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Back to the land

In the wake of mad cow disease, city folk are wary of farmers. But, Mike Fielding says, teachers and pupils should pay them a visit. Mad cow disease and battles over transportation of lambs and calves have given farming an undeservedly bad name. And farmers' apocryphal tales reveal town dwellers' ignorance of farming methods: the young woman who reportedly did not realise that calves were the inevitable precursor to milk production and the man who thought lambs should live longer before being killed.

For an industry so accessible to view - after all, crops grow alongside roads - farming has acquired a lot of suspicion. But, through farmers and organisations such as the National Farmers Union, there is a move to welcome visitors to working farms so that they can understand how a major portion of the nation's food is produced.

What they will not find is the old "straw behind the ears" kind of world, glamourised in so many books about pre-Second World War agriculture. Some farms, particularly in small-scale dairy-producing areas in the South-west, may look quaint and the gum-booted farmer driving his herd to milking may appear slow, but the milking parlour will be computerised and the production planned almost to the litre.

Likewise, arable farms employ few people but they are highly skilled. Market gardening, another important area, is also intensive in skill and technology and, properly managed, will provide opportunities for curriculum enhancement.

The NFU set up its education initiative a couple of years ago and works hard to encourage farm visits. This includes training for farmers on how to help children make the most of their visit and information packs for teachers. Up to now, the emphasis has been on primary schoolchildren. This year sees a move into secondary schools.

Only geography in the secondary curriculum features farming (and only as an option) but it's a topic which can be used to enrich science, technology, maths and art.

More important, perhaps, is the understanding youngsters can gain about a major contributor to the national economy and an activity that shapes the environment.

Young people are more environmentally-conscious and committed than ever before. Through visiting a farm and understanding the effect of agricultural practices on wildlife, they will be more informed. They may also be surprised to see the lengths most farmers go to ensure that, where it is compatible with their task of food production, conservation is a priority.

Farm visiting, though, isn't just about agricultural techniques and conservation measures. It's also about appreciating a way of life. Whether it be in its unsentimental approach to animal death; attitudes to hunting; or the deep sense of tradition that lives alongside modern techniques, the farming community forms a distinctive section of the population. For town children, "the country" shouldn't just be a place; it should also be about the people and their customs.

Several farms - for example, the one at Iddesleigh in North Devon, run by the novelist Michael Morpurgo - give city children the chance to stay for a few days. Many others, encouraged by the NFU, are opening up to school parties.

But preparation is essential. Teachers should agree the focus of the visit, for example, milk production, animal husbandry, or conservation, with the farmer beforehand.

You will also be able to ensure your children's safety. Farms are potentially dangerous and, although any farmer is bound to take precautions, accidents can happen.

Farms, particularly those rearing animals, are also dirty. Pupils will need to be dressed properly but only a few farms provide boots and overalls. The child who goes home with trainers covered in cow muck will not be popular and will probably not get much out of the visit.

The timing of a visit can also make a difference to pupils' enjoyment. On a sheep farm, springtime with lambs is more enjoyable than, say, autumn when bedraggled animals stand in wet fields.

Although you may have to travel some distance if you want to see a dairy farm and your school is in an arable area or vice-versa, it's worth remembering that towns and cities have farms on their boundaries. If you don't know what's available, your local branch of the NFU can help you.

For further details, contact the National Farmers Union, tel: 0171 331 7290 Mike Fielding is principal of the Community College, Chumleigh, North Devon

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