Following on from a successful visit to a Co Kerry social farming open day, Allen Meagher takes a closer look at what it’s all about.

There is a push on to teach the public about the benefits of social farming, and committed farmers in a half-dozen counties have held public open days.

In addition to a highly successful event at Rena Blake and Lisa Fingleton’s farm in Ballybunion, two social farms in the west recently threw open the gates: John F Geraghty’s farm in Williamstown, Co Galway, and Anna and Oliver Dixon’s organic farm near Claremorris in Co Mayo.

Across in Ballinamona, Kilmuckridge, Co Wexford, Shelly Berry’s farm held an open day in September.

Others farms to open to those interested in learning about the initiative include John Murphy’s in Kildinan, Co Cork, Campbell’s farm in Plumbridge, Co Tyrone, and Tommy Earley’s farm in Mountallen, Co Leitrim.

But the number of farmers keen to spread the gospel of social farming says less about the initiative’s potential for success than does the positive experiences of its participants, the enthusiasm of supporting organisations, and the optimistic responses of open-day guests.

Martin Sheehan on the farm

Martin Sheehan at work on the farm.

Martin’s best day of the week

Martin Sheehan goes to George Kelly’s farm every Monday.

Martin’s mother Eileen said, “that’s really the only good day that he has every week”.

The farm has a black pot-bellied pig and it sits outside the front door waiting for Martin to arrive, much to everyone’s amusement.

“I clean outhouses, feed the calves, clean up and collect eggs. We get tea and biscuits,” said Martin.

‘Should more farmers embrace social farming?’ we asked another participant, John. “They should,” he said.

Antoinette says people should ‘sign up today’

If anyone still had any doubts about the value of social farming, participant Antoinette O’Sullivan won them over when she spoke at the Kerry Social Farming’s open day.

Ms O’Sullivan comes to the farm once a week and she outlined how it works.

“I love farming,” she declared. She said they usually start the day with a cup of tea with Rena, who explains to her and fellow participant Bronagh what work they have to do.

Antoinette pictured with fellow participant Bronagh, and Paul Geraghty and Lisa Keveney from the department

Antoinette (left) pictured with fellow participant Bronagh (right), presenting gifts to Paul Geraghty and Lisa Keveney from the Department of Rural and Community Development. Photo: Changing Ireland.

“The work is good. I love coming here,” she said.

She told the crowd about improvements in her health: “I have a condition called Apert Syndrome, and constantly planting and moving my hands in the soil is good for them. It is exercising my fingers.”

The place is also peaceful. “There is a lot of space. If you’re having a bad day, you can go for a walk and you’ll be happy going home,” she said.

There’s no rushing for the gate when time is up though. “When we finish our work, we usually stay on longer,” she admitted.

The bond formed between farmer and participants is at the centre of the venture.

She urged new social farmers in Kerry to “sign up today”, and promised that they wouldn’t be sorry.

As for herself, “My confidence has grown. It’s getting me out of the house and I’m learning something new. It’s fun, it’s not serious, but we do do our work,” she said.

Rena testified that seeds that Antoinette and Bronagh planted grew much better than those she did.

“They took the time. I rushed,” she recalled.

Support from Saint John of God

The Saint John of God (SJOG) organisation plays an important role in social farming in Kerry. Just over half of all the social farming participants there at present are supported by the organisation.

Saint John of God participant John, pictured with social farmer Mary Healy

Saint John of God participant John, pictured with social farmer Mary Healy. Photo: Changing Ireland.

“Every week, we have 17 people working on farms across the county,” Michelle Angdon of SJOG in Kerry said at the social farming open day in Ballybunion.

Her organisation was involved with Kerry Social Farming from the start, in 2013.

She said it was “very timely” because, in 2012, the HSE had produced New Directions – draft standards for people to become more independent, respected, healthy and safe, and more involved in their communities.

“The Kerry Social Farming project was perfect for what we were trying to achieve and we keep hearing participants speaking so positively about it.

“The lads tell us what they like: being out and about, that it’s good for their wellbeing, their mental health, they get a sense of achievement and independence, they’re learning all the time. The big thing they talk about is the host farmer and their families… They get a sense of social belonging,” she said.

In recent years, social farmers have also welcomed people with more significant disabilities, including blindness.

What does Saint John of God do?

Saint John of God is an international Catholic social care organisation that employs hundreds of care workers in Ireland who perform roles that are provided for by the state in some other countries.

SJOG says that it strives for “a society inspired by hospitality, where the potential of each individual is reached”. It operates across the country and receives over €130m in HSE funding annually.

In Kerry, it currently organises training, employment, and social and residential programmes for more than 300 people with intellectual disabilities.

Central to local

Until 2006, SJOG had 160 people travelling from all over Kerry to access services in a central location in Tralee. That year, they began to move the services and people back into their own communities. Today, SJOG has centres in Beaufort, Cahersiveen, Castleisland, Dingle, Kenmare, Killarney, Killorglin, Listowel and Tralee.

“So, we have people available all across the county,” said Ms Angdon.

Naturally, transport is a challenge, but Local Links helps. In Kerry, the subsidised, community-based transport programme has organised volunteer drivers in cars to bring people to different places, including social farms.

SJOG now has a waiting list of participants wanting to try out social farming.

Department guests wish to return

Lisa Keveney from the department listens to Julie Brosnan of Kerry Social Farming

Lisa Keveney from the Department of Rural and Community Development (on left) listens to Julie Brosnan of Kerry Social Farming. Photo: Changing Ireland.

Paul Geraghty is the principal officer for the Social Inclusion and Communities Unit in the Department of Rural and Community Development.

He and his colleague, Lisa Keveney, were guests at the open day in Kerry.

Mr Geraghty was among those to speak in the marquee set up for the visitors:

“I know there have been reports written, but when you spend 10 minutes listening to a farmer involved in this explain the benefits, then you really understand,” he said.

“What you have here is inspirational and we’re delighted to support it,” he added.

While they had been briefed beforehand, he and Ms Keveney were impressed to see for themselves the scale of the project.

“It’s a credit to you all and it’s been an eye-opening day,” said Mr Geraghty.

He promised to return with additional staff to learn more.

Main photo: Joshua Lanzarini/Unsplash