A pioneering scheme to address a worrying generational disconnect between young people and food production by using technology to take farmers into classrooms is ready to “go big”, but more recruits are needed to realise its educational potential across Yorkshire.
FaceTime a Farmer uses video calls via the likes of Skype, WhatsApp and FaceTime to partner schools with farmers. Working with a teacher, at intervals during term time, the farmer video calls a class of children to engage them with agriculture in a visual way as part of the curriculum.
Devised by Cambridgeshire-based farmer Tom Martin, the scheme was initially piloted with Harbour Primary School in Newhaven on the south coast and he is now working with charity LEAF (Linking Environment And Farming) to roll it out nationally.
In the first phase of the roll-out last year, more than 100 farms and 70 schools signed up - including six schools and two farmers in Yorkshire.
Food retailer Sainsbury’s and property agency Strutt & Parker have committed a total of £30,000 to the roll out of the scheme as its sponsors and it has attracted encouragement from Shadow Defra Secretary Sue Hayman and Mr Martin’s local MP Tom Pursglove. National Farmers’ Union vice-president Stuart Roberts is one of the farmers who has signed up.
Mr Martin said Britain is “three generations divorced from the land” and too many factors have held farms and schools back from linking up to educate children about food. Tight school budgets, other curriculum demands and limited farming knowledge of many teachers are barriers, he said. So too are farmer’s workloads, their lack of training in delivering education and farms being potentially hazardous to visit.
But he believes that as little as one 10-minute call every fortnight between a farmer and a school is enough to address the knowledge gap effectively.
Mr Martin, whose own farming enterprise consists of arable crops and a sheep flock, said: “It enables a relationship to be built up, it enables me to bring my class anywhere on the farm, whatever is going on at that point in time, and for me to link that to the curriculum.”
Groups of between 15 and 85 children, aged from five to 18, have taken part so far, and agricultural colleges are interested in the scheme.
Topics covered have included climate change, the environment, sustainability and globalisation.
Mr Martin said: “We’ve found teachers amazed at how energised and enthusiastic their children were and surprised by how little their children knew.
“Farmers have been particularly impressed with the speed of development that children have had with their questions. They start out asking what do cows eat and very quickly within a few weeks they were asking about export markets for meat.”
He added: “There are 120,000 farmers and approximately 120,000 primary and secondary schools. I’d love for all of us to link with schools. It’s been really exciting so far but we’re ready to go big. I’m looking for more people to sign up.”
TOP LEVEL SUPPORT IS SOUGHT
Tom Martin, who urged farmers to get involved when he attended a conference on defining a future for Yorkshire farming last week, believes FaceTime a Farmer is going beyond boosting children’s knowledge of food production.
“As these children learn more about where their food comes from, they are actually looking at what they eat. I really believe that will have a really big benefit in terms of their nutrition, and with the pressures on the NHS, that’s a really key thing,” he said.
Mr Martin is looking for the Government to support the scheme, having held talks with Defra and education authorities. He believes it could be something that is supported financially under a new farming policy.
“If the Government is looking at having a model of public money for public goods, I feel it’s a pretty strong public good,” the farmer said.
The scheme is backed by LEAF, whose director of education and public engagement, Carl Edwards, said: “One hundred per cent of schools involved last year said they would recommend it.”
Tom Martin can be found tweeting @Farmer_Tom_UK