Under The Spotlight

GROWING CONNECTIONS, CHANGING LIVES Insights and Learning From Social Farming Across Ireland
A National Conference on Social Farming took place in the Emmaus Centre in Swords Co. Dublin last Friday, the 23rd of March. 140 attendees from all over Ireland learnt more about the development of s
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GROWING CONNECTIONS, CHANGING LIVES Insights and Learning From Social Farming Across Ireland

A National Conference on Social Farming took place in the Emmaus Centre in Swords Co. Dublin last Friday, the 23rd of March. 140 attendees from all over Ireland learnt more about the development of social farming and how it enables those who take part to do ‘ordinary things in ordinary places’.
Speaking after the conference, Dr Aisling Moroney, Policy Officer with Social Farming Ireland reflected; “From our research to date and from what we have heard today at the conference, we can say that the working family farm seems to provide a unique environment in which to to address various dimensions of the well-being and development of participants but in a very ordinary, natural and holistic way. The way we do social farming is also completely in line with shifts in policy towards a progressive and individual approach to meeting participant’s needs and to delivering positive outcomes for service users in all kinds of settings. The opportunity and the choice to do social farming is something which we want to see being more widely available to people around the country.  Social farming also really delivers in terms of rural development and helping to preserve the multifunctional family farm model which is so valuable in Irish society. It brings people from all sorts of backgrounds together in new and positive ways and it is these relationships– between participants, farmers, service providers and communities – which are at the heart of what social farming is all about.”
The strength and quality of these relationships was clear to see in the chat and the banter between participants, farmers and service providers in two “fireside chats” hosted by Martin Rogan of Mental Health Ireland. Patrick, an 18 year old from Co. Limerick who took part in a 10 week social farming placement last summer on Mike O’Connells farm in Mungret, Co. Limerick via Foróige had no previous experience of farming and spoke movingly about his time there. He reflected on how social farming gave him new confidence and belief in himself and taught him new skills in working with animals and in working as a team with Mike and the other three lads from Foróige.  The days at social farming were those that he got out of the bed early and couldn’t wait to see what the day would bring. His dream is to get work on a farm and one day own a small farm like Mikes with lots of different animals, where he will be able to bring young people like himself and “give them a chance like Mike gave me.”
Similarly, Robbie, a resident at Ozanam House in Co. Wexford spoke of his time on Denis O’Connor’s farm near Kilmuckridge. He is a passionate advocate for social farming and the impact it can have on people who take part, especially those who have had a negative experience of formal education or who just want to be out in the fresh air doing practical tasks according to the rhythm of the seasons and the weather. He argued persuasively that social farming be available to secondary school students and said that if he had to give social farming a mark out of ten, “I’d give it a 1000”. Robbie, Denis and Phillip, a support worker from Ozanam House, all reflected on how going out social farming provides a real change in perspective and a break for those coming from a setting such as a homeless hostel.  
Research on social farming undertaken in 2017 confirms the range of benefits which participants experience from social farming; speaking at the conference, Aisling said; “people who took part in the research spoke to us of feeling much better in themselves, of feeling that they had an improved sense of purpose and a new confidence in their own abilities. All really enjoyed the friendships and fun they developed with the farmers and their families and with the other participants. Some highlighted the benefits of being out in nature and in the fresh air, of getting their hands in the soil or working with animals. Others spoke of having developed new practical skills or re-connecting with skills they thought they had forgotten. Social farming seems to have particular appeal to those who perhaps grew up on a farm and who yearn for that connection. For some men in particular, something like social farming has more appeal than some of the other options which may be typically available to them.”
There were also valuable insights into social farming practice from services.  Theresa Peacock from HSE Mental Health Services in Sligo/Leitrim reflected on the value of social farming for clients in giving a sense of routine and purpose, in helping to make new connections and friendships and in improving levels of wellbeing and confidence and the capacity to take the next steps in recovery. Noreen McGarry, community inclusion co-ordinator for Western Care which works with people with Intellectual Disabilities, spoke of the benefits to the people they work with of going out to an ordinary working farm and into the community, where they get to broaden their existing networks and have a sense of belonging and purpose. She shared a wonderful selection of case studies and photos from the many people who have enjoyed social farming over the last year, including the story of one participant on a social farm who doesn’t communicate with words but who has developed a wonderful relationship with the farmer who he happily works alongside. After months of social farming, “they understand each other perfectly”.
From the farmer perspective, Aisling noted that the research shows that “Most of those who engage in social farming have small to medium farm holdings, do not farm intensively and have mixed farming systems. Many have additional skills, such as woodworking or cooking and we find that there is typically a strong emphasis on the maintenance of traditional farming skills, welfare of animals and the heritage and ecological value of the farm.  When we spoke to social farmers about the benefits they experienced, to the forefront was a strong sense of personal satisfaction from having made a difference in participant’s lives and a sense of enjoyment and fun from having participants and others spend time on the farm. For many, social farming has led to improved community connections and a reduction in the sense of isolation which can be common in modern farming. Other benefits include more meaningful and productive use of the assets of the farm such as old farm buildings or kitchen gardens, and the availability of an additional source of income.”

For anyone who wants to find out more about social farming generally, please contact National Project Co-ordinator Helen Doherty at the National Social Farming Office in the first instance at 071-9641772 or helen@ldco. For those who would like to know more about the ongoing research being carried out on social farming, please contact Aisling at 086-1448719 or amoroney@ldco.ie