Mike Prestage reports on efforts to improve the image of agriculture.
The growth of John Rosbotham's sugar-beet crop is of great interest to the pupils of Eccleston Mere primary school in St Helens, Cheshire. Three times a year for the past five years they have pulled on wellies to follow the progress of the crop as part of a Government-sponsored farm-school link.
Headteacher Philip Friend has no doubt about the value to Year 4 pupils of such visits - lessons in farm safety and a wide range of cross-curricular projects are just two of the benefits. The youngsters also enjoy themselves.
"I get muddy and have to wear wellies," said pupil Freya Brooks, "and we learnt that sugar-beet goes into chocolate and cola."
Her fellow pupil, Rebecca Griffiths, said: "We went into the fields and saw the horses and then we did a project when we got back to school. We made maps and a display. I like getting out of the classroom."
Farmer John Rosbotham volunteered to take part after a request from the National Farmers Union. The visits to Whitehouse Farm in the village of Rainford are supported by Farmlink, a Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food scheme.
He said: "Farming has had a bad press for the past 10 to 15 years and this helps do something about it. It teaches children what happens on farms and they are always very interested."
Attempts to promote long-term partnerships between schools and farms are conducted on a piecemeal basis in some regions of England and Wales. Now, thanks to funding from the Country Landowners Association, such partnerships will be established on a national basis under the Food and Farming Challenge scheme. The plan is to involve both secondary and primary schools.
Ian MacNicol, president of the CLA, said Pounds 10,000 was being invested to involve a greater number of schools and businesses, with about 5,000 students taking part.
"This project is crucial to the future of our countryside," he said. "It gives young people an unprecedented opportunity to learn and work directly within food and farming industries."
For secondary pupils, the Food and Farming Challenge aims to generate interest in careers in the countryside and to dispel misunderstandings about rural issues.
The challenge's projects are intended to benefit food, farming and the countryside, while giving students the chance to try out skills they have learnt in school.
Regional organisers are to form the bridge between school and business, finding suitable projects and passing details on to schools.
In addition to gaining an insight into the world of work, students will also be able to use information technology in a practical environment.
Time taken to complete a challenge can vary from one day to a number of periods covering the academic year. Once completed, the projects will be presented to the challenge-setting business and may go forward to regional finals. A national final is planned for September 1998.
Underlining the importance of the scheme, Mr MacNicol said: "Education is the building block of the future - without it no one will be able to create the sort of sustainable agriculture and rural economy future generations need. "