@FarmersJournal Damien’s Diary: Getting away from it all with social farming @blissberryfarm @LairdHse06 @LeitrimDevCo

“Despite the hardship that sometimes comes with the farming life, for most farmers it still beats the thoughts of a nine-to-five job.

I have often said to farmers I meet, and they generally agree, that despite the hardship of their occupation, with low prices and long hours, if they were given the choice between working the land or having a nine-to-five job living in a housing estate in Dublin, they would choose to stick with the farming. In spite of all the problems farmers face, it has to be one of the most fulfilling jobs going. And if you don’t agree, then you should find out more about care farming, or as it is becoming known in Ireland, social farming.

Daniel was 16 years old when he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. For him and his family, their world was turned upside down. Last week I met Daniel and his mother on a farm in Donegal. Larry Masterson’s Blissberry farm, situated just outside the village of Mount Charles, is one of 20 cross-border farms involved in an exciting new initiative opening up their farms to people with disabilities, mental health issues and other social problems.

Social Farming Across Borders (SoFAB) is new to Ireland but has been in action in Europe and the UK for many years. Since its inception here, farms like Larry’s are open to visitors who come to work, to connect with the land and nature, and in the process lend therapy to the mind. Working the outdoors like this heals and nurtures, it seems, because doctors and medical practitioners are now prescribing patients with visits to these farms rather than pills.

Daniel’s mother told me how they had tried everything to help their son in the 10 years since he was diagnosed. But it wasn’t until they began visiting Larry’s farm to work in the vegetable garden, the beehive and with his sheep and poultry that Daniel finally found peace of mind. I could sense the relief in his mother as she told me how social farming has given the family a new lease of life and how it is helping Daniel cope better than anything else he has been prescribed.

Larry Masterson worked in health services for 30 years. His dream of owning a farm like this came true when he took early retirement. Along with his wife Winifred and son Patrick, they took on the Blissberry farm project. It’s a mixed organic farm which Larry has opened to the public to participate in social farming. They come along once or twice a week for a few hours, helping out on the farm, growing their own vegetables and mixing with others. And it’s not just people with mental health issues who come along – everyone is welcome.

When I dropped by last week, the weather was fantastic and there was a real sense of peace and tranquillity about the place. Everywhere I looked, people were buzzing around doing different jobs, all the time clearing their minds and refreshing their bodies with energy and enthusiasm.

I came away thinking that I had come across a real gem of a story. Farming has just tapped into another resource it didn’t know existed. Social farming could be the next farmhouse cheese business for our entrepreneurial farmers. It could also be another weapon in the fight against rural isolation. It was while drinking tea and eating Winifred’s homemade buns at 11am that I saw the real benefit of social farming as everyone sat around outside chatting and laughing.

I think we are going to hear an awful lot more about social farming because it is a real win-win concept for all concerned. It’s an opportunity for the farm organisations, the HSE and other relevant stakeholders to get talking.”

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