An Open Farm Sunday talk

More than 250 people have already registered to hold an event for Open Farm Sunday 2015 and the organisers are ambitious – they want to see that figure double.

The event, which takes place on 7 June, is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year and to mark the occasion Linking Environment And Farming (Leaf) would like to make it the biggest and the best yet.

See also: Get ready now for Open Farm Sunday

Since the initiative began, more than 1,000 different farmers have welcomed more than 1.25 million people through their gates. In 2014, 375 farms took part, attracting more than 200,000 visitors.

Annabel Shackleton, Open Farm Sunday manager at Leaf, says she would like to see more farms open their gates in 2015 to help showcase the industry to the public.

“We need the public to value the food they eat, and appreciate the work and the passion that our farmers put into producing our food,” she says.

Organise a farm walk to show villagers what you do every day

Jo North

Jo North

“My message to farmers is that you don’t have to put on a full open day to take part.

“There is huge value in organising a farm walk where you show local villagers what you do every day. It is amazing how many people who live in the countryside do not understand what farming is all about.”

It is a sentiment that farmers who have previously taken part in OFS echo, while also pointing out the personal satisfaction they have enjoyed by getting involved.

Jo North, who farms in the South Downs National Park with her father and brother, says inviting members of the public to the farm has proved “incredibly rewarding” for the whole family.

It has also helped to cement their relationship with the local community.

They open up their 400ha (1,000-acre) dairy and arable farm in East Dean, West Sussex, each year from 2-6pm.

This allows people to come and watch their 220-cow herd at afternoon milking and also take a guided walk around the yard and fields.

“At first I was worried that we wouldn’t have enough to entertain people. It all seemed so normal to me, but I realised it wasn’t normal to 99% of visitors,” says Jo.

“But when people come, they are all really interested and positive. The farm does it all for you.

“When you show people around they are always impressed with our welfare standards and so grateful to see a proper farm.

“Near us, we’ve got lots of people who moved into the area from London because East Dean is beautiful. It is so important they understand why we do what we do – such as combining at 2am. It means they are more on our side.”

Jo points out that there is loads of free advice and resources available from Leaf in terms of how to stage an event, so people should have nothing to fear from having a go.

“I’d say do it, but do it at a size you are comfortable with. If that’s just inviting 25 people on to the farm, then that is better than nothing.”

Open Farm Sunday is a great opportunity to promote food and farming to its customer base

This will be the ninth year that Colin Dawes and his family host an OFS event.

The first time the family opened up the farm was when they were farming in England, but they have kept the tradition going even after moving close to Kinross in Scotland in 2013, where they rear sheep and cattle.

Colin Dawes

Colin Dawes

“In our very first year we just linked with our local school, which was trying to raise money to buy books for the library.

“We opened up the yard with the sheep in the sheds and then had an hour session called ‘Ask the farmer’.”

Colin believes OFS is a great opportunity to promote food and farming to its customer base, so they understand where their food comes from.

“It doesn’t matter what you have on your farm – fruit, cattle, cereals or vegetables – every farm has something to offer.

“As farmers, we sometimes forget the everyday things we do are fascinating to the general public.”

The “Ask the farmer” model is a really simple way to get conversation going and people will ask questions, adds Colin.

They might ask something like how old is lamb when it goes to market? Or how much milk does a dairy cow produce?

“Initially, you worry about what to expect, but we’ve found the general public are just very keen to listen and learn,” he says.

“It’s also a huge relief to be able to pull on Leaf resources – such as quiz sheets you can hand to the children and they get a sticker and pen on completion.”

Colin describes OFS as one of his favourite days of the year. “It’s a great opportunity to be proud of what we do.”

Showcase your farm through Open Farm Sunday

Andrew Melton from Gressenhall, near Dereham in Norfolk, has taken part from the start – with neighbouring farmers and colleagues joining him on the day to help showcase different aspects of agriculture and conservation.

Yet Andrew, a part-time farmer who also works for Frontier, says the first time he opened up his arable farm he realised the impact it could have. His event has grown from there.

Andrew Melton

Andrew Melton

“It is amazing to see how many people haven’t ever walked in a meadow or don’t really know what a crop looks like close-up.

“You can see people connecting as they walk around. They also ask loads of questions and everyone is really grateful you have made the effort.”

After several years of staging OFS events, Andrew says he has learned some useful tricks to keep people engaged.

He avoids jargon and tries to relate what he is talking about back to the supermarket, so people can understand it more easily.

“To get the children’s attention I tell them they are going on a Maltesers safari and then we go to the field of malting barley and start talking about how the malt [in Maltesers] comes from it.

“I explain for each square metre of crop how many seeds I need to plant, the basics of the ‘food’ I might need to give the crop and how much grain I will hopefully get at the end. All this information is available from Leaf.”

Andrew likens taking part in OFS to giving blood. “You’ll find it incredibly rewarding. Just be yourself and try to get the passion and enthusiasm you feel about the industry across.”

Farm walk suggestions

  1. A one- or two-hour farm walk with a closed invitation list can still have a massive impact and be very rewarding – it’s the quality of discussion that is important.
  2. If you want some help, invite neighbouring farmers, local contractors, your agronomist or vet to lend a hand.
  3. Prepare a few props to talk about – such as samples of different grains and feeds, equipment (an ear tag or ram harness), and the end product.
  4. Try staging an “Ask the farmer” session where you answer as many questions as you can.
  5. The mini-field technique can help you describe the farm-to-fork process. It looks at what farmers sow, when, how it is looked after and quantifies the produce that comes from 1sq m of the field – a data sheet and details are given in the free Host Farmer Handbook.
  6. Register your farm walk at www.farmsunday.org where you will also be able to order free resources including blank invitation cards, flyers and posters to personalise with your event details.

Frequently asked questions

  1. What would I talk about? Just walk around the farm and explain what you do in terms of the food you produce and how you manage the countryside. Make your story relevant to your visitors’ lives by starting off talking about the food they eat. For more inspiration, Leaf has produced a booklet called Farm Walks and Talks – activities to make them memorable, available free to registered host farmers.
  2. How will I cope if I get hundreds of visitors? If you are worried about numbers, make your event invitation only. When you register your event at www.farmsunday.org, tick “Do not display on website” so you can personally invite neighbours and friends or put a note in your local parish magazine.
  3. What about health and safety issues? You do have to take steps to ensure the health and safety of visitors, but farms that have done it say the process can be easily managed. All registered host farmers receive the Host Farmers Handbook which has all the information you need. You can also speak to your Open Farm Sunday regional co-ordinator or the OFS team at Leaf head office 0247 641 3911.

Open Farm Sunday 2015 sponsors include: Aldi, Asda, BASF, Defra, Farmcare, Farmers Weekly, Frontier Agriculture, John Deere, Kellogg’s, Leaf Marque, Marks & Spencer, the National Farmers’ Union, Syngenta, the Tesco Eat Happy Project, Waitrose, the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (from its Bpex, DairyCo, Eblex, HGCA and HDC divisions) and Arla.