Helping to solve the crisis of ageing in Irish farming

Game Changers: There are more farmers over the age of 75 than under 35 in Ireland

Farming is a country of old men. The Citizens’ Assembly on Biodiversity heard recently that there are more farmers over the age of 75 than under the age of 35. The physical and mental demands of farm life are less appealing to younger generations. And many outside the cohort who want to farm are locked out by high land prices and an uncertain market for what it is they want to grow or rear.

It’s a bleak and lonely picture. But for the past decade a programme called Social Farming Ireland (SFI) has produced hundreds of much happier stories.

Social farming is a practice that means farmers are paid to welcome people on to farms to work on a regular basis. The project started as a service for people in the disability and mental health services. It has grown to include early school leavers, people leaving the criminal justice system, homeless people and asylum seekers.

“They’re great people,” says Brian Smyth, national programme manager for SFI, when asked to describe the 150 host farmers who open their farm gates regularly under the scheme. “They’re altruistic, into the environment, people with a community and social conscience.”


Smyth became interested in the idea in 2006 with a research study with the Camphill Communities and UCD. “The concept of interacting with the natural environment and people being outdoors has a long history.” His daughter has down syndrome and he was on the board of Down Syndrome Ireland for a time.

SFI provides farmers with a payment, usually about €80 per person per day, to cover the costs of hosting people on their farms. Farms receive an advisory safety visit, and some farmers have reported an improvement in safety practices when they slow down to show a newcomer how the jobs get done, an unintended benefit of the programme.

Despite praise from successive ministers, the programme is still without core funding

One of Smyth’s frustrations with the financial support system for vulnerable people is that they do not have a say in how they spend the money provided for them by the State. That is decided by the support services, unlike the situation across Europe where people have much more autonomy over their own funds.

Smyth says there has been a “huge increase in demand” for the social farming programme.

“People see that it’s really worthwhile.” Despite praise from successive ministers, the programme is still without core funding. Fundraising is constant and exhausting, Smyth says. In 2022 more than 700 people have been on farms. And they have reported multiple benefits: recovering in a non-clinical environment, finding roles in their own communities with regular and ordinary work that connects them with nature and allows everyone to slow down.

“I would look forward to the company,” one social farmer says. “Farming is a lonely occupation.”

Catherine Cleary

Catherine Cleary

Catherine Cleary, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a founder of Pocket Forests