Farm project yields only stereotypes

5th June 2009 at 01:00
Even pupils who confronted the real thing failed to glean truth about agriculture

Farms are run by old-fashioned, impoverished farmers, who grow mangoes, avocados and oranges in red barns, according to primary pupils who spent a year on a working farm.

Research conducted by academics at the University of British Columbia found that pupils who participated in a year-long farm education project merely exchanged one set of agricultural stereotypes for another.

The academics observed more than 100 key stage 2 pupils from two schools. Almost half the pupils participated in a year-long project, during which time they visited a local organic farm and helped to plant and harvest crops. The others did not participate in the scheme.

The pupils who remained in the classroom tended to describe stereotypical storybook farms with large red barns and an array of animals wandering around outside.

But the descriptions given by those who had worked on the farm were scarcely less stereotyped. A sixth of the pupils still insisted that farms had storybook red barns. Meanwhile, a quarter insisted that today's farms were the same as they have always been.

And, despite their year on a small farm, half the pupils said farms were always large.

Similarly, their experiences did little to mitigate stereotypes of farmers. Ignoring the realities of organic farming or agribusiness, 48 per cent said that farmers were poor. This was only slightly fewer than the 58 per cent of classroom-bound pupils who saw farmers as impoverished.

More than half of the pupils who had been on the farm also believed that farmers were old-fashioned.

However, there were some differences between the two sets of pupils. Those who had not been to visit the farm overwhelmingly believed that farmers were old and male ("old men in overalls", according to the researchers), while most of those who had participated in the scheme accepted that there were also young, female farmers.

But reality rarely interfered with pupils' misconceptions. A fifth of both groups of pupils believed that crops such as mangoes, avocados and oranges could be grown on local Canadian farms.

"The year-round bounty that appears on grocery shelves and the aggressive marketing of foreign foods has a big impact on students' views of the food system," the researchers said. "Unless these ideas are directly addressed, a food-growing programme will only provide part of the picture."

Overall, the researchers concluded that a year of hands-on farmyard experience was not enough to counter many of the prevalent media stereotypes.

"Student preconceptions are shaped by their families' cultures and habits, and by images presented in the mass media," they said. "Such conceptions are often resistant to change ...

"Programmes need to ... supplement hands-on experiences in the environment with activities that encourage students to make explicit their understandings and beliefs about the environment."

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