Farm Ireland
Independent.ie

Tuesday 24 January 2017

Organics: Farming with a social conscience

Published 20/11/2016 | 14:00

Just 2pc of Irish farmers are certified organic.
Just 2pc of Irish farmers are certified organic.

Social farming like organic farming is underdeveloped in Ireland, and we lag badly behind many of our European counterparts in both disciplines.

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The focus of this column is organic farming, and considering that it is the only division of agriculture that has remained in constant growth for the past two decades, it is staggering that we still remain at just 2pc of the farming sector here.

Social farming is another area that we fail miserably in. While neither organic or social farming are for every Irish farmer, surely as agriculture comes under increasing pressure farmers need to look at every opportunity to survive and remain viable into the future.

The social farming landscape is about to change dramatically in Ireland as this week Leitrim Development Company (LDC) announced that it won the Government tender to deliver a Social Farming Network.

For many farmers' social farming is a new concept and essentially it is defined as - farmers who offer farming, horticultural and animal related work experience to people who would normally avail of day care services.

Social farming is widely practiced in Europe, with countries such as the Netherlands and Belgium leading the way in terms of best practice. Internationally, a high percentage of social farming projects take place on organic farms.

The beauty of social farming is that most projects are tailor made to suit both farmers and participants.

Helen Doherty, National Project Co-ordinator explained that "this collaborative network is innovative, in that it will bring together many stakeholders from both agriculture and the health and social care sectors, and the network will provide a range of supports and facilitation through four regional hubs.

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"The four regional hubs will be in the Border-Midlands, the South West, the West, and the South-East.

"The regional hubs will engage with the many and multiple stakeholders and groups of beneficiaries whose lives are improved by engaging in farming and horticultural activities and settings.

"The network will also support farmers and growers, and farm families who are interested in getting involved, providing training for them and sampling placements on these farms over the coming year".

Many social farming projects start off with farmers working with participants in a voluntary capacity; however, this is something that needs to be addressed if social farming is to advance in any meaningful way in Ireland.

It is an issue that the LDC will explore in greater detail as part of the project.

In recent years there has been a focus on farmer isolation in many parts of the country, for many farmers the solitary aspect of farming is difficult.

Social farming offers an opportunity for farmers with a particular skillset to open up their farms and make it a more social place.

The benefits of social farming are well documented both for the participants and the farmer.

Rural communities where social farming exists are actively engaged in social inclusion, while at the same time they make farming a truly communal activity.

While obviously not for every farmer, it certainly does offer opportunities for famers who wish to diversify their farming business.

Grace Maher is development officer with the Irish Organic Farmers and Growers Association email: grace.maher@iogfa.org

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