The economics of the lunatic farm – and farming!

7 Apr

Lunatic farm - man and woman in field

“That is the economics of the lunatic farm.” Say what? This curious phrase was used by Ed Balls, shadow chancellor, during an interview about the budget. It was such an odd phrase that it struck me that perhaps Balls had caught himself about to say something else then corrected himself, clumsily, at the last moment. Or perhaps that’s exactly what he’d meant to say, having in mind a particular badly run farm he’d come across during his economics studies at Oxford and Harvard.

This phrase lead me to think about the real life “lunatic farms” – farms within the grounds of long-stay lunatic asylums that existed until the last century, where inmates were required to do unpaid labour as therapy. (The pair pictured above were working on one such farm, based in a Canadian insane asylum.) It also lead me to think about city farms and present day farm-based mental health recovery programmes. And, finally, the Wurzles! A feast of farming thoughts inspired by one oddly-phrased remark. Read on.

When he made his comment. Balls was being interviewed by guest presenter Jeremy Vine for the BBC’s Sunday morning political programme, the Andy Marr Show. It was 3 weeks ago, days before the chancellor George Osborne was due to deliver the budget (Osborne was also interviewed on the show). In a tone of utter incredulity, Balls said:

“Spending cuts and tax rises have choked off recovery: let’s have even bigger spending cuts and tax rises. That is the economics of the lunatic farm! You’ve got to get the economy moving.”

Balls was, it seems, using the phrase in order to brand the chancellor’s “Plan A” not just a bad economic decision but, because of its association with lunacy, an outrageously foolish one too. The phrase was repeated throughout the day in news bulletins on all channels. As I tweeted at the time:

The “economics of the lunatic farm”? I guess Balls isn’t on Labour’s mental health task force, trumpeted by Ed Miliband at the Royal College of Psychiatrists last October.

(I blogged about the new mental health taskforce here and wrote a piece for the winter edition of One in Four magazine.) I had a bit of fun on twitter speculating what a “lunatic farm” really was. Perhaps, I suggested, it’s a place where lunatics are propagated under glass, before being planted out in polytunnels to grow, then harvested – a place where lunatics are farmed. Or, as Charlotte (twitter @BipolarBlogger) responded:

“Or like an ant farm, where they scurry about in transparent pipes for the amusement and interest of those outside?”

Or maybe Balls had had in mind a real life farm, whether existing or historic, that he’d come across during his studies of economics here and in the US, one that was really badly run. Had Balls studied farm economics? I wonder if farm management software (such as the one I came across online) would be useful to the farm Balls had in mind.

Whatever Balls meant, there did used to be real “lunatic farms” (whether badly run or not). Before they were closed down, some of the old lunatic asylums had working farms within their grounds. I wonder what it might have been like for people living in those old institutions and working on those farms.

An online search turned up the Asylum on the Lake, from where the image at the top of this blog post is taken, and which had such a farm. Based in Ontario, Canada, it was called the Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital when it was closed in 1979. When it opened 90 years before, it was called the Mimico Insane Asylum. As the website says:

This site attempts to portray the long and interesting history of the hospital, as well as honour the memory of the patients who lived, worked, and died there.”

Looking at the picture above (and there are more here), I wonder what mental health problems the man and woman had. What were their lives like on the farm? Did they enjoy their work? It’s one thing working a field on a sunny and mild April day like today, but quite another to do so mid-winter or in the heat of summer. How did the lives of asylum farm workers compare with those of others who worked on traditional farms in the same era? The website throws up some interesting details of the lives of its inmates.

As I was musing about “lunatic farms”,  Jon Beech (twitter @_jonb) sent me a link to what looks like a wonderful project in the West Midlands: a modern day scheme where farming is used to promote, amongst other things, mental health recovery. There are several such schemes. Search “care farming”, “farming on prescription” and “farm buddies” if you’re interested in the work of these modern day “lunatic farms”.

If you’ve been inspired by my farming musings to find out more or get involved, there are plenty of opportunities. For instance, if you live in a city you can get a little dose of the farming life by visiting or volunteer at one of the many city farms. I visited one only last week and it was an enjoyable (though bitingly cold!) afternoon out. Otherwise, you can get a taste of farming through the radio and TV (for example, on the BBC there are programmes such as Farming Today, On Your Farm and Countryfile). Or why not enjoy a light-hearted spoof on the farming life with the Wurzles’ 1970’s hit record Combine Harvester? That’s sure to bring a smile to your face.

I still don’t know what Balls meant by “the economics of the lunatic farm”. But I think I’d have rather been outside working the land than locked up in hospital with a weekly art therapy class and a windowsill full of plants. So, as I tweeted to Balls after seeing the Andy Marr Show interview:

“Where is this lunatic farm of which you speak? It sounds like somewhere I’d like to go.”

Wurzles - Combine Harvester




web links 5.


Farming links:




One Response to “The economics of the lunatic farm – and farming!”


  1. Some reflections on asylums old and new | Sectioned - 9 January 2015

    […] An old blog post – The economics of the lunatic farm – and farming! […]

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