More than 184,000 people took part in Open Farm Sunday in 2010. The achievement was down to the 420 farms that took part and the unique events they put on, according to organisers LEAF.
Large or small, each event had a tight focus to show people how their food was grown and the countryside cared for, said Annabel Shackleton, LEAF events manager.
“The real success of Open Farm Sunday is the step change in consumer attitudes it can achieve,” added Mrs Shackleton.
“Visitors came to a farm and discovered what farming was all about and had a great day out, too.”
So the challenge is now on to make Open Farm Sunday 2011, on 12 June, even better. The prospects are good, with more than 100 farmers already registered to take part – twice what it was this time last year.
Preparations are now under way, with 22 free half-day workshops taking place across the UK throughout March and early April to help host farmers get ready for the big day.
“We’re keen that more farmers benefit from the workshops which are packed full of valuable hints and tips and crucial information to make events successful. They’re not just for new hosts – veteran Open Farm Sunday farmers will gain a lot, too. Attending is a great opportunity to share experiences and ideas.”
The workshops bring out the essence of what Open Farm Sunday is all about and how it achieves unanimous and industry-wide support, Mrs Shackleton said.
“The key is individuality. So the session on publicity is not just about how to get people to your farm, but the number of people you want, drawn from the places you want them. Activities look at what you can do to educate, as well make farming fun. Communication is not just about presentation skills, but how to get your individual message across in a positive way.”
The outcome last year was enthusiastic endorsement and unreserved gratitude from visitors, captured in the feedback forms gathered after the 2010 event.
“The visitors became promoters of the food and farming industry following such a positive and enlightening time on a farm.”
This has made Open Farm Sunday a commercial success, too. Sponsor support for 2011 comes from the entire breadth of the industry, while public funding has been reducing in percentage terms year on year.
“This year the support is from farming trade businesses. Food and farming company Frontier is continuing its support for a fourth year and is joined by new Open Farm Sunday principal sponsors Syngenta and John Deere.”
They sit alongside retailers Waitrose and Asda, plus Warburtons bakers, LEAF Marque, NFU and Farmers Weekly. A number of other sponsors complete the picture to ensure farmers get the support, resources and publicity to make the day a success.
“The sponsors get involved and put a lot of time and staff resources towards helping individual farmers put on well run, accomplished events,” said Mrs Shackleton.
It was not just the visitors who benefited, either. Four out of five host farmers surveyed by LEAF identified a business benefit from taking part in Open Farm Sunday (see panel).
“This is really important. It’s a lot of hard work to put on an event, and it takes a lot of planning. But host farmers do see a clear business benefit. It’s also good for staff morale and gets the whole family involved, too,” she said.
Perhaps the biggest opportunity it offers is to make that reconnection with the consumer who buys your food and enjoys the countryside you manage. Visitor surveys have shown their knowledge of farming improves at an Open Farm Sunday event.
For the farmer there are tried and tested resources to help get across the link between food, farming and nature. Once made, that connection with the public can be developed, through hosting regular farm visits, or starting a new direct-marketing venture, for example.
“Those who do it on a local or community scale help build the national picture,” said Mrs Shackleton. “And you can see it when you switch on the TV or read a newspaper – the public’s understanding of farming is growing and a large part of that is down to individual farmers.
Jason and Katharine Salisbury
WHITEGATE FARM, SUFFOLK
Open Farm Sunday has become the most important marketing tool of the year for the farmhouse cheese and home-grown meat Jason and Katharine Salisbury produce. Nothing can replace the connection you get by getting your customers on to the farm.
“For me it’s the look on a child’s face of absolute amazement when you put the clusters on in the parlour and they see the milk travelling up the pipe – it’s heart-stopping,” said Mr Salisbury.
In 2010 they had more than 1200 visitors to the 44ha dairy and pig unit. As well as cheese, milk, yoghurt and cream from the 30-strong herd of Guernseys, they rear their own beef and pork. All is sold through their own farm shop.
“I conduct farm tours showing every aspect from how the forage is grown to the cheese being processed. Farming neighbours bring along farm machinery, there is a milking demo, a sheep dog demo and tractor and trailer rides. We sell tea and cakes and barbecued meat.”
And this is where the value comes – visitors spend a staggering £10 a head on average and there is no entrance fee.
John and Cathy Charles-Jones
WOODBOROUGH PARK FARM, NOTTINGHAMSHIRE
Just the knowledge that a few people’s understanding of farming has improved is enough for John and Cathy Charles-Jones.
“Once people have been on the farm, the next time you drive a tractor through the village, they wave at you – farming means something to them,” said Mr Charles-Jones.
With 285ha of arable and the farm in Countryside Stewardship, it is the care of the countryside and the pride in farming that the couple are keen to convey to their visitors.
“We run an invite-only event, with a farm walk in the morning and another in the afternoon, looking for a total of 50 local residents to come.”
It’s an informal tour and questions range from where the wheat ends up to how many times the fields are sprayed. “We don’t have much to show people, but it’s amazing how they are genuinely interested. We take great care in educating with a small ‘e’ – it does help.”
Is it worth it?
A survey of host farmers, carried out by LEAF in 2010, highlighted good business reasons to host an event (percentage of total respondents in brackets):
* Raised local profile (30%) – Helped get a direct-sales venture off the ground, or build customers for an existing diversified enterprise
* Increased sales (23%) – A chance to sell to the public on the day or open up new markets
* Better image for the industry (18%) – Just telling the food and farming story helped build understanding with the public of a farmer’s role, encouraging consumers to make better purchasing decisions
* Better community relations (9%) – A more sympathetic reaction from local residents when applying for planning permission or when harvesting late at night
How do I go about it?
Step one: Register your farm. Go to www.farmsunday.org and sign up, adding details of activities you may be planning, opening times, and even pictures. The site has a find-a-farm feature that gets up to 100,000 hits a day in the run-up to Open Farm Sunday itself
Step two: Go to a free half-day workshop. There are 22 across the UK and they take place from 7 March to 8 April. You get tips on how to tell the story of your farm and tackle tricky questions. There is clear guidance on keeping your event safe and keeping visitor numbers at the right level. To book a place, call 02476 413 911 or email email@example.com
Step three: Order your resources. Choose publicity material, activity sheets, information booklets, banners, polo shirts and plenty more, all provided free of charge through the website.
What if I just want to host school or group visits?
This year the Open Farm Sunday workshops have been tailored to support Educational Access agreement holders and others who would like to host farm visits for schools and local groups. The workshops will look at how to build a relationship with your local schools, what elements make a successful visit and the funding streams available to resource them.