Farmers open the gate to social farming to change lives for people with disabilities and their carers

Farmers open the gate to social farming to change lives for people with disabilities and their carers

Farmers open the gate to social farming to change lives for people with disabilities and their carers

Updated 20 November 2017, 11:20 AEDT

Farmers in southern WA open their gates to people with social and health problems to give them the chance to develop new skills and have new experiences, embracing the concept of social farming.

In the picturesque costal farming town of Torbay on Western Australia's south coast, the May family has had a "open farm gate" policy for those dealing with mental illness, addiction and disability for seven years.

Now, under a new initiative, they hope to help even more people.

Andy May, who lives with his teenage sons Javier and Simon, had never heard of "social farming" before attending a University of Western Australia (UWA) lecture in the nearby city of Albany, but he had inadvertently been following its core principles for years.

At its simplest, social farming is the idea of farming families hosting people with social and health problems, so the participants get to experience the possibility of doing things they have never done before, such as working with farm animals.

The practice, which originated in western Europe in the mid 20th century, has been brought to Australia by UWA, which hopes to get it off the ground as a pilot program in the Great Southern region of Western Australia.

It is hoped by proponents at the university that farmers such as Mr May will volunteer their time and properties as outdoor therapy centres for people with intellectual and physical handicaps such as Down syndrome, autism and cerebral palsy.

New experiences on the farm

Professor Geoff Riley, a former rural GP and psychiatrist, is working with UWA to engage farmers in the region.

He said that, depending on the patient's abilities, they would be tasked with performing jobs such as collecting eggs, stacking wood, or managing small machinery.

"These people get to spend time, up to a 30-week contract effectively with the farmer, so that they come to the farm several days a week, on average two to three days a week," he said.

"And by spending time on the farm, in doing those simple things in contact with the earth and animals, they learn new abilities [and] new skills.

"With that they get enormous benefits from these kind of new experiences."

Farming changes lives of patients and carers

Mr May, who before settling in Torbay spent time as a teacher and volunteered in remote Indigenous communities, has always believed that working with your hands is good for the soul.

He recalled working with a young boy with Down syndrome alongside his carer, and how the simple task of learning to paint had a huge effect on the child.

"I showed him how to… he was using a roller and he did a great job," Mr May said.

"I think they both walked away covered in paint, but it was a great experience.

"The young fella was really keen to come back again and try out more things, but I just couldn't accommodate him.

"Up here I'm a lot more freed up."

Mr May's middle child, 18-year-old Simon, is a high functioning young man with autism who has a knack for electronics and woodwork, and has helped his dad with building work on the property.

"He's actually overly confident with himself. I think I've shot myself in the foot there," Mr May said.

"He's got skills in all sorts of areas now.

"It's those sort of things, getting him to cope with frustration, getting him to learn perseverance and patience

"And I think this goes a lot with most of the people that come [here], is these underlying lessons you learn … that the city doesn't seem to have time for."

Carers to benefit

Professor Riley said that based on results from European programs, the experience could be life-changing for participants and carers.

"The evidence is more profound than you might think," he said.

"There's this lovely thing that develops, the relationship between the farmer and the farmer's family.

"The participant tends to emerge out of a shell to some extent.

"They go back to their homes and their institutions and they're described sometimes by those people who are looking after them as changed."