‘The most meaningful day’

Photo shows, Ger Deegan, Eugene Dolan, Sarah Cully and Francis Rooney on Ger's Cloughan farm.

They might not come from farming backgrounds but Sarah Cully and her friend Francis Rooney look perfectly at home helping Ger Deegan as he makes his daily rounds on his 140-acre holding on the outskirts of Mullingar.

Sarah and Francis are participants in an initiative run by Social Farming Ireland that pairs interested service users across a range of sectors (intellectual disability, mental health, long-term unemployed and youth support) with farmers in their localities.

Each Tuesday for 10 weeks, Sarah and Francis spend the day with Ger and his friend Eugene Dolan as they go about their tasks to keep things ticking over on his farm in Cloughan.

It is the perfect location for an initiative like this because if a certain Danish brewer did picturesque farms, they would probably resemble Ger’s, which has been in his family for more than 200 years.

In addition to having an award winning forestry on three quarters of his land, Ger rears a small herd of organic suckler cows, organic poultry and three organic pigs that will, when the time comes, provide him with his pork for the year. He also has a polytunnel that provides a significant amount of his vegetables for the year and his own apiary. If that wasn’t enough, the farm is also home a magnificent peacock.

On the morning that the Westmeath Examiner visited, Sarah and Francis began their day with Ger by feeding the chickens and a pair of exceptionally tame and disconcertingly friendly geese, before moving on to feeding the pigs. We then took a stroll up to the fields to the cows, where Sarah and Francis did a head count to make sure that all were present and correct.

Plans for the afternoon, which sadly this writer could not wait around for, included tending to the vegetables in polytunnel. On other days Sarah and Francis spend time in Ger’s forestry.

Although the morning was spent doing things that would take place on any working farm, it was done at a pace that suited Sarah and Francis and was punctuated with plenty of chats and laughter, which gave a sense of the bond had developed over the last month.

Over a tea break, during, which Francis impressed us with his encyclopaedic knowledge of Westlife, we also learned that Francis’s favourite animal on the farm was Ger’s dog, Ben, and that Sarah’s favourite part of the day is feeding the different animals.

Francis and Sarah attend Mullingar Resource Centre, which provides a range of services for people with intellectual disabilities in the greater Mullingar area.

Kathy Duff, the centre’s acting manager, says that it has been “hugely beneficial” to the users who have participated in the initiative over the last three years.

“They are engaged in meaningful work, involved in their local community and meeting new people and making new friends,” said Katy. “It’s also very relaxing and very therapeutic.

“This year we have 13 service users taking part. Last year we had we had eight, the year before that we had two, and there has been absolutely no negative feedback.

“We have some participants who have done a number of programmes and they would love to do it one day a week for 52 weeks, if the funding was available.”

Studies have shown the many benefits of social farming, not just to the service users, but also to the farmers who sign up for the programme.

Many participants develop new life skills, as well as increased self esteem and confidence, having made a positive contribution. Equally importantly, they develop meaningful relations with the farmers and their families.

Established in 2012, initially as a cross-border project, Social Farming Ireland’s programme proved so successful that Department of Agriculture came on board to provide funding for a national network, which at present is active in 25 of the 26 counties.

This year, it’s estimated that 450 participants across the country will have experienced social farming. There are currently 80 active social farmers in the country and a further 60 going through the accreditation process.

Andrew Chilton, Social Farming Ireland’s regional development officer for the Border Midlands, says that while his organisation is always on the lookout for new social farmers, not everyone is suited to the role.

“A big challenge for me is finding a suitable farmer. Not every farmer is a social farmer. Not every farmer has the empathy and the communication skills, the desire and the ability to support participants on the farm and, of course, their farms need to be suitable as well.”

After being selected to participate in the initiative, farmers undergo training before they become accredited, a process that can take the best part of the year. The training covers everything from how to support people with different abilities to health and safety (a particular focus).

“There are certain activities that participants will never engage in. We will never let a participant operate a chainsaw, for example – that’s just too risky.

“But if they are capable, they get to use a strimmer. They’ll never to get to drive a tractor, but if the farmer’s tractor is safe and there is a spare seat, then they may get to travel in the tractor with the farmer.

“We call social farming a form of social care. Some of the activities that the participants engage in may be work-type activities. It is about the value of the role that is given to people. When you are on a farm and you have to close a gap, that is an important job.”

While youth is no barrier to farmers participating in the scheme, Mr Chilton says that many social farmers are from the age cohort “no longer exclusively driven by the profit margin”.

“One of the big things for us is finding a farmer who has time. If you are a big commercial farmer who is chasing your tail from morning till night, then you absolutely will not be a social farmer.

“Social farmers need to be in the right life space to be able to offer those supports. That one day a week, or in the case of Ger, two days a week, the farmer knows the activities that he has planned are going to take longer to do because he is going to do them at the pace of the participants.”

Ger has been a social farmer for two years. He says that participating in the scheme has enriched his and Eugene’s lives far more than they had anticipated.

“We’d be chatting during the week and this would be the day that we’d be talking about. The other days of the week are forgotten. It’s the most meaningful day," he said.