Crowds at Open Farm Sunday 2015© Tim Scrivener

My team and I were always looking for a winning formula for Open Farm Sunday (OFS) at the GWCT Allerton Project, a research farm in Leicestershire.

We have been involved since it started in 2006 and built on our event year on year. Recently it has doubled in size and we have seen numerous benefits from the increase in visitors.

I have been running the farming operations at Hall Farm for more than 20 years. We are a Leaf (Linking Environment And Farming) Innovation Centre where we practice integrated farm management – a key part of this is community engagement, which we are passionate about.

The very fact that hundreds of people want to spend their Sunday on our farm is vitally important to farmers and the farming industry. Farming can be a rather insular occupation at times, so it’s great to welcome about 500 people to the farm and share the story of our year.

Opening the gate to welcome the public to a working farm is full of logistical challenges. They are nearly always solved by enthusiastic teamwork and planning. We work with neighbours and volunteers to ensure our visitors have a pleasant day. Many others in our rural community bring their produce to sell on the day.

Phil-Jarvis-head-shot
Phil Jarvis is farming operations manager at the GWCT Allerton Project in Leicestershire, farming 319ha plus 800ha in a joint venture with neighbours at Oxey Farm.

The food we produce and the rewards of working in a fantastic rural environment are part of our winning plan. We have recently started to engage with more schools in the run-up to OFS. The rewards are plain to see in the smiling faces of the children as they enjoy the open spaces. They are our future consumers and hopefully we can raise their awareness of crops and livestock so they can make more informed choices on the food they eat later in life.

Today’s food chain has become complex with a growing “ready-made” meal culture. Information about the benefits of fresh and healthy produce is paramount. As a primary producer of food we welcome the opportunity to get our message directly to consumers. Feedback from the campaign shows the public hugely value the opportunity to learn more about how their food is produced and where it comes from.

It’s not a day to talk about exchange rates, the world economy and the finer detail of the CAP. However, we do find it a perfect chance to talk about backing British farming and supporting Red Tractor-assured food. It makes sense for the British public to consume as much British food as is practical. Food provenance, safety and security are high on the agenda.

We like to show the pride of growing food in rural Leicestershire. It’s also important to convey the message that farms are businesses relying on profit to ensure they can invest in the future.

Our livelihood is in our soil, so its health is paramount to our success, yet our farming landscape also includes habitat that supports lots of wildlife. OFS gives us the opportunity to showcase our environmental credentials and many of our visitors are really interested in farmland biodiversity as well as our modern farm machinery.

We have seen a number of business benefits and have seen the profile of our farm raised. Not only has this led to new business contacts, but reaffirmed our existing ones. We run many training and educational courses and the exposure from Open Farm Sunday reaches out to many parts of the East Midlands and hopefully enhances our reputation. The volunteers from our local community help us with a number of other events during the year, ensuring a more financially sustainable business.

Here are some of our tips for OFS (the big day in 2016 is 5 June).

  • Plan early, deciding the size of your event. It doesn’t have to be huge – you might want to start with a small event such as a farm walk for the local village.
  • Engage with fellow farmers, suppliers, volunteers and exhibitors – they can all share the farming story.
  • Register your event on the national OFS website (it’s interesting how many people visit different farms each year).
  • Order the free resources from Leaf – including banners, flyers and posters.
  • Promote your event through school visits, traditional and social media, banners, leaflet drops and word of mouth.
  • Livestock, farm machinery and tractor and trailer rides are great attractions. Something out of the ordinary can intrigue and attract more visitors.
  • If young children have plenty to do, the grownups will stay for longer.
  • Have plenty of information and leaflets that can be read on site or be taken away.
  • Provide refreshments for a hot or cold day.