Clean air and dirty hands

7th February 1997 at 00:00
City kids find out where the food comes from at a working farm with Kevin Berry.

Life on Joy McCarthy's hill-top farm would appeal to the writer Dick King-Smith, whose story The Sheep-Pig inspired the film Babe. When Joy wants her sheep moving, she calls out, "Pal, Pal, come on!" to an 11-year-old ewe. Pal looks up, stops chewing, and obediently trots towards her, followed by the rest of the herd.

Cronkshaw Fold Farm is not a "farm park", no sign of adventure playgrounds and no twee souvenirs for sale. It is a busy farm, thoughtfully adapted for educational visits.

Joy McCarthy's belief in the benefits of such visits are sincerely felt : "We are not a cuddle farm - nothing wrong with cuddling but there's heaps more to farming. I think that until children have a stronger relationship between themselves and the land, and know where their food comes from, they cannot develop their thinking."

Her farm is on a West Pennine hill in Rossendale, overlooking the Irwell Valley. The views are breathtaking, the contrasts in the landscape are striking. Look down the valley and you see the busy A56, the river, a ribbon of industrial towns and in the distance the beginnings of Manchester; turn around and you see rugged moorland, a couple of abandoned farmhouses, a handful of sheep and one or two trees. It is an environment that children might see from a car window but it is as detached and remote as a picture in a book.

"I would love to be buried here," said teenager Sarah-Jayne Smith, of Kersal High School in Salford. "It's so peaceful and quiet and there would be no one to disturb me. Nobody would build over me, would they?" Ben Nuttall, from a nearby primary school, struggled with a personal discovery. "When you are down there you can't see all that much of the sky, it's far away. When you're up here the sky is much closer and it's bigger."

Asked to name the place everyone could see beginning with "M" Sean Robinson blurted out "Mayfield Avenue". I suppose he should have said Manchester but he had spotted Mayfield Avenue down below him and he had only seen it from one perspective before.

Walking across a field Mrs Jackie Matthews stopped her class of eight-year-olds from nearby Broadway primary school, and the children chipped in with impressions and anecdotes. Sean had noticed molehills and thought he had seen the soil move. So we all watched waited in expectation for a good five minutes, touching the soil to see if we could feel movement.

Caught in an unfamiliar environment, and encouraged by Joy McCarthy's patient acceptance of curiosity, children ask fundamental questions: Do you bring lambs in to your house? How do sheep sleep? Do you get tired?

It is a sheep farm, with pigs and poultry and horses on livery. The economics of farm life are apparent and pepper Ms McCarthy's conversations. Hay keeps the farm ticking over during the winter and a good crop is vital. Hay-making is an exact skill, too damp or too dry and it will be wasted. Lambing time has to coincide with plentiful supplies of hay or grass. Her fields are enclosed with ancient dry stone walls. They are more expensive than a plain Homebase fence, but a wall lasts so much longer and it provides shelter in storms.

GCSE geography students from Kersal High were investigating the business side of farming when I called, treating the farm as a case study and collecting soil samples from moorland, hay fields and pasture. The several specific study sites include one for orienteering.

Cronkshaw Fold Farm is environmentally friendly with a noticeable absence of chemicals. Hedgerows and trees have been planted by children. A huge pond, shaped like Popeye's arm, has been created to encourage wild life and to provide cheap electricity. Stable and pig-shed manure will soon be providing heat for the farmhouse and outbuildings. Even on the bitter cold day when I was there, the temperature of the muck heap was a steaming 72 degrees centigrade. A muck heap can maintain its temperature for up to 12 weeks.

Future projects include a Victorian perspective on farming and the construction of a Saxon settlers' village. Ms McCarthy is planning an enclosed area for nursery-age children so that they can experience small animals and crops in safety - "somewhere they can go round at their own speed, not mine, and take things in at their own pace".

She lets children collect eggs, feed lambs and hens, run grain through their fingers and feel the lanolin on a sheep's fleece. It is the reality of farming, breaking down the remoteness, establishing links with animals and the land, taking the mystery out of the landscape.

Cronkshaw Fold Farm is near Helmshore, north of Manchester. Cost Pounds 1 plus vat per child for half day, Pounds 1.75 plus vat full day. Tel: 01706 218614. Booklets and study sheets are available. Wellingtons are essential.

Want to twin your school with a farm? The Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is funding Farmlink, a scheme to encourage twinning. Details: from Groundwork National Office, 85-87 Cornwall Street, Birmingham B3 3BY. Tel: 0121 236 8565. Fax: 0121 236 7356

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