‘Importance of human connection never more apparent’

“The importance of human connection has never been more apparent to us than now,” said Social Farming Ireland project co-ordinator Helen Doherty, who outlined that interest in social farming from all types of farms and farmers and from every corner of the country is flourishing.

This, she said, was evident in the numbers and the diversity of those who attended social farming training run by Social Farming Ireland in February and early March of this year.

“A total of 90 farmers signed up for two days’ training in three separate venues: Moorepark, Fermoy; Mountmellick; and Carrick-on-Shannon.

“Although the training in Carrick-on-Shannon had to be postponed due to the Covid-19 crisis, the earlier training days in the flagship Teagasc Research Centre at Moorepark and in Mountmellick brought together a lively and engaged group of farmers from many counties, eager to find out more about social farming and to build their own skills and knowledge,” the project co-ordinator said.

Social Farming Ireland was particularly pleased to see the potential for even greater geographic spread and availability of social farms, with promising new farms emerging in counties with more limited coverage to date such as Longford, Meath and Laois.

“Many of the attendees will go on to become social farmers and to join an ever-growing social farming network of farmers; service-providers; participants in social farming; advocates; and other interested groups and individuals striving and working together to make the opportunity to participate in social farming available to the many people who could benefit from it,” said Helen.

Untapped assets in rural Ireland

Fostering a sense of connection is a key priority.

“Social farming at its heart is a very simple idea about bringing together two groups in society. We have huge untapped assets in every corner of rural Ireland, namely farmers and farm families with skills and life experience to share.

“They want to give something back, and usually live and work in beautiful places where animals, plants, woodland and restorative landscapes are naturally present. There are always activities and projects to be done, many of which are best and most enjoyably done in small groups.

“Throughout society we also have people with a range of needs and challenges in life who can benefit hugely from spending time in nature and working with plants or animals and from the kind of meaningful and purposeful activities found on farms,” Helen said.

“People participating in social farming relish the opportunity to make real friendships and connections in their own communities.

“Social farming brings these two groups together and in a safe, enjoyable and ordinary way, which is mutually beneficial and has wider societal benefits such as breaking down barriers between people, bringing life and vitality to farms and rural areas and helping to sustain a socially valuable way of life,” she said.

The importance of human connection has never been more apparent to us than now. It is that human connection which is at the heart of the social farming experience.

“The most recent research by Social Farming Ireland has found that the benefits of social farming to existing social farmers are across multiple dimensions, from personal to social to economic,” Helen said.

Farm diversification opportunities

“To the fore is always a sense of personal satisfaction from making a difference in people’s lives, alongside the opportunity to pass on knowledge about food, farming or nature and to encourage others to learn and grow in the natural and everyday environment of the family farm.

“In the Social Farming Ireland model, farmers are compensated for the supports they provide and this provides a useful additional income for the farm family which can make a real difference in these challenging times,” explained Helen.

“It also enables farmers to make farm improvements and introduce new environmental initiatives such as wildflower meadows and tree planting which have multiple benefits to both the farm and society.

“More indirectly, social farming has encouraged many farmers to view the assets of the farm – including themselves – in a new purposeful way and to pursue other farm diversification opportunities,” said the project co-ordinator.

In many cases, it has also stimulated interest in the farm from the next generation. It is these reasons and more that the interest in social farming and in training for social farming has increased rapidly in the last number of years, and from every type of farm from large-scale often multi-generational farms, to mixed smallholdings of under 5ac and from every type of farm in between.

The training provided by Social Farming Ireland is extensive and comprehensive, equipping farmers for the challenges of supporting those who are disadvantaged on their farms.

It strives to upskill ordinary farmers to utilise their assets, these being their own skillset, and their farm setting, further to enhance the viability and sustainability of their farm holding, Helen explained.

One of the core values of Social Farming Ireland, she continued, is based on the farm remaining as it is as an ordinary working family farm.

“We do not seek to convert these farmers into ‘carers’ or ‘support workers’ but rather seek to enable them to remain as farmers who offer a safe supportive environment in which people can engage in the everyday experiences and routines of an ordinary working farm environment in their local community,” the project co-ordinator said.

Supporting mental health

The Social Farming Ireland farmer training covers vital areas such as: an introduction to the concept of social farming; farm safety; planning and preparing for practice; Health Service Executive (HSE) approved training on safeguarding vulnerable adults; and sessions on dealing with difference and supporting mental health.

Later in the year, additional ‘peer learning’ training sessions are planned.

“These are immensely popular, and provide an opportunity for prospective social farmers to visit an existing and experienced active social farm and get to listen and discuss the practicalities with the host farmer and other experienced guest social farmers on the day,” commented Helen.

“Training is a key part of a whole package of mentoring and other supports provided by Social Farming Ireland regionally and nationally, through four regional network hubs: Border Midlands East; Leitrim Development CLG, South East Region; Waterford Leader Partnership CLG, West Region South; West Mayo Development Company CLG and South West Region; and West Limerick Resources CLG.

“A farmer who recently attended the training in Moorepark, Fermoy, said that he found the course made him more interested in social farming and more aware of the needs of the participants and the joy and fulfilment they can attain in the right farm environment for them as individuals,” Helen said.

The staff continue to work from home, supporting the network of participant farmers and services. The team is planning and co-ordinating placements and looking forward to people having some quality time and connection in the healing spaces of the great outdoors in the near future.

Anyone who would like to find out more about social farming or about becoming a social farmer should contact the Social Farming Ireland national project co-ordinator, Helen Doherty on: [email protected]; or 086-7905596; or go to the Social Farming Ireland website at: www.socialfarmingireland.ie.