A farmer's life for me

21st October 2011 at 01:00
A project in Aberdeenshire is taking pupils out into the fresh air to discover careers in the countryside - and it's not just children from dyed-in-the-wool farming families who are taking an interest

They share a love of the land and they've formed their own club at school so they can learn more about the countryside. They're known as the Alford Aces, young people who love being outside in the fresh air. Some live on farms or in the countryside; others help grandparents or uncles on the farm. One or two just like tinkering with tractors.

These Alford Academy pupils already have extraordinary knowledge about the countryside and a remarkable range of skills - looking after newborn lambs, rounding up sheep and monitoring abscesses on lame ponies.

Over the October holidays, they will be outside helping their families. "Mostly it's about this time till about February that we'll put sheep away to Inverurie to the killing house to get slaughtered," says Kirsty Smith, 13. Both her grandfathers are farmers and she expects to help take cattle to market during the holidays.

Another second-year, Philip Smith, 12, is saving up to buy a cow right now, but when he is older will be the fifth generation to run the family farm. This holiday, he needs money for a mobile: "I will probably be helping out the other farmers picking tatties and stuff to earn some money to hopefully buy a new phone," he says.

Up on the hillside, 13-year-old Lewis Anderson is moving sheep, helping his father William along with his friend Ben Shoreman, 14. Lewis has wanted to be a farmer since he was 10 years old. "I just love coming out every weekend - outside no matter what the weather," he says.

His friend Ben is the same: "I just love being outside - the animals and the machinery, I find it all really interesting the way everything works on a farm. I've always been interested in it and I always will be," says Ben, who plans to work on farms after school, before studying agriculture.

Lewis's mum and dad watch the boys bring the flock down the hill with two sheepdogs. "A farming child is a different child from any other background," says his mum, Donna Anderson.

"It's a way of life rather than a job for their parents. And if they're not brought up with it as a way of life and interested from a young age, they just lose interest and take interest in something else and everyone just goes away from farming that way," she says.

Mrs Anderson is a part-time administrator at nearby Dunecht Primary and does the farm paperwork. "We need to encourage them from as young as possible to be involved and see the animals and bring them up in the same way of life," she explains. "I am not from that way of life myself, but my husband has been and it's just a love for the land, rather than a job."

Every week at school, the Alford Aces meet up and talk about what they've been up to - like farmers getting together at the market. It's not just a talking shop, though; they organise visits and activities and learn about new developments in agriculture, inviting some of Scotland's leading experts as guest speakers.

They have strong views about rural affairs - and they're not afraid to voice them. When MEPs met in Aberdeen earlier this summer, the Alford Aces were among schools invited to meet them.

If the MEPs thought they were in for a cosy chat with kids, they were mistaken. Alford pupils grilled them on controversial aspects of agricultural policy and when their answers didn't cut it, the young people approached them after the meeting.

"This lot were going in and asking the really heavyweight questions about farming. `Why are we being asked to tag all our sheep when they are away up a hill - how can we possibly do 100 per cent with tags?'" reports network librarian Kay Wilson, who supports the pupils to run Alford Aces.

"They weren't getting straight answers from the MEPs. I think the MEPs we spoke to were actually quite impressed by them - maybe terrified by them - I don't know," Ms Wilson laughs.

Ms Wilson is popular with the children - it's easy to see they are comfortable with her and enjoy her company. They're not so happy about her taste in Wellingtons, though (cream with pink roses). "I think they're just winding me up - they just like to tease me," she says.

In the library, Ms Wilson has encouraged the less enthusiastic readers to enjoy fiction set in the countryside. And there are now one or two hefty farming tomes on butchery, bought at the children's request. English teacher Morag Edwards, who helps run the group, also finds using inspiration from the countryside improves children's performance.

She remembers one boy who was worried about giving a three-minute talk and thought he had nothing to say: "He was persuaded to talk about lambing and he spoke for the best part of three-quarters of an hour about lambing. It was wonderful, so informative - the detail, knowledge, the understanding and expertise - which in many cases these children take for granted. But we shouldn't - we should be celebrating this," she says.

