Mayo farmer set to host second social farming placement

Having already hosted one social farming placement on his land, Mayo farmer Paul Maguire is already planning another.

One of 22 farmers across Mayo, Roscommon and Galway selected to take part in a social farming programme, co-ordinated by South West Mayo Development Company, the 10-week placement on his farm has just finished.

Maguire inherited the 72ac farm in Partry, which is planted with hardwood forestry, from his uncle and aunt. “I grew up in Dublin, but was used to going down to the farm to help with the hay and the turf. Two days after I finished school, I cycled down to Partry, and I have been here ever since.”

As well as farming, he does carpentry as a sideline, and the family runs a guesthouse. After attending a talk in Leitrim on a cross-border social farming initiative, he thought about taking part to help people with mental illness and intellectual and physical disabilities.

I was exposed to people with mental health issues at an early age, and I remember thinking that a lot of the approaches taken to mental illness in the past were wrong.

“I also have a sister-in-law who has physical and intellectual disabilities, and my wife had commented on how comfortable I felt around her.

“However, with building the guesthouse, and having a young family, the idea of getting involved got put on the back burner. Then I read in a local paper about the social programme co-ordinated by South West Mayo Development Company, and contacted Margaret Leahy, the Social Farming Development Officer.”

Maguire worked over the summer with four participants referred from three different agencies: Rehab, Castlebar; Western Care, Ballinrobe; and the HSE. They attended a site visit before signing up for the programme. “It was important that they decided for themselves that they wanted to come out to the farm.

The experience has been brilliant for both the service users and myself. The important thing is that the service users benefit, and that they are not exploited. Farmers don’t do this for the financial reward, but because they enjoy the process.

“They get an income from taking part to cover their time and there are outlays such as insurance, and getting the land ready,” Maguire said.

He readied the land for the creation of a vegetable garden at the back of the ruins of an old house on his property, making timber frames for raised beds. The participants also tried their hands at stone wall building and weaving.

“The feedback from the lads was that they really enjoyed the placements. They were all different – one loved assembling things and using the screw gun, whereas another was terrified of the screw gun. You have to keep the programme varied and interesting for the people involved.”

The nature of Maguire’s farming means that he doesn’t have to clock watch, which facilitated the programme. “We had a flexible timescale, going back to the more traditional Meitheal type farming. We weren’t looking to get huge volumes of work done. The emphasis was on social interaction.”

Maguire’s two children, who are aged 13 and nine, enjoyed being involved in the programme. “My older daughter played the harp for the participants one day, and they just loved it. They liked being part of normal family life, in a relaxed setting.”

While some farmers find themselves working for days on end without seeing anyone, Maguire sees plenty of people through the guesthouse and those visiting the old iron furnace on his land. However, he said he got a lot from hosting the programme.

“When you see people coming out of their shell after the third or fourth session, it’s great. You have to respect their space, and not push them. One of the guys suffers from depression, and it’s important to respect what they are going through,” Maguire said.

It is a good release valve for them to talk while they’re working, rather than the more formal settings they are often used to.

Having hosted a successful open day on his farm, he is now planning to offer a second social farming placement from mid-September to mid-November.