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Plenty of food for thought

Zig Zag: Food and Farming BBC2 Mondays 11.00-11.20am, rpt Wednesdays 1.25-1.45pm.

Factfinder book "Food and Farming" by Andrew Chapman Pounds 4.50; teachers' notes Pounds 2, timeline pack with photocopiable activity sheets and six historical posters, Pounds 7.99 (Pounds 2 pp). BBC Education Information, White City, London W12 7TS.

The BBC could not have known just how perfect a time this would be to launch a food and farming series. The subject is brought to mind constantly with people taking to the streets over live animal transport, increasing rancorous debate over organo-phosphate sheep dips and official warnings against English winter lettuces drenched in pesticide.

Although aimed at youngsters on key stage 2 history, Food and Farming deals squarely with the subject, putting a perspective on historical and modern-day practice. The booklet and excellent notes are more rounded in content than the broadcasts but in combination they make for the liveliest approach to the subject in years.

The broadcasts make good use of the surprising talents of children at Wrockwardine Wood Junior School in Shropshire. The Acton Scott Working Farm Museum in Shropshire is also involved and children watch and take part in seasonal tasks from different periods, such as milking, butter making, harvesting and bread making. The school, the museum and the broadcasts all interact with real flair and intelligence.

There are certain things which come over exceptionally well on television: the rattle and crash of the traction engines and old threshing machines, the crisp moist turn of a furrow, the beauty of the great shire horses, and the verse with which the children commemorate their transformation of a bucket of grain into a fresh-baked loaf.

By the same token, even with the cheerful music tacked on to the battery hen episode, and reassurances from the workers in the intensive pig unit and chick-rearing shed, viewers can see for themselves something of what is taking place and make up their own minds.

It was refreshing to find the old farm practices were being presented not as a sentimentalised version of farm life but as no-nonsense history. The excellent book and teachers' notes extend and amplify the themes with sensibly-designed cross-curricular activities and back-up work.

I could have wished for a fuller representation of environmentally positive farming. The book would have been improved by the introduction of the idea of soil as a living environment. These are, however, relatively minor criticisms of a package which commendably crams so much good material together with such glorious zest.

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