I'm standing in your breakfast

26th September 2003 at 01:00
When Gill Lawrie explains farming to pupils, she gives them a real sense of where the food on their plates comes from. Douglas Blane reports

The tree-lined roads are green causeways across yellow oceans of oats, wheat and barley in Angus, a small area of east Scotland squeezed between the mountains and the sea. And it's one of the places that farmers are volunteering to bring to life the link between the crops in the field and the food in the fridge.

"True, this field of wheat we're standing in doesn't look much like breakfast cereal," says Gill Lawrie, who runs the farm Newton of Arbirlot with her husband William. "But I remember showing one class around and pulling a potato plant out of the ground. One girl said 'Those potatoes are dirty. We don't eat dirty potatoes in our house.' I think she thought real potatoes grew on trees."

When she is not visiting schools to give talks, and showing classes around her farm, Mrs Lawrie chairs the Angus Countryside Initiative. This is part of a network of educational initiatives under the umbrella of the Royal Highland Education Trust, a charity set up to teach children about food, farming and the countryside.

Participating farmers are all dedicated to promoting interest in the countryside. At one time, she says, most children knew someone in the family who worked the land. Now, less than 1 per cent of the UK population has a farmer in the family, so the personal link has been broken. "It's great when grannies come out with the schoolkids, because they talk about the days they used to go out in to the fields to pick crops. They have this tremendous wealth of knowledge and anecdotes, but the generations haven't communicated."

The children who visit Newton of Arbirlot will find plenty to stimulate the senses. The smell of steaming cows and warm straw, the sight of the barley dancing in the wind, and the bull washing his nose with his tongue, the sensation of brushing through shoulder-high crops. "Getting all the senses involved," says Mrs Lawrie, "is what makes farm visits memorable and educational." Then she adds: "Perhaps not quite all senses. Children are not allowed to touch the animals nowadays because of the risk of infections like E.coli."

All the same, the kids seem to absorb a lot. "I was amazed how one little seed can grow into a big plant and make lots of new seeds," said a young lad from Fintry primary school, Dundee. "I liked Annie the horse, and I learned that bulls don't give milk," said another.

Health and safety are important concerns on a farm visit, and farmers insist that teachers visit beforehand. "We do a detailed risk assessment and bring everything to the teachers' attention - even down to that little patch of oil from the tractor that someone might slip on," says Mrs Lawrie.

"The children wouldn't be allowed to lean over this gate to look at the cows. It's all right for us because we're not going stick our thumbs in our mouths afterwards."

But even without leaning on the gate, one can still draw important lessons from observing a field full of cows. "This herd is a mix of breeds, so you can talk about genetics and inherited characteristics. The Aberdeen Angus is small and survives in poor conditions, but it takes a while to fatten.

The pale-coloured Charollais puts on weight quickly, but it doesn't like the cold and it doesn't give the same flavour of beef."

The dung-midden in the corner of the field illustrates a natural cycle.

Seeds are planted, grow into crops, are harvested and are then separated into grain and straw. The straw is used for animal bedding before being dumped on the midden. After that, it is spread on the fields to fertilise new crops.

Mrs Lawrie finds educational potential in everything around her. "Even a tall thistle growing by the gate provides a lesson in natural history. This is a weed, but we don't get rid of all weeds because their seeds provide food for blue-tits and sparrows." She points out a passing insect. "This hover-fly is a friend - it eats greenfly." A flutter above tells us something, too. "That pigeon clapping its wings is warning others of danger."

"Farming has changed greatly in my lifetime, but it's still a 24-hour a day, 7-day a week commitment," says Mrs Lawrie. "I've always been a farmer, I've never been a teacher, but I love telling children about the countryside."

The Royal Highland Education Trust gives information about farms in Scotland that welcome school visits, as well as resources and advice to teachers and pupils. Tel: 0131 335 6227; email: rhet@rhass.org.uk; website: www.rhet.rhass.org.uk.The Countryside Foundation for Education supports school visits to farms across the UK. Their website contains resources, information and links to participating farms in England and Wales: www.countrysidefoundation.org.uk

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