Ploughing new furrows in rural communities

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Shiny new machinery, showers and mud, food stands and coffee bars with laughter and banter are all part of the spirit of the gathering which is the ‘National Ploughing Championships’. An abiding feature of this event, year in and out, in good times and tough times, is the celebration and camaraderie which characterise the people and way of life of rural Ireland. Despite the advance of technology and modern communications—even down to the sight of a man following a horse-drawn plough with reins in one hand and mobile phone in the other—rural communities still have something of people, place and values which define them. Our current President, Michael D. Higgins, and his predecessor Mary McAleese often referenced this strength of community, neighbourliness and the collective efforts which are evident outside more urbanised settings—a living link to the meitheal as a task and social gathering of community around the shared seasonal activities, such as saving the harvest.
In the UCD tent at this year’s ploughing event in Wexford was a stand promoting a new rural initiative focused on inclusion and participation opportunities for people marginalised in society for reasons of health, social, economic disadvantage or disability. The project ‘Social Farming Across Borders’ had already visited other agricultural shows earlier in the summer, with a focus on getting information on this new initiative to those most marginalised in society.
The project is preparing to offer new and exciting opportunities for people to experience real farming and rural life with farm families in their local communities. The partnerships that evolve in this pilot venture may be of people who already have a ‘preferred choice’ of being involved in rural, farming and outdoor activities, or those who wish to experience farming as a potential life option. One of the best parts of rural life is the quality of friendships and the diversity of interests that are to be found in rural Ireland. Even better are the social gatherings, often around a welcoming kitchen table, which provide opportunities to share ideas and experiences or to plan the work and activities of the day over a cup of tea.
The roots of this project (which runs from late 2011 to September 2014) were the interest and wish of a strong cohort of people from diverse support backgrounds to have the opportunity to learn, train, work or merely engage and be part of the everyday life within the farming community. The project offers the opportunity of 30 days of experience to 60 people across 20 farms from within its catchment area of the 6 counties of Northern Ireland and 6 northern counties of the Republic of Ireland. While pilot supports can only be offered within that catchment area, the project is open to all interested parties who want to learn and share in the experience as it evolves. There will be a number of information-sharing events and the website (www.socialfarmingacrossborders.org) will be kept updated with news and resources. The project aims to have partnerships in place and to offer experiences to people from early 2013. Leadership of the project is through Leitrim Development Company, the UCD Faculty of Agriculture Food and Veterinary Medicine and Queens University Belfast. (www.socialfarmingacrossborders.org).

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