James Foley, Shanagolden and Petra and Art O'Meara, Kilworth at the formal launch of Social Farming in Limerick on Mike O'Connell's farm in Clarina | Picture: Dave Gaynor
I HAVE found what I wanted to do in life,” an emotional Mike O’Connell, high-profile Limerick businessman and farmer, told a recent gathering at his farm in Clarina.
That something is Social Farming, an idea which bowled Mike over when he first came across it five years on a visit to the UK. In fact, he explained, he was so taken with the concept that he immediately phoned his wife to tell her he had found his calling. And for the past two years, Mike has put action behind those words and become a pioneer of Social Farming in Limerick, working in conjunction with West Limerick Resources.
At the formal launch of Social Farming in Limerick, Mike spelled out why. “I was reared on a very small farm,” he explained. His father had to take a job off farm and his mother worked at home. “I always loved the farm. I probably got it from my mam,” he said. “I always believed, even as a teenager, a farm had something to offer to the community and I still believe that.”
Social Farming is a relatively new concept in Ireland but it probably answers something deep and old as the hills within the Irish character: the idea that closeness to nature and to the land can bring a sense of well-being.
At its simplest, Social Farming is based on the idea that involvement with the land brings benefits to people in need of support in their communities. When it began it was aimed at people with special needs or people with mental or physical health issues but since then it has widened to include young people at risk, the long-term unemployed and early school leavers.
It was first piloted in Leitrim and five other border counties as well as the six counties of Northern Ireland, explains Helen Doherty, national co-ordinator Social Farming Ireland.
“Now we are rolling it out in the 20 remaining counties,” she grinned. And West Limerick Resources, she explained, will be leading that roll-out in the south west.
“The outcomes for people who get involved are fantastic,” she enthused. And this is true, both for the farmers and for the participants.
In fact, according to Dr Aisling Moroney, researcher and evaluator for Social Farming Ireland, many farmers report that they learn more from the participants than the participants learn from them. And farmers are increasingly signing up to the project, she explained. “There is a great deal of positivity about it,” she continued and her job is not simply to tell the story, but to do justice to that positivity through hard evidence.
Among the positive outcomes for participants she has noted are a sense of well-being arising out of physical activity and physical work and from working with animals as well as the satisfaction of contributing. For farmers, the scheme provides a social aspect in what is often a lonely job but also contributes, in a small way, to their livelihood.
Richie Bowens, who works with Foróige’s Youth Diversion Project in West Limerick, is equally enthusiastic. “It caught my interest straight away,” he said. “It is something that young people would positively engage with and benefit from.” A particularly crucial aspect, as far as he was concerned, were the relationships built between participants and farmers over the ten week span of each scheme. Those relationships were cross-generational but also ones of friendship.
The participants told it in their own words. Patrick O’Brien, Abbeyfeale, has just completed his 10 weeks on Mike O’Connell’s farm, along with Eddie Kavanagh, Dean Kennelly and Jake Bolger, and just “loved it.” Asked to describe Mike, whom he calls grandpa, he said: “He is a kind man, a gentleman and a helping man.”
Patrick “jumped at the chance” to get on a farm although he is a “townie” “I always wanted to do something like this,” he explained. Now, his hope is to get a job on a farm and to do a course which would build on what he has already learned.
Michael Manaher is from Athea and one of a group from the HSE Gortboy Training Centre in Newcastle West, who are half-way through their time at the O’Connell farm. “It is really something I look forward to,” he told the Limerick Leader. “I like working with the horses and I like being around animals.”
Fellow participant Patrick Madden is equally upbeat about it. “It is very nice,” he said. “I enjoy it.”
Donal Cooper, the instructor at Gortboy, said they were the second group to avail of the scheme. “It is very good for people to get out into the air, away from the TV and XBox. They are much fitter and it is better than going to any gym.”
He too had nothing but praise for Mike O’Connell saying: “He has helped the trainees come out of themselves. There is always very good feedback.”
“I think it is fantastic that we can give back to the community and give people an opportunity to experience life in the country,” said Mike Flynn, who is a farmer as well as being chairman of West Limerick Resources. And he encouraged other farmers to find out about Social Farming and to think about getting involved. “It brings back the old community spirit that has gone,” he said.
“It is an exciting initiative. It is something different,” Shay Riordan, manager of West Limerick Resources said, explaining that a lot of time and effort had gone into getting the bones of the scheme right.
“One thing we are very clear about, this is not about getting cheap labour for a farmer,“ he told the Limerick Leader. “It is about providing a positive experience to people who might benefit from it.”
Farms, he added, can be very interesting places. Mike O’Connell, Social Farmer, agrees. He has known that all his life. And now he has convinced others too.