Social farming: ‘It slows you down and makes you think all about life’

“It slows you down and makes you think all about life.” That’s the perspective of social farming host Caroline Gleeson who currently has two people on placements at her small plot of land near Tuam, Co. Galway.

On placement with Caroline is a woman with an acquired brain injury who is a nursing home resident, and a transition year student who is on the autism spectrum.

“I qualified in horticulture in the early 1990s and ran my own garden centre and landscaping business,” said Caroline. “Then the recession came and everything went. I then studied childcare and trained to work with people with special needs and started working with Ability West in 2011,” Caroline said.

“I got into social farming as I was looking to combine my horticultural skills with my work which is now part-time. I have a polytunnel on about 2ac.

“I heard about social farming through a colleague and went to a seminar in Castlebar organised by South West Mayo Development Company, five years ago. I thought the whole concept of social farming was just fantastic and exactly what I was looking for,” she said.

“I have two trainees, one on a Thursday and one on a Friday. The nursing home resident is a neighbour from my childhood. I collect her and she loves watering the plants and feeding the hens, donkey, horse and lambs. She was brought up on a farm and married a farmer so she feels very much at home. She also knows people locally and enjoys interacting with them.”

The transition year student is on placement as part of a pilot scheme which will continue through the summer.

“He also loves the animals. He really enjoys feeding them and brings treats for them all. The placement helps him with a whole range of areas such as following instructions and social skills.

“He loves the work and is now thinking of doing a horticulture or farming course in Mountbellew Agricultural College. He also enjoys interacting with my teenagers,” Caroline said.

Being a social farming host involves adapting to a slower pace which Caroline has found to be beneficial for her own well-being.

It slows you down and you listen to the birds. It makes you appreciate your own life. We give out and complain but we’re very lucky.

“Social farming provides the ideal balance for me. It allows me to get back into the polytunnel and combine work and family life. It is also great to be in a position to help other people. There are very little services for people with acquired brain injuries.”