Down On The Farm

4th December 2009

Urban children – rural farms… it should be a marriage made in agricultural heaven. Pupils get out of the city streets, experience first-hand where food comes from, and what Farmer Giles really does for a living. Schools deliver a valuable learning experience; children have fun; farmers connect with the outside world. Everybody’s happy. Sadly, it’s not that easy any more. Jack Watkins looks at the issues.

The food and faming sectors could have been forgiven for a sense of despair, a feeling of ‘not again…’, when news hit the headlines this summer of another health scare on a British farm. The E.coli outbreak may have been a personal disaster for the proprietors of the affected farm, and, of course, for the families concerned, but this establishment was only one of hundreds that have added a new strand to their business by providing access and facilities for children and their parents to visit, either as private individuals, or though their schools. It threatened, too, to undo a concerted effort in recent years to overcome the widely held belief that there is a deepening awareness gap among youngsters about the countryside and its role in food production.

The industry has been at pains to draw a distinction between the animal attraction, or ‘petting farm’, nature of the location where the outbreak took place, and conventional farms where arranged visits are merely an adjunct to day-to-day operations – but it would be understandable if some parents and teachers took fright at the news and cancelled planned visits to any type of farming venue.

According to Bill Graham, Head of Education for Farming and Countryside Education (FACE), that has “without doubt” been happening, although he acknowledges that it would have been worse if the outbreak had occurred during the school summer term, when visits are at their peak. “In fact, I was contacted by one farm that has been affected by falling visitor numbers, asking what we were going to do about it, and suggesting we launch a campaign. Personally, I don’t think that would be the right thing to do. For a start, it would be too emotive, and investigations are still taking place into the matter. What we are advising teachers and farmers is to stick to the guidelines provided by the Health and Safety Executive. With good risk management in place, there is absolutely no reason why schools should not still be visiting farms.”

With evidence that children of early school age are most at risk from the infection, would it not make sense to restrict visits to those from, say, eight years upwards (when, in any case, they may be more able to take on the sometimes complex messages about faming)? Graham thinks not. “There has been a debate about it,” he says, “but I believe it’s a very valuable experience for very young children. It’s an introduction, and we see these visits not as one-offs, but as part of a continuing programme that runs though primary school and on to secondary stage, where they might actually be taking a GCE or diploma which has a relevance to land-based industries.”

FACE has been in existence for eight years, with its origins in the aftermath of the crippling outbreak of Foot and Mouth disease (FMD) which, for a period early in this decade, made the countryside a no-go area for would-be visitors. While there had been a long history of farmers hosting visits by schoolchildren, these had largely been the result of relationships that had built up between an individual farmer and a local school. Then, not long after the FMD outbreak, came Sir Don Curry’s Sustainable Farming and Food report, which was effectively a call to arms for the industry to make a greater effort to reconnect with the public. “The whole business of diversification and the need to talk about what they actually do are often cited by farmers as the reasons for involving themselves in school visits,” agrees Graham.

However, a recent study by Kingston University, London, called for a new push to encourage more schools ‘to take up these hugely beneficial visits’, and argued for the government to put more money into training and promotion. It pointed out that many farmers, in spite of aid from schemes such as Countryside Stewardship, often undertook the visits at considerable personal cost, and struggled to make contact with teachers to initiate them. “Without a keen champion within a school,” the report argued, “it is difficult to set up school visits.”

Graham accepts that there has to be a realistic acceptance that teachers have a lot of different priorities and demands on their time. “A farm visit is but one of those. But we do need to be articulating the benefits and, slowly but surely, this is happening, because the number of visits is rising.” He says that there are now about 2,000 farms active in hosting school parties, with 1300 farmers now trained under the Countryside Educational Visits Accreditation Scheme (CEVAS). It has been estimated that up to 2,000 children a day visit farms at peak times of the year.

The Kingston report also highlighted the continuing gap in children’s knowledge about food production – it’s a common assumption that milk simply comes from a bottle and bread from a packet. According to Graham, these misunderstandings do not vary drastically among those raised in the city or rural areas. “A lot of rural children don’t have any connection with the countryside or farmers, or those involved in land management.”

This is not as surprising as it might appear. The number of those working on the land has shrunk drastically in recent decades. It would have been virtually impossible to have lived in or near the country up until the 1950s without knowing someone who worked within it. The country labourer these days, though, is a virtually an extinct species, and farms are often run single-handedly.

What this has also meant is that farming itself is seen as a low status job by career advisers who, as Graham says, are merely a snapshot of the – countryside illiterate – wider population. “They haven’t caught up with the fact that there are a number of opportunities, beyond being a famer, for careers in agriculture… mechanics… engineering… working with the establishment of wildlife areas…”

Farm visits can certainly help overcome these misconceptions. And, as a future looms when we face tough decisions about how we produce food and manage our resources without further damaging the environment, taking time to ensure that children, at an early age, gain some insight into life on the farm could scarcely be more relevant.

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