28 May 1999


DIVERSIFICATION is a big word. Its the sort of word that frightens children. They have a job explaining it. Some even have a job pronouncing it. But some heard this simple example recently: "Its like when the family grows up and moves out and theres a spare bedroom which the farmer lets people stay in if they pay him."

The words were spoken by one of the 60-plus "walkers and talkers" – the farmers taking part in the Tendring Hundred Farmers Club Open Day.

The event, aimed at helping youngsters learn about the industry, saw more than 400 primary and senior school students come to Dengewell Hall Farm, Essex, home of the Davidson family.

They heard about grain diseases, barn owls, cattle feed and sheep shearing. They heard about tractors, traceability, Tom cats and tuberculosis. About what the vet does. About food safety. Are you worried about the food you eat, they were asked. "Only when my brother cooks it," one of the children answered.

Even record keeping was touched on. As one speaker said: "If you think you are going to be a farmer, you have to work hard at school because you will have to do a lot of paperwork and a lot of maths."

The visitors heard about how, in the old days, if you ploughed an acre it meant walking nine miles. That an 1850s wooden plough cost about £7. And that, nowadays, tractors cost about £35,000 and combine harvesters £90,000. "A combine costs about the same as a three-bedroom semi-detached house but lasts about as long as a washing machine," said one speaker.

&#42 Pressure groups

Co-ordinator Guy Smith said the annual event, now in its 14th year, was born out of "disillusionment" with the way the industry was presented in schools. "This gives farmers a platform to explain farming in their own terms."

Its something that is becoming more important, too, as pressure groups become more vocal. "Farmers cannot be mealy-mouthed or apologetic – they just have to get their message across."

Norfolk farmer Mike Attew said: "It is important that you target the younger generation and the people who are teaching the younger generation.

"Unfortunately the media make stories about the downside of farming. Its important that we get the positive side across."

But its a growing challenge to do this, with fewer people directly involved with the industry. "Very few people that come here are from a farming background," said helper James French.

The questions asked by the students have, of course, changed over the years. Where there once was most interest in set-aside, now its organic farming and BSE.

Days like this, he said, play an invaluable role in changing attitudes and correcting misconceptions. "People still have the idea that a farmer is a bloke with a piece of straw hanging out of his mouth," said Mr French. "Events like this give them the idea that we are a high-tech industry."

Adrian Wright, a teacher at Colchester Royal Grammar, took 30 A-level students. "What we need to know as geographers is what land is used for – and why. It could be the Canadian Plains or what is grown on this farm," said Mr Wright. "The students have done the theory; this will help them remember. Theyll go into the exam with a mental image of what they have seen."

As for the younger visitors, they had a good time, too. But what did they learn? Eleven-year-old Abby said: "Its made us think about where our sandwiches come from."

Matthew, 11, even said he quite wanted to be a farmer. "Because you get loads of money."

On the PR front some work, evidently, remains to be done.