WORKING WONDERS Chris Smith and Paul Maguire with Margaret Leahy (SWMDC), pictured on Chris Smith’s organic farm in Clogher, Westport.
SINCE its introduction in Mayo in November 2016, Social Farming has helped promote the social inclusion of mental-health service users, according to farmers involved.
The Department of Agriculture-funded programme gives people with intellectual disabilities the chance to work on local farms and take part in their day-to-day running. It works in conjunction with the Leitrim Development Company and is being driven by the South West Mayo Development Company (SWMDC) locally.
Two farmers in Mayo are actively taking part in the programme, which sees service users from the likes of Western Care Association, HSE Mental Health Services and Rehab, spend one day a week on the farm for ten to 12 weeks.
The work is based on the needs and abilities of the service users, with the farmer receiving some financial support. A similar programme has been run successfully in other countries, including Holland and Belgium.
Last week, The Mayo News travelled out to Clogher, Westport, to visit one of the farmers involved, Chris Smith of ‘Western Herbs & Veg’. Two service users, one of which was nonverbal, recently worked on the farm for ten weeks.
The organic farm, an abundance of colour and vegetation, grows up to 30 different types of vegetables along various herbs and flowers, all sold locally.
For Chris, his interest in working with people with intellectual disability was first awoken by his wife’s interaction with children with autism. “My wife teaches autistic kids in primary school, so I had always heard her talking about managing kids with autism,” he told The Mayo News.
Taking part in the Social Farming scheme has taught Chris a lot, he says. “You learn that we’re really different in many ways, particularly when someone doesn’t speak, [but] they’re just as interesting as people, and they have so much going on.
“You learn to be more organised too, to plan a bit more carefully to provide the right work for the lads … they are great workers once they get going.”
Fellow organic farmer, Paul Maguire of Cloon River B&B, has seen similar benefits for himself and for the four service users on his 72-acre farm in Partry.
“You don’t do this for the monetary rewards or just to get a load of work done,” Paul told The Mayo News. “I had two uncles in St Mary’s [Psychiatric Hospital] and St Teresa’s [mental-health care unit] in Castlebar during the bad times, and I can remember coming away as a young lad saying ‘this is not the way to handle this issue’.
“Now, 35 years later I can see this [the principles of Social Farming] is the right way. The service users have been so enthusiastic, looking forward to every Tuesday when they come out, and they have really came out of their skins.”
The current scheme has been running for three years now, and research is being carried out in UCD to measure its impacts and benefits.
Development Officer for SWMDC Margaret Leahy says the scheme is a win-win for all involved.
“There is nobody who cannot benefit, especially anyone that faces any type of social exclusion – including farmers who work on their own all day,” she said. “It is about really developing a network for everyone involved. We are looking at working with probation services, people with dementia, people that are very, very long-term unemployed, to teach them how to utilise their skills.”
But Mrs Leahy warned the scheme’s future is still uncertain.
“If the Department of Agriculture withdraws, then the scheme is in danger,” she said. “It is hugely beneficial for farmers and for service users and for the department to get involved, so I hope the Minister for Agriculture keeps funding it.
“As an agricultural country, it would be a terrible thing if we didn’t use what is here naturally, along with the skills of the farmer, to help people who suffer from social exclusion for a variety of reasons.”
Farm open days
On Wednesday, August 30, a Social Farm Open Day is taking place on Paul Maguire’s farm, Partry, between 11am and 1.30pm. On Friday, September 22, an open day will take place at Chris Smith’s farm, Clogher, Westport, between 2pm and 4.30pm. For more information, contact Margaret Leahy on 087 6233862.