Day 3 of SSC and it was time for county number three – Tyrone. We all converged on Rural Support HQ, based in Loughry College, and then a trip to our first farm – a hill sheep farm (hence the title – Farm-ewe-la One!). Current mileage – 210 miles.
We heard all about the work of Rural Support from its staff, it’s a small charity set up with the emotional health of the farmers in mind. They run a helpline for farmers, provide mentors for farm financing and business ventures, coordinate social farming (more on that later, and no it doesn’t involve tea and scones!) and promote positive mental health. One thing I found particularly interesting was a course they mentioned called Mental Health First Aid which all their staff and volunteers have completed. It is similar to the traditional first aid course, in that it aims to teach participants how to recognise a possible mental illness and provide initial help until a professional arrives. With farming and medicine both featuring high on the list of occupational related suicides, I think it would be really beneficial if as medical students this was something we attended – so we could recognise and help ourselves or our colleagues, as well as our future patients. More information on this website for those interested (http://www.publichealth.hscni.net/publications/mental-health-first-aid-training-programme).
Following lunch, it was time for another road trip, this time in the Rural Support minibus up increasingly narrow, windy and bumpy roads to a hill sheep farm near Plumbridge. At one point someone asked ‘are we still on a road?!’ which gives you an indication of how rural it was, with small lanes, fringed by grass and tall, windswept hedges. You wouldn’t find Lewis Hamilton on roads like these!
At the farm we were met by the working sheepdogs, keen to smell and investigate. The farm is run by a couple with three children, and they currently have a placement student over from France. What makes this farm different, however, is that it is a social farm.
Yes, a social farm – not one where you go to have a coffee, pet the animals and look at the view (which was admittedly stunning), a working farm which ‘involves the innovative use of agriculture to promote therapy, rehabilitation, social inclusion, education and social services in rural areas’. Simply put, individuals with learning disabilities or those recovering from a mental health illness spend time at a farm near them, getting involved in the daily activities and learning new skills – it really is the biopsychosocial model in practice.
I was completely blown away by what I saw at the farm – the work they are doing with these disadvantaged people is truly amazing! Two days a week different people from the surrounding towns/villages come for a day, and the programme lasts for 40 weeks, at the end of which they get a qualification. Today we saw the participants help the farmer select lambs to go to market and tag them in preparation. There’s no room for sentimentality on a farm, especially where farmers have to pay £32 to remove any dead animal from their land but horses can be buried for free (they’re pets!).
During the short time we spent with the participants we could differentiate between those who were nearing the end of the course and those who were only beginning, so clear were the skills they had learnt and the confidence they had gained. On speaking to one of them, it was clear how much he valued it, saying it was the highlight of his week. We then spent time with the farmer and his wife, seeing around the farm. They have a polytunnel and kitchen garden which the volunteers help tend and then are given some of the produce to take home with them to encourage healthy eating. It was so clear what the benefits for the participants were, but those for the farmers were less obvious so I asked what they got out of it. Although there is a financial contribution to the farms, it is not significant and simply covers the costs incurred by the farmer. The farmer said it was amazing to see the participants grow and develop over their time at the farm, with his wife adding it was great to be able to make a difference and she looks forward to the days when the volunteers are on the farm. When talk turned to their own health, they said they do have a good GP but other services are harder to access being in a remote area. The farmer’s wife is a trained first aider and every participant first completes a course on health and safety when they arrive on the farm. While everything might sound rosy, in fact there are many worries which are taking their toll, not least the potential implications of Brexit – the future of the single farm payment and the funding they receive for the social farm. I am in no doubt that should programmes such as this one be scrapped it would be a huge loss for our society. In an era where ‘green prescriptions’ are becoming a buzz word, I believe one such way these can be filled is through social farms, and these initiatives should be expanded, not facing the chop (unlike the lambs!).
This morning we learnt about the many issues farmers can face and the support that is available to them, while this afternoon we had a chance to visit our first real life working farm of the module. On the farm, on a bright, sunny day in September it seemed idyllic. I couldn’t help thinking should we have visited on a dark, cold, wet, windy day (you could say, when it’s absolutely Friesian) in December and actually had to do the work of the farm we might have felt differently! It’ll be interesting to see if the farmers we meet throughout the rest of the module have similar opinions and experiences to those we met today – I suspect not!