Getting back

to their roots

School children have been reconnecting with their agricultural roots – and turning in a tidy profit – as part of a scheme to promote farming.

Although they live in rural Herefordshire, in the splendour of the Golden Valley, many youngsters have as little knowledge as their city counterparts about the production of food.

In an attempt to redress the balance, pupils at the local primary school in Madley have been shadowing a farmer and putting their new knowledge to the test as part of National Enterprise Week.

Lee Batstone, headteacher of Madley Primary School, explained the idea behind the initiative: “We have a surprising mix of children here. Some travel in from Hereford. Many have moved here from other parts of the country. Of 173 children in our school, less than 20% have any direct link with the land around them and we wanted to encourage an understanding of our locality and what supports our local culture.

“It began last year when, encouraged by the Year of Food and Farming, we ‘adopted’ a local farmer, Owen Whittall, and began learning about his business.

Then we charged the children to start, sustain and develop a business of their own in as real a context as possible.”

More than 90% of Herefordshire is green space and the county’s economy is dependent on agriculture. However, the average wage is the lowest in the country and affordable housing is scarce, according to David Morris, chairman of the local National Farmers’ Union. The conditions are ripe for encouraging an exodus of young workers while at the same time sparking an influx of homebuyers from the South East, who re-locate to Herefordshire in the quest for a lifestyle change.

Owen Whittall knows the importance of engaging with the next generation and he is one of a growing number of farmers who see it as a vital part of their work.

After an initial visit to the Madley classroom, Owen trudged 34 very lively nine and ten-year-olds round his farm, patiently explaining the economics, science and engineering involved in his job.

There was even a bit of sex and politics.

The pupils came away knowing a dustbin bag of seed can yield a trailer-load of wheat and the price of animal feed has soared. They also learned the value of the right genetic mix in animal breeding; health and safety on the farm; the likelihood of food shortages; and the threat of climate change.

One pupil, nine-year-old Martin Davies, said: “After our visits to Owen we wanted to start our own business and find out just how difficult growing and selling our food was.”

Despite their young age, the children organised themselves into three enterprise groups, produced business plans, elected leaders, designed plots in the school playground and selected their crops. Potatoes proved to be the most popular.

Another pupil, Fiona Shearer, also nine, said: “First we had to do all the writing and planning and then last winter we cleared all the stones and prepared the beds. My group grew potatoes, carrots and radishes, too.

“We found out we couldn’t water in the hot weather and we used cartons and water bottles to protect the plants and to warm the soil up. We had trouble with rabbits but we didn’t spray our crops like Owen does. We thought organic would be better.”

Each group was given £20 to spend and one of them kept back some of the cash to buy fertiliser. Class teacher Charity Shackelford oversaw the academic side of the enterprise.

She said: “Only one of my class of 34 was from a farming family so we could see the value of reconnecting them with the land, but it had to be linked to mainstream learning.

“We saw it as putting maths into context, learning across subjects and the children loved the enterprise angle – choosing crops according to their yield, measuring out the plots, planning the ratio of seed to plot, designing stalls, flyers and sandwich boards to sell their produce locally and researching prices, not to mention the actual weighing and counting the profits. A huge amount of maths came into it.

“The hard work and enthusiasm of the children really surprised me. No school time was used in gardening. It was all done in breaks and lunchtime, by the children themselves, and when they pulled out their plants and found carrots, potatoes and radishes on the end it was like striking gold.”

Every one of the groups made a profit, one doubled its money and they are now re-investing in next year’s gardening, carefully noting the successes and failures and amending their plans accordingly. By the end of next season they will have enough money to contribute to a local community project of their choice.

The children’s experience is a direct result of a determined drive to promote the importance and potential for developing farming. In 2001, Sir Don Curry chaired the Government’s policy commission, which looked at the future of the farming and food industries in the wake of the foot and mouth outbreak. The Strategy for Sustainable Farming and Food was the result of the commission’s work, and a successful outcome was the Year of Food and Farming, which ended last summer.

The year aimed to reconnect children and young people with food, and provided a wonderful opportunity for them to learn more about the production of food, about cooking and nutrition, and about the economic, environmental and social importance of the countryside.

Sir Don will visit the region this month before his term of office ends and is delighted with the progress that has been made in schools like Madley.

He said: “I was always convinced that if we were able to get access to children and encourage them back to the countryside we’d awaken their interest in the wider rural economy. But so much depends on the attitude of the headteacher.

“The changes in demography in rural areas are far reaching. We shouldn’t make the assumption that country children know about the land. Most schools have somewhere they can dig a patch or put a raised bed. School farms would be wonderful but this is the next best thing and it is possible for everyone.

“Children who may not be academic can really get involved in practical schemes of this sort and learn through experience. Where the classroom has failed, practical agriculture can offer so much.

“The hearts and minds of children are the key to families, and thus to society. We can change the world.”

His views are backed by Lee Batstone.

Although he grew up in farming, most of his pupils – and their parents – have little knowledge of the agricultural way of life.

Lee said: “Enterprise skills are for life and some of the least able children have benefited the most. Overall, there was a profit of £127 and next year the children will decide themselves how best to spend the money to benefit their community.”