‘A truly innovative and ground-breaking project’.

Overlooking the land Photo Credit: Susan Knox

Overlooking the land Photo Credit: Susan Knox

 

‘Ireland, we are usually always one step behind of everyone else’. Teresa O’ Hare, the co-ordinator of the Social Farming Across Borders pilot project (soFAB) expresses her frustration about the lack of social farming facilities in Ireland in comparison to other European counties such as the Netherlands and Belgium. Social farming, which involves offering family farms as a form of social service is very well established in other EU countries but it is poorly developed and supported in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

 

Social farming services provide disadvantaged groups of people with the opportunity of inclusion, to increase their self-esteem and to improve their overall heath and well-being. The farm itself remains a working farm at its core but it also invites these disadvantaged groups to join in with the activities available, including feeding the animals and growing and cultivating crops. In return, the farmer is rewarded for the provision of his or her services.

 

The soFAB pilot project, which ran from April 2013 to June 2014 revealed the potential to offer solutions to public service provision in rural areas while also re-connecting farmers with their community. The project aimed at increasing public awareness of the opportunities that social farming can offer and how it creates a resource and contact point for social service providers and those that use the service. The project also aimed to positively influence public policy in rural development as well as health and social care service delivery in rural Ireland.

 

However, since the pilot project has ended, there has been a substantial lack of funding for social farms by the Irish government. Larry Masterson, a Donegal farmer who is a central figure in the soFAB project shares his views on the benefits of running a social farm: ‘Social farming is of great benefit for many different kinds of people, especially people with disabilities (intellectual, physical and sensory), people with mental health difficulties, older people and people availing of rehabilitation services’.

 

Masterson was one of the 20 farmers across the six border counties and Northern Ireland who opened their farms to 66 individuals with intellectual and mental disabilities to work on their farms for a year.  In a recent Irish Times publication, project manager Dr Jim Kinsella of UCD’s agricultural department stated that despite the fact farmers in the project were not paid, the project was ‘oversubscribed threefold when farmers were sought’. The farm visits ended in June along with the project but Dr Kinsella said the farmers were ‘so enthusiastic that they were setting up an association to support social farming’.

 

Cows Photo Credit: Leszek Leszczynski Flickr

Cows Photo Credit: Leszek Leszczynski Flickr

 

A review of the project, which was published on September 10th of last year, found that both the farmers and the farm visitors received unexpected benefits from the arrangement. Support workers said that the ‘farm household experience’ was very much appreciated by the users who saw it as a family home rather than an institution: ‘They got inspiration and ideas for their own bedrooms and a desire to live independently in their own homes which was particularly powerful for those living in institutions’. The farmers who also play an imperative part in the projects also gained unexpected benefits, with some saying that the mentoring meant that they had to work at a much slower pace and were therefore, much less stressed.

 

Dr Kinsella said social farming has huge potential across Ireland but its future depended on the extent to which the health and social care services were willing to pay farmers for delivering the services. ‘Heath service managers who have visited the pilot farms have been impressed but have yet to take the step of translating this into meaningful transfer of resources to farmers,’ he said.

 

The soFAB conference which took place on September 10th in Belfast castle marked the end of the pilot project which delivered almost 1,600 ‘person days’ of social farming experience to the 66 people who used the service between April 201 and June 2014. David Small Deputy Director (DARD) in his opening address, shared that ‘the project was a truly innovative and ground-breaking one’ and that the soFAB initiative has demonstrated that the farming community is not only willing but also ‘very able’ to help those who are most vulnerable within society. The conference marked another milestone in the evolution of social farming from a concept to a working model in Ireland.

 

Overall the whole notion of social farming generates countless benefits to both those who own the farms and the individuals who visit the farms for therapeutic relief. Aoibheann Walshe, an agricultural lecturer in Queens University Belfast demonstrated that the benefits of the initiative has helped a broad range of vulnerable people suffering from mental health problems and learning difficulties through engaging in the day to day tasks associated with farming. The work involved in the farming has several therapeutic elements to it, which leads to stress relief whilst also giving the visitors a day-to-day purpose and a feeling of inclusion. The project has helped both farmers and participants connect with communities, providing a vital link between well-being and rural life in Ireland.