With 400 host farmers and 150,000 visitors, Open Farm Sunday was a resounding success last year. Three farmers told Johann Tasker how their open days went last year and their plans for this year’s event on 1 June

Nick Rowsell, Stoke Charity, Hampshire

Nick Rowsell, who has taken part in Open Farm Sunday for the past two years, makes a point of speaking to every visitor in person.

“The idea is to attract people who drive past the farm every day and show them what happens on the other side of the hedge,” he says. “We try to aim for no more than 120 visitors to the farm. That way I can make sure I speak to everyone.”

The 400ha (1000-acre) arable unit at Stoke Charity, Hampshire, produces combinable crops, herbage seed and poppies. Nick also farms another 1200ha (3000 acres) under a variety of contracts.

Tractor and trailer rides depart once an hour during Open Farm Sunday, taking visitors on an escorted tour of the farm. Each ride takes 40 minutes – long enough for adults to see everything, but not so long youngsters get bored.

Crop samples are laid out on tables bulging with food so visitors can see exactly what is produced on the farm, and how it is turned into the food they eat. The display includes bowls of harvested seeds and individual plants.

The audience is mainly local villagers and schoolchildren. Although the farm is arable, neighbouring farmers help out on the day by bringing lambs and chickens so the children can see livestock some of them encountering animals for the first time.

Rowsell

“Lambs are always extremely popular,” says Nick. “We usually give the children grain so they can feed the chickens. At the end of the day last year it looked like we had a grain mountain in the yard.”

The secret of a successful day is to make it fun, he adds. “It doesn’t need to be educational and the last thing you want to do is lecture people. So long as you are able to sow a seed of thought in people’s minds, then I believe it has been a success.”

The first Open Farm Sunday year was such a success that the second year attracted almost all the villagers who didn’t come the first year. Now it has become something of a local event and Nick now plans to attract visitors from further away.

That means getting more farmers involved, he says. “It is hard work but really good fun and I’m always amazing how pleased and surprised people are even to learn small things about the farm.

“I want everyone who comes to be able to meet a farmer. Open Farm Sunday makes you see how people perceive farming. You suddenly realise how much they want to know and how little they actually do know.”

Since opening his farm gates to the public, Nick says people have started to wave as they drive past each morning on their way to work. “Now they recognise that we are doing something worthwhile, rather than just cluttering up the roads in our tractors.”

Edward Baxter, St Andrews, Fife

Edward Baxter decided he wanted to attract as many people as possible to Open Farm Sunday on his cereal and beef farm near St Andrews, Fife.

“We billed it as a special day for children,” he says. “We targeted local schools and arranged for posters to go up in all the local villages. We managed to achieve almost saturation coverage.”

The aim of the day was simple, says Mr Baxter. “The story we wanted to tell was the scale of modern farming and we wanted to do it in a touchy-feely way that appealed to everyone, but especially children.”

The farm is home to a herd of Belted Galloway cattle. On arrival, each visitor was offered a free burger. “We wanted to create a buzz. It rained a bit, but then cleared up, so the weather was OK. It wasn’t hot, but it certainly wasn’t too wet.”

An old threshing machine – once cutting edge technology, which would once have taken 12 men to operate – was displayed in the yard. In front was a potato box containing a tonne of wheat. It was soon adopted as a sandpit by visiting children.

Baxter

“We were determined to keep all our messages simple,” says Mr Baxter. “We kept everything jargon-free, we even explained the yield from a field of oats in terms of how many bowls of porridge it could make.”

About 300 visitors embarked on a farm walk. Special activities for children – including face-painting and badge-making – were laid on by the Royal Highland Educational Trust, which encourages youngsters to learn about the countryside.

“We thought that getting everyone here on the basis that it was a family day meant it was important that we ensured they were entertained while they were here. Allowing people to climb up on to things like combines were a big part of that.”

Neighbours were roped in to welcome visitors and the local Young Farmers manned the car park. “We didn’t know what to expect, but at one point we had 300 cars, so we reckon we had about 750 visitors.”

Like many other farmers, Mr Baxter will again take part in Open Farm Sunday this year. “Seeing people who had never been near a farm take an interest in what was going on was hugely rewarding.”

The event also revived an old-fashioned sense of community among everyone who took part, he says. This included visitors as well as farm employees who worked hard to ensure the day was a success.

“It was very much a day which involved everybody. It wasn’t just me strutting my stuff. I gave everyone who works on the farm the opportunity to put in for overtime if they wanted to and none of them did, which speaks for itself.”

Philip and Rachel Laytyon, Llandrindod Wells, Powys

Philip and Rachael Layton last year welcomed about 200 visitors to their beef and sheep at Dolau, a small village outside the Victorian Spa town of Llandrindod Wells, Powys.

“It was our first time and we are in quite a rural area, so there isn’t a big urban population near by,” says Rachael. “We had quite a lot of local people, which surprised us because you assume they know what you do already.”

But some people visited the farm from much further afield after Rachael handed leaflets promoting the event to customers at her Dolithon Meats stall at farmers’ markets throughout Wales and the west of England.

“We go to 17 farmers’ markets every month. My best tool when it comes to getting any message across to customers is talking to them, especially when it comes to explaining lamb costs money because grass isn’t free.”

As a result some visitors came from as far away as the West Midlands. “They travelled about an hour-and-a-half to see where their food was coming from and how it is produced,” Rachael says. “They were very, very interested.”

Layton

The day was also promoted on the local radio station, in school and church newsletters and using the internet. “Only seven farms in Wales opened to the public last year and we decided to use any way we could to get people interested.”

Tractors and harvesting equipment were polished and put on display. Cream teas were offered to visitors and the event raised more than £100 for charity. But the most popular attraction proved to be tractor and trailer rides around the farm.

“Things that we take for granted are really exciting to people who have never been up close to them before,” says Rachel. Visitors were fascinated by a sheep handling demonstration showing how livestock are put through a race, she adds.

Youngsters were given magnifying glasses and encouraged to explore the farm by looking for insects and taking part in a bug hunt. Older visitors were given the opportunity to participate in a “guess the rural artefact” competition.

Although hard work, the day was a resounding success, says Rachael. “We are very much convinced farmers need the public on their side and we got involved with Open Farm Sunday because we want people to see the bigger picture.”

This year, Rachael hopes more neighbours will be involved. “Many of our neighbours were interested in what we did last year and some of them helped out. Having seen how it went, I’m hoping more will be keen and feel able to join in this time.

“This generation is the generation that cares about the environment and they make their choices accordingly,” says Rachael. “If we can help inform those choices by showing them what we are doing, then I think it has to be a good thing.”

Want to be involved?

If you want to get involved with Open Farm Sunday, either as a host farmer or helping another host farmer, ring organisers LEAF on
024 7641 3911