. But she seems completely at ease as she guides us through the network of pastures and enclosures, introducing us to the sheep, the horses and donkeys, the pair of pigs, and a small flock of newly sheared alpaca.
In the big red barn, the flock of goats have free range. Petite and adorable, they are gregarious and eager for human attention, gathering around new visitors and nibbling with gentle curiosity on a shirt cuff or a backpack strap. They’re also eager to climb anything—a stack of boxes, a tire, a visitor’s leg. Next to the barn is a special goat play area, filled with climbing structures made out of wooden pallets, tires, cement blocks, and more. Intelligent and playful, goats enjoy challenging games the way children enjoy a good playground and many clients enjoy building and rearranging the climbing structures. “The kids love to build things for the goats,” says Sundermeyer. “It’s like a real-life Minecraft.
We exit the barn through the cellar, where chickens, ducks, and a large white turkey amble and flap around a large pen. Inside the homey 150-year-old farmhouse that serves at the farm’s central office and therapy center, there is a lively pair of twin baby goats who are being confined to the kitchen while being bottle-fed, guarded by a gentle sheepdog, and a chalkboard schedule of events and meetings. In addition to the clinicians, five master’s level interns, two from Lesley, see clients on a sliding scale. Upstairs are craft rooms where clients do wool-working, from carding and spinning the sheared wool from the farm’s sheep to knitting, crocheting, and needle felting–all repetitive, mindful activities that are not only soothing but create a sense of accomplishment. “I’ve had fifteen-year-olds walk out and say “Look at what I made!”
The beauty of the farm, she explains, is that there are so many stories. Almost all of the animals at Cultivate are rescues, so they come with their own sometimes complex histories and personal quirks. Kevin the rooster came to the farm with a bad attitude. “He was a bully,” Sundermeyer explains, who’d made himself unwelcome in his old flock, but after a few weeks at the farm, he learned to get along with the motley crew of chickens, ducks, geese, and turkeys who fill the poultry barn. One of the goats, Curly, is distinctly drawn towards goats of his own gender. “He’s a good goat to use to talk about gender fluidity.”
Clients at the farm tend to develop favorites among the animals. The goats are playful, friendly, and approachable, while the horses can take more time to build trust and connect with. Children on the autism spectrum love the chickens, says Sundermeyer. “All the other animals require social interaction, but the chickens don’t make eye contact so they’re easier for them to approach.”
The horses play a crucial therapeutic role on the farm, using the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association (EAGALA) model for Equine Therapy. There’s no riding involved, just guided interaction with the huge, gentle animals. Equine therapy can help clients analyze their situations and find solutions to their inner conflicts. “People use the animals as a way to tell stories, externalizing, using a lot of metaphors,” explains clinical director Deb Madera. “And having animals around makes people feel safe and relaxed.”
Many clients at the farm come from recovery programs or from more intensive mental health programs. Others have tried other traditional therapies and, hesitant to engage or re-engage in therapy, are seeking an alternative to traditional counseling.“Many get referred by therapists or counselors,” says Madera, “who come to us and say ‘my client is just really stuck.’”
All of the daily chores on the farm are done by clients and clinicians—there are no farmhands. Clients from the morning programs start off the day at the farm, feeding, watering, and checking on all the animals. Everyone helps with cleaning our barns and pasture areas and clinicians visit Saturday so that the animals get weekend care and chores get done. The daily routine of farm chores encourages socialization, routine, and a sense of responsibility and interdependence that many clients find helpful.
Since its launch, Cultivate Care Farms has created essential partnerships within the surrounding communities. Special education students from nearby Hudson High School visit weekly to work and interact with the animals. Vet techs from Nashoba Valley Regional High School come once a week to check on the animals and provide any veterinary care needed. The farm works with a local organization called Best Bees to host half a million honeybees in hives on the property. Surrounded by farms and orchards, the bees travel a five-mile radius to collect nectar and pollinate fruit trees and other plants.
Goat yoga is a popular new offering at the farm. Held in the airy barn, it’s slightly less structured than traditional yoga classes, explains Sundermeyer, with a lot more laughing, as the outgoing nimble young goats climb, jump and play with participants. “It’s probably the most relaxed yoga class you could ever find.”
Even on a small scale, running a farm while managing a therapeutic practice is no simple task. Caring for the animals costs roughly $25,000 per year. In 2017 Deb and Andrew switched the practice to a non-profit model, realizing that the farm couldn’t afford to take insurance and maintain proper care for the animals. This new structure has allowed them to commit more strongly to this non-traditional model of therapy and to serve a growing number of clients who find needed routine, responsibility, and peace at the farm. Sundermeyer is confident in the farm’s power to help clients who are struggling.
“They always leave feeling better, more confident. They realize that they’re not their diagnosis.”