28 July 1995

ONE OPEN DAY CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE

Calls for farmers to present a more balanced view of agriculture to the public by getting children on to their farms may be on the increase, but some producers have been doing just that for years. David Cousins

visited a farmers club in

north Essex where theyve been successfully banging

the drum for UK

agriculture for a decade

IF YOURE from Perthshire, Powys or Penzance, the name Tendring Hundred wont mean much to you. Its a peninsular on the north Essex coast, 12 miles deep and 20 miles wide, predominantly arable but with good amounts of cattle, sheep and pigs.

Its also home to the Tendring Hundred Farmers Club, which mounts an annual farm open day each year that puts most others in the shade. Each May some 90 farmers from the club host an open day for 450 GCSE and A-level students. Their aim, put simply, is to present farming "as it is".

Tendring Hundred Farmers Club isnt new to bringing farmers and the public together. It has run an annual one-day show for the last 85 years and non-farming members of the 700-strong club are as welcome as farmers.

The idea for an open day aimed at GCSE students and older began 10 years ago, according to one of the organisers, Jim Macaulay, who runs a 275ha (680-acre) arable and pig farm at Ramsey.

Radical changes were happening in education. The GCSE was coming in and the core curriculum was being established. "We found out that 20 hours a year within the GCSE were devoted to UK agriculture, but that the textbooks most schools were using were 10 years out of date," says Mr Macaulay. "It was obvious that farming hadnt reached out to them."

Something, they realised, needed to be done. Jim Macaulay, club chairman Tom Glover (sales manager at local John Deere dealer Tuckwells) and Toms wife Annabelle (whose teaching background meant she already had links with schools) decided that the best way of updating both students and teachers on modern farming was to take them round a farm.

The first farm tour took place in 1986. A total of 150 GCSE geography pupils from six local schools came to visit the farm of one of the clubs members. The visit was a resounding success, but it was a nail-biting time for the organisers and it confirmed their view that farm tours of this type have to be adapted to the schools needs, not vice versa.

"Schools havent got the time for a nice day out and they have to be able to justify the trip," says show chairman Tom Glover. "Any one farmer can have good relationship with his local primary school. Its much harder and more demanding to have secondary schoolchildren round. You have to make them realise that its not just a day out. You dont want their brains in neutral!"

After organising 10 of these schools open days, Tendring Hundred Farmers Club reckons it knows pretty much what works and what doesnt. Teachers are invited to visit the farm three weeks before the open day so they know what to expect and all the farmers involved go on the tour themselves a week before the day. In particular, says Mr Macaulay, its important to explain farming in terms that 16 to 18-year-olds will understand.

This year 450 students came round the host farm, Docuras Farm, Langham, near Colchester. This 227ha (560-acre) arable, sheep and cattle farm is farmed by Victor Halsall and his sons Hugh and David.

Roughly 80% of the days visitors were A-level students, 10% were GCSE students and 10% were primary schoolchildren. Most were there as part of biology, geography, business studies and home economics courses.

Tom Glover, Annabelle Glover and Jim Macaulay have evolved imaginative ways of explaining some of the intricacies of farming to kids who know nothing about it. Rather than just take everyone round a standard tour of a different farm each year, they have made seven stops on the tour where different enterprises are explained.

At each stop there will be two farmers and a table. Around the table will be examples of the crop or livestock and all the products made from it.

"Each group of 20 students also has a farmer with them as a guide," says Mr Macaulay. "Its vital hes there because the only other time some of the children may have met a farmer was perhaps when he told them to bugger off his land!"

While crops and livestock are visible and fairly straightforward, other aspects of 1990s agriculture are neither. How do you explain CAP reform, GATT and ESAs to 17-year-olds when few farmers (let alone the public) probably really understand them?

The answer, say the open days organisers, is to bring these high-flown concepts down to earth. At the ESA stop, for example, theres a Daihatsu sitting in a field with a modern laptop and a 1930s manual typewriter perched incongruously on its bonnet. These props allow a simple analogy to be got over about ESAs: farmers would like to use modern technology – a laptop computer; the government would prefer them to use an old typewriter; taxpayers fund the difference.

It can hard work, too. "Its like giving them quadruple farming, which is bad news. At that age its not cool to ask questions and you have to stimulate their interest," he says. "Theyre more into Blur (a pop group) than bullocks and more into Keanu (Reeves, an actor) than CAP."

The aim of the open days is not to gain sympathy, stress the organisers, and emotive areas like pesticides and animal welfare are not glossed over. "We try to show farming as it is and why farmers do the things they do," says Mr Macaulay.

"The students are interested in changes in the landscape, for example. They wonder why farmers take hedges out, but when its explained that modern machinery cant work in tiny fields, they understand it as a necessary business decision. If you ask them what theyd do in the farmers situation, theyll usually say they would do the same thing."

"We dont expect them to go home after their visit saying what marvellous people farmers are," he adds. "Its not a propaganda exercise and we mustnt paint a false picture of farming. But if they have a general feeling that farmers are OK and that the decisions they make are often very difficult, then youve made a huge leap".

This is not quite an all-students success story, though. For the last seven years the Tendring Hundred farm open day has been combined with an adults study tour. The host farm is the same and so are the stops, but there are five farmers with each group of 13 people.

These arent adults picked off the street, either. For the organisers deliberately target pressure groups, MAFF, media, scientists and retailers. The list of invitees reads like a roll-call of agricultures most influential and controversial organisations – English Nature, RSPB, Countryside Commission, SAFE Alliance, MAFF, NFU, HM Treasury, British Organic Farmers, CPRE, The Daily Telegraph, Guardian, RSPCA, CIWF.

"Its a non-confrontational exercise, and we dont encourage the farmers to engage anyone in head-to-head arguments, says Mr Macaulay. The aim is to show them the integrated nature of the farming business. Everything has a price and we want to show how decisions in one area of farming affect everything else."