Farm visits, especially from schoolchildren, can be highly rewarding for farmers and inspirational for visitors. Tom Allen-Stevens from LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming) and Meg Hart from FACE (Farming and Countryside Education) offer some pointers.
Farmers host visits from all sorts of groups – other farmers, local interest groups, such as the WI, politicians or foreign delegations. But for many, perhaps the most rewarding visits are those from schoolchildren, or from vulnerable or special-needs groups. These are also the two groups for which you can now claim payments if you enter an Educational Access agreement under Higher Level Stewardship.
The advice in this article focuses on school visits, but much of it applies to all farm visits.
How do I get schools interested?
Think first about what you can offer schools that will engage their interest. Farms are a great place to visit and to learn, with all sorts of activities and experiences you can offer that no other venue can. Think about what assets you have – woodland, dairy or just acres of crops and open countryside – and how you can turn these into a fun learning experience.
Once you have identified your offering, consider age groups – would you rather host visits for primary schoolchildren (5 to 11) or older students at secondary school? Then work out the schools in your area that may be interested. When you get in touch, personal contact is best, with the aim of getting an appointment to see the head or relevant teacher. Don’t rely on emails.
Taking part in Open Farm Sunday is a great way to introduce yourself to your local schools. If teachers or children go out with their families first, they will feel more confident with what is on offer at your farm. So if you plan to hold an event, get your local school involved and invite the pupils and teachers, then make sure you meet up with the teacher at your event. You could also offer to do a talk at a school assembly. Once you get interest from a school, encourage them to do a pre-visit to your farm.
What’s stopping schools coming out?
The biggest hurdle will be transport, or the cost of it. health and safety will also be a big concern. One way to overcome any transport problems is to arrange a full day of activities on your farm. This may then allow the option for parents to drop off and pick up their children on site.
Your farm should be clean and tidy, and a risk assessment with visitors in mind is essential – there is a model available through the Open Farm Sunday website. Teachers should also do their own risk assessment as part of the pre-visit.
You must also inform your insurer, and may need to increase your public liability insurance. This varies depending on local authority, but £10m minimum is typical. Your insurer may also insist you are CEVAS (Countryside Educational Visits Accreditation Scheme) qualified.
FACE, LEAF and Natural England are currently bringing together all the experience, tools and knowledge available to make it easier for farms to host school visits. A step-by-step web-based guide will be launched in summer 2011.
Can I charge?
If you are in an Educational Access agreement, you will receive £100 per visit, but may not charge for visits on which you claim. Many farmers do charge for other visits from schools and other groups – £2-£7 a head is the going rate.
The charge you can make may reflect the activities and facilities you offer. Schools are more forgiving on a farm where they are not charged. That said, as your reputation grows, you may find they are happy to pay and make repeat bookings.
What training do I need?
You are strongly encouraged to join the 1,800 farmers who have CEVAS accreditation. This involves a two-day training course run by FACE, and an independent farm assessment is also available. There is also a distance-learning facility for those with some experience in hosting visits if you cannot attend one of the courses available. Details can be found on the FACE website.
LEAF runs free half-day workshops for Open Farm Sunday in March and April and these are a great way to help prepare for an event, build your confidence and to find out more about opening your farm. The online workshop on the Open Farm Sunday website has videos with tips and advice from experienced farmers.
LEAF also runs Speak Out training courses, which to date have helped more than 1,000 farmers get their message across about food and farming to the general public and help make a visit or event memorable and inspiring. Elements of the course are now available on a DVD.
How much about the school curriculum do I need to know?
It’s worth having a basic grasp of key stages, and an understanding of what classes are focussing on at the time of the visit. But you are not the teacher – your expertise is in farming, and your value on the day will be in bringing your enthusiasm and knowledge for the job to the children in a way that engages and enlightens. A tip is to start with what they are familiar with – what they see on the supermarket shelf, for example – and relate this to what happens on the farm.
How do I prepare my farm?
