Social farming could reduce health care costs by reducing dependency on intellectual disability and mental health services, a conference on the initiative heard yesterday.
The conference in Belfast was held to mark the end of an EU-funded Social Farming Across Borders project which involved 20 farmers who brought 66 people with intellectual disabilities and mental health issues to work on their farms for a year.
The project involved farms in six Border counties and the six Northern Ireland counties and was led by UCD, in partnership with Queen's University Belfast and Leitrim Development Company. Working with animals and crops and spending time with nature has long been considered to have a therapeutic value, improving health and well-being, promoting a feeling of inclusion and increasing self-esteem.
Paid for mentoring
Social farming is well established in countries such as Belgium and the Netherlands where farmers are paid for mentoring. A review of the project said an expansion of social farming could save the State money in the long term because of the benefits it offered. The farmers who took part in the pilot project were not paid but the review said the initiative would not work on a bigger scale unless farmers were paid for their time and support.
“While services will continue to be provided by charitable and other not-for-profit organisations, the expansion among the wider farming public can only occur if there is a return to cover expenses and provide a level of reward for the endeavours of farmers,” it said.
It suggested a payment of €60-70 per day to the farmer for each service user. This compared with an average cost of €81 per day for a unit of employment support or sheltered employment for people with intellectual disabilities.