Real farming is on the timetable at a Malton college. Ben Barnett went back to school and found out it was proving a hit.
Some very hands-on lessons are giving a new generation of agriculture academics an opportunity to get to grips with the realities of farming outside the classroom.
Norton College in Malton has a farm which is run by science teacher and former Harrogate rugby player Pete Woolley and animal management graduate Hannah Fox. The pair started running the farm together eight weeks ago.
Created in 1980, the farm has grown steadily since then. Young people, predominantly those studying GCSE environmental and land-based science, use the farm to learning how to grow and nurture herbs and vegetables and look after livestock. Around 700 pupils from the town of Norton and its surrounding villages, aged between 11 to 19, attend the college which has a sixth form and specialises in humanities and science.
What seems like a normal science block opens out onto the farm at the rear of the college in Langton Road where a science classroom extends through a back room and into a greenhouse kept at a constant temperature of between 20C and 25C.
During my visit on a Monday afternoon, the classroom was alive with the sound of chirping chicks which beginning to hatch from their eggs in an incubator. After staying on the farm for about three weeks the chicks will be returned to their breeder and another set of eggs will take their place. The chicks are three different breeds and are being nurtured to demonstrate to students how quickly different breeds grow and how they differ in size.
Stepping out of the classroom and into the greenhouse, Pete weaves his way around an array of flowering plants in pots and points out various student projects that are taking seed. A rural science group has planted herbs which will eventually be sold in pots. Business studies students have started growing tomatoes and a Year 9 Biology class has planted lettuce seeds.
Just outside the greenhouse, the farm opens up. A large vegetable plot is planted in a four course rotation of root vegetables, brassicas, legumes and farm crops such as wheat and barley, and a large shed and three adjoining fields are home to 19 lambs, three cows and seven chickens.
Children have been taught how to prepare compost using soil from the garden, environmentally-friendly peat, chalk, stones and fertilisers. They know how to sieve the soil and place it into a sterilizer before adding the matter to a compost bin and using the rich product at the end of the process on the vegetables plot.
A separate, smaller greenhouse is being used for growing broccoli and cabbage, which will be planted outside in the vegetable plot later in the year. The idea is that all of the produce is made available for sale to school staff to help cover the costs of the farm.
Before my visit children had been hard at work clearing weeds from the vegetable patch. These lessons are a far cry from textbook lessons and the benefits to children’s well-being and skills are obvious, says Pete.
“What we’re giving kids is a hands-on experience and we can see that it has a positive effect on less academic kids.
“It is my belief that kids should get that hour a day of being active outdoors. It helps them to focus when they are back in the classroom and it’s well documented that there are not enough horticulturists in the country – Michael Gove is pushing for kids to be involved in gardening.”
In the livestock shed, students help by mucking out the stalls and help mother lambs.
Pete is thrilled by their input: “Students are really taking to it. There are two sixth-formers who come in each morning to feed the lambs. Some of the bigger boys want to come in for an hour and clear out the stalls and others help out in the garden.
“We’re trying to get them to stay on for an hour after school instead of going home and turning on the PlayStation. It’s about getting them active and I think it’s important in a town like this that they understand what’s going on outside their front door.
“My background is in sport so for me, sport and the farm is all about getting out in the fresh air.”
Conscious of the need to present the realities of farm life to students, there was no covering up the recent loss of a lamb to pneumonia.
Pete says: “If an animal dies we don’t hide it. We put the news up on Twitter. It’s important for them to know what agriculture is all about.”
The lambs were born on April 1 and arrived at the farm at two-weeks-old. They will stay at Norton for about a year until they are ready for slaughter, again something the college explains to students in its farm newsletter.
It hasn’t been a huge leap for either Pete or Hannah to take leadership of the farm. Pete is a countryside management graduate and grew up working on farms as a lad in Robin Hood’s Bay. Middlesbrough-born Hannah, the farm’s manager, was one of the first cohort of students through the college’s animal care course and she went on to study a National Diploma and Foundation Degree in Animal Management at Askham Bryan College.
Outside of scheduled lessons, they also run a farm club and membership has grown little by little as students spread the word to their friends.
Pete and Hannah are full of ideas to develop the farm further and are in touch with the Yorkshire Agricultural Society to help to identify potential sources of funding.
Pete says: “It’s eight weeks we’ve been together as a team now and we’re just starting to bring on our own ideas. We have seven chickens and we want to get up to keeping 15 because their eggs are an easy source of income. The idea is that we try to break even so all the money we make selling produce to staff goes back into the farm.
“We want to extend the use of the farm to the environmental science GCSE and we’re hoping in the next couple of years to add A-Level environmental studies and a BTEC Level 3 in agriculture.
“We have three fields and we’re thinking of using the narrowest one for haylage for the farm.
“Ultimately, what I want us to become is a hub for local primary schools so that younger children can come here and learn from what our students are doing.
“We’re keen for some of our students to become farm leaders who, rather than me and Hannah, can stand up in front of these younger children and explain how the farm works because kids look up to the older children and respond to them.”
Norton College Farm will be showcased to the public by staff and students on Open Farm Sunday on June 9. For tweets from the farm follow @NCRuralScience