International experience and growing exposure in this country indicates that social farming has significant potential to make a real and lasting difference in young people’s lives, especially those who are facing challenges, according to Social Farming Ireland policy officer Dr. Aisling Moroney.

“We know that social farming provides a real life learning experience, away from mainstream settings which are not always a good fit,” said Aisling, as she unveiled plans for many schools around the country to offer social farming programmes from next September.

“Social farming builds genuine self esteem and confidence, the kind that comes from doing a job well, from making a contribution or overcoming fears and trying something new, or mastering a new skill.

“We know from a case study in Carndonagh, that it allows some students to shine in a way that they may not be used to.”

Carndonagh Community School

Leaving Cert Applied students in Carndonagh Community School (CS), Malin Head, Co. Donegal, have revelled in the chance to take part in social farming.

Elaine Meehan, coordinator of the Leaving Cert Applied programme at Carndonagh CS, recalled her original motivation in supporting her students to take part in social farming.

“A lot comes back to the idea of active citizenship,” she said.

“I wanted them to know how a farm works, that it’s hard work. You can sit and have your cup of coffee and chat but you can also get to see new life, get mud on your hands, get dirty; the fundamentals of life.”

Since late 2018, 29 students from Carndonagh have had the chance to spend time social farming on William McLaughlin’s dairy farm, located only 7km from the school.  

For one day per week for eight weeks, and in groups of three or four, they worked alongside and with the support of William on the kind of everyday tasks typical of a farm. These included: feeding calves; moving cattle; cleaning the yard and changing the bedding; cleaning the milking parlour; dosing cattle; fencing; tidying and chopping wood.

Some were lucky enough to be there when animals were born. One of the students, Laura, who spoke at a recent Social Farming Ireland online event on social farming and the Leaving Cert Applied programme, recalled witnessing a cow needing a Caesarean section

“This is real life on the farm, away from phones and distractions and a chance to be part of and contribute to something important. Of course it’s also good fun,” said Elaine.

The cheerful aspect was important to student Brendan, who said:

“It was good craic. I mean we did the work and took it seriously but at the same time, you had the craic. It was very enjoyable.”

For Laura, it was the best thing she did in the Leaving Cert Applied programme. Elaine noted that attendance was excellent, that students engaged with the social farming more than anything else they tried. There was also the buzz about it which spread throughout the student body, she said.

“It brought a real energy and excitement back to the classroom. Every week the other students would be dying to hear what had gone on,” Laura said.

Social Farming Ireland

Through Social Farming Ireland, a small but growing number of young people like Laura and Brendan are having the opportunity to take part in social farming as part of their Leaving Cert Applied programme, in Transition Year at school or through other services, with the support of teaching staff at their school.

The relationship between the social farmer and the students lies at the heart of the experience and is key to its success, according to Aisling.

“As Elaine put it, the most important thing was the respect that William showed the students and that he trusted them and let them show initiative.

“It was crucial for me that he showed them respect and understanding and that he enjoyed being with them and having the craic,” she said.

“There are now almost 100 Social Farming Ireland trained social farmers around the country who have the skills, personalities and experience to provide positive life-enhancing and in some cases, life-changing opportunities for young people in the everyday community setting of the family farm.”

The team at Social Farming Ireland recently presented their report to 35 schools from 17 counties, with many planning to offer the social farming option from September 2021.

“Our regional officers are working hard with key people in the schools to ensure everything is in place for September, when we hope the schools will be back to normal,” said Aisling.

Held via Zoom, the schools’ event had contributions from Elaine in Carndonagh school, some of the students involved and farmer, William McLaughlin.

“On the evening we also had contributions from other areas such as a farm in Waterford that has also hosted participants from a local school, and another in Leitrim that featured on ‘Ear to the Ground’ in November 2020.

“There have also been interactions with schools in Cavan and Wexford, to mention a few,” concluded Aisling.