Tommy Earley runs a 100-acre organic farm in Drumshanbo, Co Leitrim. On his farm he rears Aberdeen Angus cows and calves, grows vegetables and timber and also has a number of trails for his eco-tourism business ‘Mount Allen Ecotours’.
It was this involvement in hosting farm eco-walks that opened him up to the idea of social farming.
Tommy attended a social farming event where he heard an inspiring story from one person who had benefited from their involvement in a social farming experience.
Tommy explains how this participant had detailed how “everything had been going super for him - married, house, business really going well but he got knocked out with depression. And lost everything…he got a chance to go on a social farm and it made a major difference to him… so I thought… if I could get it going on the farm here it might make a difference too”.
Tommy then made contact with Social Farming Ireland (SoFI) for information on training and becoming involved.
So what is social farming?
Social farming promotes inclusion by allowing participants, who have a range of needs and challenges, to engage in everyday on-farm activities.
Social farming supports multifunctional agriculture as well as current health and social care policy.
It does this by promoting inclusion by allowing participants, who have a range of needs and challenges, to engage in everyday on-farm activities.
This engagement helps participants to boost their social skills, self-esteem and confidence, as well as improving their general wellbeing by being out and involved in the natural environment.
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Social farming participants can come from a range of different backgrounds including people experiencing mental health issues, people with intellectual, physical and sensory disabilities, the long-term unemployed, young people who are at risk, and refugees, among others. Participants choose to become involved in social farming themselves and are assigned to farms based on their interests and goals. Placements usually last for a period of 10 to 12 weeks, and take place once a week.
Social farming in Ireland is particularly unique in that it takes place on ordinary working farms, meaning that those participating are based in non-clinical environments, unlike in other countries such as the Netherlands and Norway.
Farmers who facilitate social farming placements on their farms receive payment for their time and expenses incurred, helping to boost their income and utilise the natural and human capital of the farm to the fullest.
Benefits of Social Farming
Tommy described one example of how his farm has helped some social farming participants who were non-verbal.
He explained that ‘‘the hope was that they would get a couple of new words…So what I did was take a picture of the hen out there and got it photocopied and we made a little scrapbook. So we’d go out and be looking at the hen and then come back in to the table and look and the picture in the scrapbook and say ‘hen, hen’, by the time they had left they had five or six words… So it’s making a big difference”.
Tommy’s advice for those thinking about becoming involved in social farming is to get as much information as possible from SoFI and “if you can get out onto a social farm when there is a group there, and…just see how it works, it’ll be a good experience”.
Social Farming in Ireland
Social Farming Ireland (SoFI) is one of the key organisations driving social farming in Ireland. It was established in 2015 on the back of an EU funded project ‘Social Farming Across Borders’ (SoFAB) which operated in the Border counties of Ireland and Northern Ireland from 2011 to 2014.
SoFI was set up to continue to develop social farming in the Republic of Ireland and opened in April 2015 in Drumshanbo, Co. Leitrim and is led by Leitrim Integrated Development Company.
SoFI has been strongly supported and funded since 2015 by the Department of Agriculture Food and the Marine, largely under the CEDRA fund.
One of its key roles is to support the development of a national social farming network and to do this it collaborates with a number of Local Development Companies.
These include Leitrim Development Company (Border Midlands), West Limerick Resources (South West), Waterford LEADER Partnership (South East) and South West Mayo Development Company (West) which support the practical roll out of social farming regionally and act as a support to intermediaries which come together to make social farming happen: the farmers, the health and social care organisations, and the participants.
Since its inception in 2015, SoFI has delivered over 6,300 placement days to approximately 790 participants on 77 social farms throughout the country.
For more information and resources on Social Farming click here