‘I can say this is the happiest I’ve ever been and my family will say that, here on the farm’
‘Social farming’ has many benefits for people with mental-health issues or an intellectual disability
Vincent Coyle with Brian Maloney and Cian Hackett on Coyle’s farm in Summerhill, Co Meath. Photograph: Cyril Byrne
Imagine if working with the soil could be medically beneficial for people’s mental health. Well, new studies suggest it is, as microbes with antidepressant properties (mycobacterium vaccae) are inhaled and passed through the skin from the soil, which causes cytokine levels to rise, resulting in the production of higher levels of serotonin.
In England, farming is now available on prescription and doctors can prescribe up to three months on a care farm to their patients. Meanwhile in Ireland, a new movement called “social farming” is developing, in which people who avail of mental-health and intellectual-disability services can spend time on farms in return for a small payment to the farmer.
For the participants, it brings increased feelings of self-worth, a greater sense of autonomy, improved social behaviour and reduced need for medical intervention, although the benefits can be as basic as giving institutionalised individuals the freedom to switch on the lights in the farmer’s house whenever he or she wants to.
The key element is the opportunity to have an ordinary life, doing things we take for granted, like putting logs in the fire and feeding the cattle and grooming the donkey
In Europe, the concept is well established, with almost 1,000 social-farming services in the Netherlands and more than 600 in Italy. Ireland began trialling the practice in 2011 with the Social Farming Across Borders (SoFAB) project, which was implemented in six border counties and in Northern Ireland until funding ended in 2014, but the programme had such a positive impact that many farms continued without funding, or through minimal fundraising. As one participant said of his weekly visits to a local farm: “I can say this is the happiest I’ve ever been and my family will say that, here on the farm.”
Vincent Coyle began social farming on his five-acre holding near Summerhill, Co Meath, after a career as a psychiatric nurse in various residential care facilities. “I find this work to be far more satisfying, because you see the lads enjoying themselves so much,” says Coyle. “Just being able to get outside and plant seeds and watch them grow and then harvest the crops and bring them in to cook at lunchtime is a treat. In fact, it’s a privilege to be able to open my farm in this way, because as Rudolph Steiner reckoned, these are the holy people of the world and they teach us so much. They live in the present and this has such a healing effect on everyone around.”
The benefits of social farming have been proven in numerous studies in Ireland and abroad, and a comprehensive national system is being rolled out by local development companies in Leitrim, Limerick, Mayo and Waterford, to coordinate the care institutions and farmers to minimise paperwork and administration. The organisation overseeing it, Social Farming Ireland, is keen that farms don’t become specialised therapy facilities, but remain as ordinary farms where clients can spend time in non-clinical environments, interacting with the farm family and local community in a natural and spontaneous way.
“The key element is giving [service users] the opportunity to have an ordinary life,” says Coyle, “doing things that we take for granted, like putting logs in the fire and feeding the cattle and grooming the donkey. The benefit of touching animals is really underappreciated. I think we are deeply wounded as a people to have lost that contact with animals. It’s so beneficial. Admittedly, there’s a lot of work to prepare a really lovely day for the lads, but it’s so worth it.”
Coyle has seen the clinical benefits first hand – his first client came to him from Nua Healthcare where a social-care worker, Hans Widmann, was working with a particularly challenging resident with severe behavioural issues. “He was very bad,” recalls Widmann, “I don’t have to go into the details, but it was frightening. Yet I sensed there was something that you could work with within this guy. He was 19 and had been terribly emotionally abused in his life. He was so angry with the world that he’d just lash out at everybody. Nobody could get close to him. I happened to ask him one day if he was interested in chickens, and he shrugged, so we got a few chickens and he helped me build the run for them.
“He looked after them really well and so I asked Vincent could he come to his farm once a week, and from day one he was just an absolute treat. Suddenly, there was no challenging behaviour. The contact with the animals and the respect he received from Vincent, and having the freedom to roam around and to get to know Vincent’s family made all the difference. It was amazing, because normally psychologists, GPs and others are all trying to make their impact, but all he needed was some peace and quiet and animals and nature around him. In the end, he was able to fly on his own to visit his family in England, which was absolutely unimaginable when I first met him.”
People are totally different once they are out of an institution. They are suddenly people with their own characteristics
Widmann later began working at St Raphael’s Centre in Celbridge, Co Kildare, run by St John of God, and they agreed to continue his social farming work on Coyle’s farm. “Again, the people I brought would have had some issues with challenging behaviour, but there was never any trouble on the farm. People are totally different once they are out of an institution. They are suddenly people with their own characteristics, whereas in the institution they have to find some way of fitting in and fighting their little corner. It is just great to see them develop over the years, taking on chores and knowing exactly what they want to do, setting the table for lunch by themselves or reading a poem over tea afterwards.”
In this industrialised world, small farms are at risk, so anything that helps strengthen their work of producing food locally, stewarding the land and providing jobs in rural areas is to be lauded, especially a programme that provides such obvious benefits to disadvantaged and marginalised members of society.
But funding is the challenge. Coyle worked for free until finally a small fee was sourced from National Lottery funds, and while there is now more money for research and viability studies, payment for farmers is only beginning to appear, with a temporary commitment from the Government to pay farmers €40 per client per day, with the care institution expected to match this amount.
An alternative model is seen on Gerry Browne’s Sunflower Farm in Roscommon, where the Brothers of Charity have been paying him an annual fee for 14 years to provide care and meaningful work for between five and seven men on his small organic farm with polytunnels, cattle, glasshouse, orchard, beehives, arboretum and vegetables beds.
“The men consider it their own farm,” says Browne, a retired vet. “It provides meaningful occupation for them and they are in contact with people the whole time – from the kids in the outdoor pre-school on the site, to the students at the art school here. These are the main benefits, also the fact that we follow the annual natural cycle of farming. In winter, we gather leaves and make compost, in spring, we start sowing in the polytunnels, then move out to the outside beds when the weather warms up. We try to do it all as environmentally sustainably as possible, as it suits the farm and certainly benefits the clients – two of them would have ended up in a psychiatric hospital if they didn’t have a project like this to go to.”
Contact with animals and nature is vital, not just for people with disability but for young people in bother with law, or recovering from addiction and depression
Browne is concerned that he still doesn’t “see much money filtering down to farmers in any meaningful way, and trying to make a commercial enterprise out of a farm like this would be impossible. We produce a fair bit of food, but preparing and eating dinner is the main event of the day for the men and most of it gets used there. Any surplus goes home with them, or is sold at an honesty box at the gate.”
The contract he has with the Brothers of Charity pays for him and another man as “I couldn’t hack it five days a week”.
He is keen to stress there is nothing radically new about this programme. “All farming one time was social farming. We worked with nature to produce food for the family and community until we joined the EU and farming became a business and we began exploiting the land rather than working with it. Contact with animals and nature is vital,” says Browne, “not just for people with disability but for young people in bother with law, or recovering from addiction and depression. Personally, it has changed my life. I spent my time as a veterinary surgeon running around like a lunatic – nowadays I work in tune with the men and they have a different view of time and what time is for. That’s the most important lesson I learnt. They work in a way that is closer to how nature works, slowly and systematically.”