As a mother of four young children, Mary Cooke-Connolly could see the real benefits of farming on her family’s daily life. That realisation led her and her husband Tom Connolly on a journey to train as social farming hosts.

The couple run a small suckler farm in a rural community just north of Cork city.

“I am a chef and I work for St. Joseph’s Foundation in Charleville. I train people within the service to work in the catering service. Tom drives a truck for the city council in Cork and between us and our children, we run the farm. We have cows and calves; hens; lambs; ponies; a horse; dogs; and a cat,” Mary said.

“My interest in social farming started about five years ago. I could see the real benefits of the farm in our lives so I had been looking into care farms but for the ones that I could see that were here in Ireland at the time, you needed to be highly qualified in occupational therapy,” she maintained.

“I had discussed this with Tom, believing that it would be of great benefit both to us as a family and the participants.

“So I kept looking and then I came across the Social Farming Across Borders (SoFAB) project and, then, as that grew and developed throughout Ireland, I applied and even after a long wait and completing the necessary training, I was really keen.

I knew it would be great once it got going. There was quite a bit of work involved in getting it going but I was excited by it and knew it would be good for our kids too, particularly the social side of it.

“I have spoken with people in different walks of life and I can see how social farming has an exciting future ahead. We have completed our first placement and started our second but due to Covid-19 this has stopped for now,” said Mary.

“I won’t lie. Just as we were about to start the first placement I was really nervous that I wouldn’t have enough activity to engage the group or that it wouldn’t flow well and I was doubting myself and my excitement was slowing down.

“Now I am so glad I persevered and I am sad it has all stopped for now but I’m certain it will come back again. It has to as it’s very obvious the real positive impact this has on all involved,” said Mary.

‘Chat and banter’

Tom and Mary had three participants from St. Joseph’s Foundation who visited the farm one day per week. They were supported by both St. Joseph’s and Social Farming Ireland (SoFI).

“My kids would get the bus in the morning and they would be asking me who was coming that day and they would race off the bus in the afternoon to meet the participants. They would remember their names and ask them questions. It was lovely to see the chat and banter between them,” Mary said.

“Since the restrictions have been put in place, we have our own daily routine built up between home schooling and the farm. Always present in my mind is how so so lucky and fortunate we are to have a life so full and simple in the country with four lively fun-filled children.

“The kids keep in touch with their friends through WhatsApp. The home schooling is difficult as they are at four different stages but we are plugging away at it and they keep up with their music classes through Zoom,” said Mary.

“I think they will be glad to get back to school whenever that will happen and to have my participants back out on the farm here with us.”