At the Social Farming Across Borders (SoFAB for short) conference held in Carrick on Shannon on 12 June 2013, the large attendance of almost 200 heard about the activities to promote social farming in the border counties of Northern Ireland and the Republic. The participants learned of the experiences of established social farmers from Ireland, the UK and Flanders. The wide range of people in attendance included farmers and their representatives, local rural development organisations, people who use services and people from many fields in the areas of social care, including the Health Trusts and the Health Services Executive. This made for exciting and varied discussions throughout the day.
Dr Tony Bates delivered the keynote address, drawing delegates’ attention to the subtle, yet enormous, potential of creating a place and space for people to experience and enjoy the rhythms of life and growth on a farm with the opportunity to move through the seasons together. Tony completed his talk by recalling the words of Peig Sayers that people survived troubles because ‘they lived in the shelter of their neighbours and family and that kind of community support is vital to all our wellbeing.’
The Flemish farmer, Riet De Schrijver shared the experiences of running a busy farm of 70 dairy cows, 20,000 broilers, plus arable crops, whilst also offering a social farming opportunity to six people that use services who come to the farm for a half day, six days a week. Philip Lane shared his experience from the UK and focussed on developing business arrangements with health and social care authorities to enable the farm to create an income from their social farming activities. A group of men who engage in farming activities with Vincent Coyle on his farm in Meath were among the most popular speakers on the day, giving an account of the difference that social farming has made for them. The presentation was delivered by Vincent, Hans Widmann and Marie Nolan from St John of God Kildare Services. (Video recordings and copies of all presentations are available on www.socialfarmingacrossborders.org.)
The SoFAB team of Aideen McGloin, Paul Henry and Aoibéann Walsh outlined the work to date of the project in supporting the networking of people from services, farmers, agricultural and social care interests on social farming. The steps taken to recruit, train and support 20 pilot farms across the 12 counties involved in the SoFAB Project were explained, as well as the monitoring that will take place on the farms involved, so that the lessons learned in the delivery of services to 60 people can be shared. Brian Smyth of Leitrim Development Co. outlined the opportunities for social farming within rural development policy and the challenges of mainstreaming. Areas of particular interest discussed at the conference were concerns over insurance—an issue on which significant progress has been made through the work of the SoFAB project, with support from FBD and NFU Mutual who now offer insurance cover for this important activity. Issues raised at the conference included how to support the development of social farming after the end of the SoFAB project and the recognition of the ongoing work needed to develop social farming as a rural-development and social-inclusion opportunity across the island of Ireland.
SoFAB is a three-year project to establish social farming in Ireland. It is funded by the European Regional Development Fund through the INTERREG IVA Programme administered by the Special European Programmes Body. The project is led by the School of Agriculture and Food Science, University College Dublin, in partnership with Queen’s University Belfast and Leitrim Development Company. The SoFAB project runs until September 2014 and will produce a series of reports including a cost-benefit analysis of social farming, a guidance handbook and training programme for social farming and recommendations for the policy development in relation to social farming. Updates on further developments and work of the programme can be obtained by registering on with the SoFAB website: www.socialfarmingacrossborders.org.