Social farming: a harvest for us all
Exposure to the land can help those with disabilities, mental health issues or dementia
Liam and Simone Webb: participants bring life to the farm too as farming can be isolating.
Social farming seems to be a win/win situation if ever there was one. People with intellectual disabilities, individuals struggling with mental health problems, early school-leavers or the long-term unemployed get to spend one day a week in a relaxed outdoors working environment, while farmers get paid for teaching basic farming skills, helping reduce rural isolation and increase sometimes meagre farm incomes.
Simone and Liam Webb have been inviting people on to their 59-acre farm in Co Carlow for about three years now. They recently hosted an event for farmers and health professionals to explain why they got into social farming.
Simone says that her experience as a mother working in the home inspired her to get involved. Liam says that being on a farm allows people who have lost their focus to connect back with themselves in the countryside. “We’re reared and nurtured our three children, aged between 11 and 27. I choose to be a stay-at-home mother and concentrate on meeting their needs. These nurturing skills have been good training for our new roles as social farmers,” says Simone.
She believes that the scheme is about exposing people to life skills within a family as well as teaching basic farming skills.
The chores on the Webb farm include sweeping stables, replacing hay, walking the pony and checking on the mares and foals in the stables or the fields. As well as collecting and dating eggs, the chickens on the farm have to be fed, watered and their bedding freshened or replaced. “The participants bring life to the farm too as farming can be an isolating experience,” says Simone.
On wet days, she teaches participants to bake or runs sensory-based art and craft activities in the purpose-built art studio on the farm. She mentions how something as simple as walking through fields can be therapeutic. “One participant had never walked on uneven ground before but by the end of the 10 weeks, he was flying up and down the field,” she says. The Webbs host three to five participants at any one time.
Confidence and self-esteem
Helen Doherty, national co-ordinator with Social Farming Ireland says that many farmers who get involved with social farming have had personal experience with family members, friends or neighbours with disabilities or mental health difficulties so they already know the benefits spending time on a farm brings. “Being outdoors on the farm helps people build up their confidence and self-esteem. It’s about working with your hands, being in touch with the seasons and the natural cycle of life,” says Doherty. The placements range from eight-40 weeks with farm visits lasting from three to six hours one day each week. Farmers are paid between €50-€80 for each participant’s weekly visit.
Ger O’Sullivan, retired social worker and member of the Waterford Mental Health Association, says that social farming is an incredibly innovative service. “People who come to the mental health services mainly suffer from anxiety, and social farming gives them time to complete tasks without judgment or time constraints. Interaction with farmers and other participants allows them to refind their sense of humour, their sense of achievement, their self-care, self-confidence and their sense of smell and taste in a nice natural way,” she says.
Sarah Daly is a farmer from Lattin, Co Tipperary. “My husband, John, and I got involved because we wanted to inject energy and activity into the farm. We both worked off the farm and our children are in college so the farm had become very quiet.”
On days that the Dalys have people on their farm, they start with a long walk to count the cattle. “Then, the participants feed the calves, build pathways or put down flower or vegetable beds. I enjoy it and feel like I’ve achieved something while the participants enjoy our facilities,” says Sarah.
Social Farming Ireland has grown out of a cross-Border project in which farmers from six counties in the Republic trained with farmers in six counties in Northern Ireland to become social farmers. Run by the Leitrim Development Company, this Social Farming Across Borders project expanded into a countrywide project with funding from the Department of Agriculture and the Marine.
Leitrim Development Company has a four-year contract (2017-2020) to work with development companies in Mayo, Limerick and Waterford to develop social farming at a national level. It offers 10 three-hour training sessions to all farmers who want to become social farmers.
More than 80 farmers were trained in 2018 and another 85 will be ready to invite people on to their farms in 2019. In 2018, almost 300 participants took part in a total of 2,600 placement days on 56 farms across 22 counties. Farms vary from one-acre horticulture-only farms to suckler and dairy herds, equestrian, tillage, sheep, goat and mixed farms.
Dr Aisling Moroney, the policy officer with Social Farming Ireland. says that work on farms is a valuable and meaningful activity for people. “There is nothing more important than producing food. People can plant things and be there when it’s harvested or see animals being born. There is a great variety of tasks in a live environment where a cow can go into calf or a tree can fall,” she says. Research has shown improvements in everything from participants diet, physical fitness and sleep patterns to their motivation and planning for the future.
Getting participants to and from the farms and having ongoing funding are the challenges of the scheme. Improving communication between the farmers and the participants remains a core goal. “Sometimes, farmers need to slow down a bit and participants need to hustle a bit but the key is to work with participants where they are at,” says Dr Moroney.
Brian Smyth, national project manager with Social Farming Ireland, believes social farming can help everyone from children to adults with disabilities or mental health difficulties to older people with dementia. “There’s a place on the farm for everyone. It’s an opportunity for farmers and communities to open up their farms to support people – a chance for these participants to look after animals and plants as opposed to being looked after all the time,” says Smyth.
Participants on their experience of social farming
“I said to the farmer that I probably do more laughing here than I would in a week away from here. He is very funny and he has a lot of funny stories.”
“It helped me get my confidence back, just from working with other people, doing different things, cutting timber, working with cattle, fencing.”
“It’s a very positive place to be. It makes you feel good about yourself . . . you feel a sense of achievement. When you finish a job, you can see the fruits of your labour.”