And they are. The group has been promoting its activities to younger children in the 13 associated primary schools and last year won a national award for its ideas to improve the profile and status of farming within their wider school community. They beat hundreds of UK schools to scoop the "Change it" award and pound;750 at the finals in London.

But you don't have to have family land or livestock to become an Alford Ace: "The club's all about promoting and celebrating our local culture and heritage. We have a whole range of children in it from farming backgrounds or with a natural interest in the countryside - boys and girls," says headteacher Moira Milne.

Mrs Milne is a farmer's wife and an agricultural contractor's daughter with both sets of grandparents in farming. She is down to earth and cheerful: "We have crops, sheep, cattle. I am on call at the weekend (I am a helping hand), shift sheep from one field to the next and in the really busy times at lambing I am hands-on and in charge of the special nursery," she says.

A few decades ago, children would have been told off for using Doric in the classroom - nowadays the language is actively encouraged. "There is a time and a place, but when youngsters come up to me and say `Fit like the day, Mrs Milne?' it's fine - because it's done in the right context," says the head.

It is important to know your "fulpies" from your "futtrets" in this community - that's puppies from ferrets, for non-Doric speakers. The language is in everyday use in the north east, particularly on Aberdeenshire farms.

At Alford Academy, they are working hard to keep it that way. They have run a "three words a week" campaign for the past three years to encourage children to extend their vocabulary. And on National Poetry Day today, they are focusing on a poem by Charles Murray in Doric.

Aces stands for Alford Countryside and Environmental Society and the group is not just about farming: "They're getting life skills, they're learning to communicate because we make them take ownership of the club and lead it. So they are talking to people from outside school, engaging with the whole school community, which is fantastic," says Mrs Milne.

There are actually very few children in this school living on farms, reflecting the national trend with less than 1.5 per cent of the population now employed in agriculture.

But those who are interested in future employment have the opportunity to study rural skills in third year here, along with Aboyne Academy pupils. They get to learn practical skills such as drystane dyking, and enjoy visits and partnerships with local farms to prepare for employment in the industry or agricultural college.

Two pupils, Steven Eddie and Ali Bruce, took this route after helping launch Alford Aces in 2009 and are now first-year students at the Scottish Agricultural College in Aberdeen.

Between classes, Steven has an update for his old friends at school: "It's all going fine."

Motoring forward

Outside the school, the Alford Aces are checking out the janitor's vintage tractors. He used to use his tractors for vintage ploughing matches, but now they clear winter snow from the school playground.

Jim Brander spent half his working life driving tractors on farms and his face lights up when he listens to these young children speak about the countryside.

Thirteen-year old Cameron Henderson is living proof that a tractor's not just for Christmas. He's already planning an apprenticeship as an agricultural mechanic.

"I was three or four and somebody gave me a little toy tractor and my dad was in the engineering business, and I just liked the two things and I thought I might see if I could merge them together," says the smiling teenager.

Then there's Neil Rennie, 13, who takes vintage tractors to agricultural shows with his grandad. "I am tractor-mad. Since I have grown up I have always been with tractors. The oldest one we've got is 60 years old. They have computers and everything nowadays. They're too computerised - I prefer the old ones," he says.

And there's first-year Maisie Rhodes, who can describe treating her pony Harley's abscess as if she's just graduated from the Dick Vet School. "I live on a half farm," says Maisie. "We don't have farm animals but we've got two horses, two sheep and a dog and a cat. I want to be a writer and write children's books."

The club is also a chance for younger children like Ewan Smith, 12, and Scott Matthew, 13, to mix with older pupils like fourth-years Liam Eddie, 15, who works on his uncle's farm whenever he can, and Craig Bremner, 15, who works on a farm after school and at weekends.

And though girls like Sally Glennie, 12, are outnumbered by boys, they have the same down-to-earth interests. Sally helps out in the family's farm shop with her younger sisters. "We have tatties, neeps, eggs, carrots and beetroot.

"We don't grow them all - some are my grandad's and some are a neighbour's," says Sally, who has three pet lambs called George, Jiggy and Larry. But even a cutesy name won't win you a reprieve on Sally's farm - everyone's chops in the end.

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