One of the many benefits of social farming is that it encourages the farmer and the wider farm household, including the next generation, to see the farm with fresh eyes and to have a shift in mindset as to what it has to offer and what it could do beyond food production.

That’s according to Helen Doherty, Social Farming Ireland national co-ordinator.

One social farmer who runs a suckler farm in Co. Limerick with her husband told Social Farming Ireland of the new perspective that had been gained through fresh eyes on the farm.

“Social farming encouraged us to think, talk about and look at the farm in a different way. It has shown us what we can do, the skills that we have.”

Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Charlie McConalogue said that social farming is a “wonderful model” that works well for farmers, but particularly well for participants, as he marked Social Farming Awareness Week, which will run from October 3 to 7.

Speaking at the Social Farming Ireland stand at the 2022 National Ploughing Championships in Ratheniska, Co. Laois on Thursday (September 22), the minister said: “Indeed there is so much more that we can do in terms of added value, in terms of farm families, and their involvement in the wider community.”

Social farming is proving to be a win-win for many in rural Ireland, with multiple benefits not just for participants and their families but also for service providers, farm households and rural communities, according to Dr. Aisling Moroney, social farming policy officer.

“Social farming is based on a simple but powerful concept: Giving people with a variety of challenges the opportunity to spend time and carry out activities on ordinary family farms.

“While the focus is usually on the impact social farming has on participants, farmers and farm families with the right skills and qualities can also reap huge rewards from getting involved.”

In advance of Social Farming Awareness Week which the minister launched, Social Farming Ireland recently shared insights from ten years of experience and research as to what the rewards for farmers and farm families can be.

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Social farmer Tommy Earley with some participants

“Social farming can be a good diversification opportunity, bringing a valuable additional source of income to the farm household. Assembling a range of diverse income streams is increasingly necessary to ensure that farms – and particularly less intensive farms – remain viable,” Aisling said.

She added: “Unlike some other options, it provides extra farm family income which allows farmers to actually stay working on the farms they love, doing what they do best.”

“The nature of the farm doesn’t change and they retain their core identity as farmers, but with additional value attached to what they do.”

“Social farming can usually be comfortably carried out alongside food production and other existing activities. Indeed, it is this ordinary everyday farm activity which makes farming special for participants and which is the most valuable thing is has to offer.

“So things like scraping the yard. feeding calves, weeding, chopping wood, fencing, planting, going for supplies, and preparing simple meals in the kitchen can absolutely be part of the mix of the social farming day,” Aisling commented.

“When compared to many other diversification options, social farming involves minimal capital outlay or ongoing input costs. No new tractors, buildings, pieces of equipment, or expensive supplies are required. It is the time that the farmer spends supporting and working alongside people that is the main input, alongside the existing – but often underappreciated ­ – assets of the farm.

“It is the time that the farmer spends supporting and working alongside people that is the main input, alongside the existing – but often underappreciated ­ – assets of the farm.”

Aisling continued: “The walk up to the top field to check the stock also becomes a way of building fitness and getting natural movement in while the hedgerow in late August provides learning, as well as a source of blackberries for eating or jam-making.”

Helen Doherty pointed out that research among existing social farmers show that 57% feel that this type of diversification has encouraged them to pursue further diversification opportunities, largely centred on the kind of activities that involve a further ‘opening up’ of the farm and what it has to offer to the wider public or particular groups.

Initiatives like farm, nature or forest walks; school educational sessions and tours; offering workshops in particular skills; on-farm tourism accommodation; and environmental education are all being pursued.

One mixed farmer in Co. Mayo spoke of being “inspired to share the farm with others”.

“We want to do school tours, and tours for Transition Year students and the public, subject to demand.”

Another Co. Mayo farmer concurred on the value of fresh eyes on the farm: “When you get comfortable with having people here, you can see what else can be done.”

Social farmers often talk about falling back in love with their farm a little bit as they see what the farm, and they as farmers, can offer to other people.

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“And it is this sense of personal satisfaction from supporting other people, from seeing them grow and flourish, that is cited more than any other as the key benefit of social farming for the farmers involved,” Helen said.

A Co. Westmeath farmer highlighted the sense of satisfaction gained by being a social farmer: “There is the great feeling of wellbeing from having done a good day’s work. It’s a great uplifting day… It has been good for the children as well as for the connections with the neighbours.”

There are strong rural development and societal gains too, according to Helen.

“Environmental or biodiversity improvements and education are bedded in, from the simple level of tidying and cleaning of sheds and having good systems of waste disposal; to tree-planting and woodland maintenance; to the development of vegetable and fruit gardens; to the maintenance of bogs.

“Social farming activity brings life and vitality to farms and rural areas and helps to sustain rural communities, both financially and socially. As one farmer in Co. Cork put it, it helps to keep the countryside alive, to give people the opportunity to avail of what the farm provides, and the opportunity to be out and about, not stuck inside.’

More people than before, Helen said, get to know and understand the real importance and value of what happens on ordinary family farms.

“And having people on farms, the most ordinary of settings in an Irish context, helps break down barriers between people and assumptions about capacity. People from all kinds of backgrounds grow together on common ground.

The upcoming Social Farming Awareness Week offers farmers all over the country the opportunity to learn more and to see what social farming is all about for themselves.

A farm open day will be held every day, starting on Monday (October 3) at the farm of Andrew and Elspeth Vaughan, a busy dairy farm which also has alpacas and horses, and which runs down to the shores of Donegal Bay.

On the Tuesday, the focus moves to the other end of the country, to Bateman’s family farm near Crookstown, Co. Cork, where Michael, Shirley and their children run a large dairy farm. There is also a vegetable garden and many other opportunities for new activities.

On the Wednesday, it’s over to Co. Meath, where Emma Jane Clarke hosts participants on her small holding near Athboy, where activities with horses and gardening form the core of the social farming offering.

It’s off to the west on the Thursday to Mary and Niall Murphy’s farm near Athenry in Co. Galway. This mother and son duo provide opportunities to engage in fruit and vegetable growing, as well as working with animals which include some fowl.

The week ends on the Friday near Dungarvan in Co. Waterford on O’Grady’s farm, a sheep and suckler enterprise which also has a large polytunnel where fruit, vegetables and flowers are grown.

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In launching Social Farming Awareness Week, Minister McConalogue also congratulated Social Farming Ireland on the production of a new quick guide to social farming for farmers. He said it was “so important” to bring the information to a wider audience and expand the understanding of what social farming offers.

The minister congratulated everyone involved – organisations, farmers and participants – for their efforts and for the “tremendous work” going on to develop social farming in Ireland in the last number of years.

“Certainly it’s been a pleasure for the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to fund that work, to see how it has made a real difference, and to see the potential that there is for the times ahead,” the minister said.

Anyone wanting to find out more about social farming, or to get a copy of the quick guide to social farming for farmers, should visit the Social Farming Ireland website or phone the national office on 071-9641772. Those who would like to book in to attend one of the open days should phone the office or email Caoimhe at: [email protected]