More than 150 people attended an open day on the outskirts of Letterkenny, Donegal, where Agriculture Minister Charlie McConalogue highlighted the potential of social farming for rural communities. The event was held at the Harley farm, where Patrick Harley hosts participants from the local Health Service Executive (HSE) mental health services each week. McConalogue expressed his excitement about the interest in social farming and the benefits it can bring to rural communities. He pledged to work with his ministerial colleagues to further develop the potential of social farming in Ireland.
Social farming involves using ordinary working farms to provide social, educational, and therapeutic activities for individuals who may benefit from the farm’s setting and activities. It offers a range of benefits, such as improved health and wellbeing, skill development, and social connection opportunities. Patrick Harley became involved in social farming during the pandemic, attending training provided by Social Farming Ireland in 2021, some of which was delivered in farm sheds.
The Harley farm offers a variety of activities, including the care of sheep and Dexter cattle, farm maintenance, and the maintenance of forestry and hedgerows. Renewable energy is central to the running of the farm, where willow is grown, harvested, and dried on-site for use as wood chips to heat the family home. Participants at the open day heard from a number of individuals who have benefited from social farming.
Veronica Carlin, who was supported by occupational therapist Louise McGettigan from HSE Mental Health Services, spoke about the difference coming to the farm had made in her life. She encouraged others to take the first step in unleashing their potential. Dylan Laverty from Donegal Horizons spoke on behalf of the participants he supported, saying he saw their confidence grow through the social farming placement, with one participant gaining employment as a result.
Sadie Kelly, who works with the school completion programme in Donegal with students from Bellanamore School, outlined how school programmes get involved in social farming. She said social farming provides a unique opportunity for young people to learn about a working farm and do activities without teacher supervision to gain independence and improve skills in a supportive environment. The farmer continues to reinforce the importance of their education.
The mayor of Letterkenny, Donal Mandy Kelly, spoke about how pleased Donegal County Council was to support social farming through the Disability Participation and Awareness fund from the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. He said he can truly appreciate the potential of social farming for so many people, having experienced farm life himself.
Helen Doherty, Social Farming Ireland co-ordinator at Leitrim Development Company, said that the evidence is there of the mental, physical, social, and educational benefits of spending a day on a busy family farm. “A big part of the day is just sitting down and having a cup of tea and a chat with new people, making that connection. That social connection is hugely important and it gives those people taking part an opportunity to make new friends and to expand their social circle,” she said.
“At the same time, the mental health benefits include confidence building and growth in self-esteem. There are lots of different activities you can do on a farm so these visits are engaging and also very importantly a lot of fun. Another area of significant benefit is obviously from a physical health point of view. Farming is a very physical job but that physical activity has many other benefits such as improved sleep patterns, reduced anxiety or improved fitness by getting exercise without being labelled as exercise. An opportunity to gain knowledge and skills is evident from simply learning about where our food comes from, growing food, and all the health benefits associated with that to potentially learning new skills through, e.g., building a bird box or a henhouse,” she added.
Minister McConalogue expressed his gratitude to the host farmers for the gift they give people through social farming and pledged to work towards mainstreaming and further developing the potential of social farming in Ireland. With the benefits of social farming becoming increasingly clear, it is hoped that more farms will open their gates to welcome participants and provide them with a unique experience that can improve their physical and mental health, as well as their social connections and skills.