Think first about access – can you accommodate a coach? You should have a covered area to meet and greet, and where children can leave belongings. There are capital grants available to convert buildings. But in many cases a clean, well-sheltered outbuilding with chairs or hay bales to sit on can make a good outdoor classroom.
Plan your route well so that there is the minimum chance of falls or injury. Pay particular attention to no-go areas, such as slurry pits, grain bins and workshops, and potential contamination through muck on gates and in passageways.
Do I need to provide toilets and hand-washing facilities?
Yes – the facilities you have in the farmhouse are unlikely to be adequate. New guidelines have now been issued by HSE – if your visitors come in contact with animals you must provide hand-washing facilities with hot and cold running water, liquid soap and paper towels – gels are not adequate.
You should also ensure they wash hands thoroughly before eating or leaving the farm, and that you have enough facilities for the size of group you are hosting. Full guidance is available here.
How do I get children enthused by farming?
This is the secret to a successful farm visit. You want the memories and the knowledge to stay with your visitors long after they have left your farm, and for them to give ringing endorsements of their visit.
Make it interactive – try to engage all the senses, so encourage them to dig their hands through a bucket of grain, smell freshly cut silage, and listen to the sounds of nature. Get them moving, think of interactive games that illustrate farming activities, or give them simple farm tasks, such as collecting eggs, or apples. And encourage them to take something home, such as a collage of leaves, fleece and straw they have gathered from your farm.
Make it personal – tell your visitors your favourite things about the farm, why you love your cows, how passionately you feel about springtime. Personal details stick in the memory. And make it fun – the farm is a new and exciting experience for your visitors. Plan the day so that they move from one activity to the next. You are aiming to send home tired but happy children. Check out the LEAF and FACE websites for ideas and activities.
Wha is the benefit to my business?
Even if you charge, hosting farm visits will not be a great money-spinner. But that doesn’t mean to say it will be a waste of time and resources. Make the most of the PR value, especially if you have a direct-marketing or diversification venture. Take photos (taking care to get permission) and get your local newspaper or radio station interested.
Make sure whoever buys your produce is aware as this can be appealing to supermarkets and wholesalers. It is also likely to boost your standing in the local community, which may come in handy if you need planning permission.
But most of all, farm visits are highly motivational for staff, and personally rewarding. You are likely to get great feedback, so capture that feedback, using forms, and learn from it to improve your offering. And enjoy it – there is no better way to see your farm than through the eyes of a child you have truly enthused.
CEVAS and school visits – FACE website
Speak Out and community involvement – LEAF website
Health and safety – HSE website
Case study: Plan with military precision
Planning a visit with military precision is the key to successful farm visits, according to Richard and Michelle Benge who run a small organic working mixed farm of 45ha with cattle, pigs, sheep, chickens and horses.
“What you want is for the kids to go home tired but happy,” says Michelle. “There’s never a dull moment while they’re here and you must keep them occupied – the devil makes work for idle hands.”
She admits it was a leap of faith that took them into hosting school visits. They sell meat in a box scheme from their organic Sussex beef herd and it was hoped the visits would help promote sales.
Although the farm’s website and flyers are used to promote the school visits, personal contact was key to getting it started and maintaining the relationship with local schools. “I go in to schools, too, and present at assemblies. You need to make sure you’re in touch with the right teacher.”
These days they can charge up to £5.50 a head for the visits. “It’s not a money-spinner, but it does wash its face. The schools are happy to pay and keep coming back.”
The secret is to have good facilities Millbank has a purpose-built ‘farm classroom’ with toilet and hand-washing facilities – and to have every visit planned to a tee.
“You have to be ultra-organised and the kids need something hands-on to do, like pond-dipping, making something, or carrying out a simple farm activity. Keep the activities short and punchy and move on quickly from one to the next.”
For Mr and Mrs Benge, 80% of the reward is job satisfaction – they get fantastic feedback from visitors. But there’s a good business case, too. “One side of the business has helped the other grow and vice versa – we give the kids brochures about the box scheme to give to their parents, and put brochures about the visits into the boxes.”