York U nursing faculty explore social farming model in Ireland

Two faculty members from York University’s School of Nursing, Faculty of Health, explored ideas and concepts of social farming and how it can improve health and well-being during a recent trip to Ireland.

Professors Shelley Walkerley and Elsabeth Jensen were guests at Lough Aedin Farm in Leitrim County, Ireland, on July 25 during the official launch of the Social Farming Network and Model Projects in the Republic of Ireland.

The Minister of Agriculture Food and the Marine, Michael Creed, was in attendance for the event.

York University Professors Elsabeth Jensen and Shelley Walkerley with Helen Doherty, project coordinator for Leitrim Development CLG, and a member of one of the participating community development companies

Social farming offers activities on family farms as a form of social services to people experiencing mental health issues, learning or intellectual disability, and other social marginalization, providing an opportunity for inclusion, to increase self-esteem and to improve health and well-being. The farms remain working farms, and participants are invited to engage and contribute in day-to-day farming or horticultural activities by choice. This also creates opportunities for local farmers to connect with the wider community and contribute to the local social support system.

“This gave us a rare opportunity to hear first-hand from the people who had been involved in the original pilot projects in 2014 and had worked to expand the program,” said Walkerley, who is a primary health-care nurse practitioner and a certified equine-facilitated psychotherapist. “We heard from community developers, politicians, mental health administrators and advocates, researchers, farmers and consumers of the service (the participants who spoke had been affected by mental health and addictions and autism).”

Their remarks, she said, demonstrated the cross-sectional and cross-border commitment to this program.

Social farming, or care farming, is practised in many European countries, including the U.K., Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Belgium and Italy, and has been well established for the past 10 to 15 years in some areas.

This approach is seen as a more inclusive, more self-determined and more cost-effective alternative to more traditional social programs and/or pharmacological management for some conditions, including those affected by mental health, addictions and autisim.

Jensen, who is a clinical nurse specialist in mental health, said many people living with mental health challenges are isolated and lonely, with few or no people other than professionals in their lives.

“They feel separate from society, on the outside,” she said. “The social farming model promotes social inclusion, which is so important to healing and health. It also provides purpose and meaning to the lives of the people who are in need of this. I think there is potential in trying this in Canada.”

While there are currently some small operations actively practising in Canada, they are privately funded and the network of farms and facilities in not well established. There is, however, a growing interest in exploring these community-based alternatives to usual care for people who are living with social and mental health challenges.

For instance, the Irish model is founded on social inclusion, and the farms are not “therapy farms”; instead, participants who choose this approach to recovery, rehabilitation and skills development are integrated into a working farm and participate according to their skills and abilities.

Research from a pilot study done in 2014 shows participants identified five key benefits to this type of program: personal health and well-being; social inclusion; skills development; purpose and routine; and progression.

Walkerley and Jensen have expressed interested in exploring the potential of this model of social farming in Canada, as well as learning about models in other European countries.