University College Dublin and Social Farming

Celebrating 15 Years’ Involvement in Social Farming Research

As we approach the mid-point of our involvement in the Green4Care project, at University College Dublin (UCD), we thought it would be a good opportunity to reflect on our long history of involvement in social farming research and to point out some of the highlights along the way.

Background to UCD’s Social Farming Research Activities

Our involvement in social farming research began around 2005, when we were invited to join a research consortium led by the University of Pisa, under the leadership of Professor Francesco Di Iacovo.  This consortium led to the establishment of  the SoFAR project (Social Services in Multifunctional Farms), an EU FP6-funded project, which examined the nature and extent of social farming practices and policies in seven European countries, including Ireland.  We began our research in 2007, undertaking the first attempt to map the social farming landscape in Ireland. We quickly realised that while the use of the term “social farming” might be relatively recent, the activities and practices which it encompasses have a long history in Ireland.  The practice of using horticultural or agriculture-related therapies to support vulnerable people has traditionally been embedded within an institutional setting.  The idea of linking a family farm with social, health or care services, in order to provide service users with a social farming experience is a relatively unknown concept in Ireland.  At the same time, in the SOFAR research, we identified numerous examples of working farms integrated into the activities of social service providers – such as mental health, intellectual disability and rehabilitation services. Nevertheless, we found that awareness of the existence of social farming, and its many benefits, remained low and opportunities for collaboration and networking among social farming practitioners were few. One of the key outcomes of the SOFAR project was that it provided a platform for collaboration and networking among social farming actors within Ireland and with their European counterparts.   It was during this initial “mapping exercise” phase of our research that our relationship with Leitrim Development Company was forged.  This relationship endures to the present day as we continue to collaborate on initiatives to advance the development of social farming in Ireland. 

UCD and Irish Social Farming Research

Following the conclusion of the SoFAR project in 2008, a voluntary group of stakeholders formed a Social Farming Community of Practice Group, with key input from UCD and Leitrim Development Company.  The work undertaken by this group culminated in a successful application for EU INTEREG IVA funding for the SOFAB project (Social Farming Across Borders) which was operational from 2014 to 2017.  SOFAB was a cross-border initiative involving University College Dublin as the lead partner, Leitrim Development Company and Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland. Its remit was to promote the development of social farming in the border region of the island of Ireland.  Key activities included the establishment of 20 pilot social farms in the region with a view to identifying the training and support needed to make it a viable option for family farms in the future. It also saw the development of a cross-border cross-sector network to further support the development of social farming in the region.  Following the successful conclusion of the SOFAB project in 2017, Leitrim Development Co. received funding from the Irish Government Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine for the SoFI project (2017-2020).  This has facilitated the establishment of Social Farming Ireland, the National Social Farming Office, which is charged with the development of a national Social Farming network.  

UCD and Social Farming Research – Further Afield

In parallel with these developments in Ireland, UCD has remained active in social farming research initiatives within Europe and further afield.  Apart from the landmark SOFAR project mentioned above, these include chairing the EU-funded COST Action 866 on Green Care in Agriculture and undertaking research on behalf of the European Network for Rural Development (ENRD) to produce an Overview of Social Farming and Rural Development in Selected EU States.  We were also a partner in the EU-funded LEONARDO project SOFIEU, which was aimed at promoting the uptake of social farming among disadvantaged groups in Ireland, the Netherlands, Italy and Portugal. 

Further afield, Dr. Deirdre O’ Connor was awarded a fellowship by the Institute of Advanced Studies at the University of Western Australia (UWA)  in 2017  to travel to the region and undertake a series of awareness-raising public lectures on the topic of social farming in Europe and to develop collaborative links in the subject area with UWA.  In 2018, she was invited by the World Universities Network to return to Perth, Australia to promote inter-institutional linkages on research in social farming.  Plans to return to UWA again to progress these linkages have been temporarily impacted by COVID-19 developments, but will resume as the earliest opportunity. Our most recent development in terms of social farming research is our involvement with the Green4Care project where we are involved activities across all of the thematic sectors, including Social agriculture. 

While use of the term social farming might be relatively recent, the activities it encompasses go a long way back. Farming in rural communities was traditionally a social practice, with intricate community linkages forged by economic relations of production and exchange, the ebb and flow of the seasons and related food and livestock production, harvest and other celebratory rituals and festivals.

Partner and author’s names:

Deirdre O’ Connor, University College Dublin, Ireland

Photo credits:

  1. Wirestock –
  2. Wirestock –
  3. Green4C
  4. University College Dublin
  5. University College Dublin

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