Saviour of the stricken farmers

1st August 2003 at 01:00
When foot and mouth disease hit the Lake District, a former college principal taught IT skills to rescue her community. Martin Whittaker reports

Former college principal Ann Risman was enjoying her retirement in the Lake District when foot and mouth disease struck.

"Our area was hit very badly," she recalls. "Over the hill from us a deer farm was completely wiped out and thousands of sheep were burned. The fires just burned day and night.

"Farmers' incomes were wiped out immediately, the shops went dead, children who were at school when the thing hit had to stay with relatives. It was like a war zone."

Born and bred in Cumbria, Ann Risman OBE has spent her career in adult education and training - she was formerly principal of Richmond Adult and Community College. As the seriousness of the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak became apparent she desperately wanted to help the embattled farming community. More than a million animals were slaughtered in Cumbria alone.

"I felt like a nurse who woke up in the middle of the plague," she said.

She started Pentalk, a charity that loans farmers computers and gives them training in IT. From the start there was a big demand for the scheme, confounding doubt in some quarters that farmers wanted computer skills.

Initially the organisation set itself a target of reaching 200 of the 800 farms around Penrith within its first six months, but it generated more than 100 inquiries in the first week alone.

Since then Pentalk has supplied around 800 computers and trained 1,100 farmers throughout Cumbria. An independent evaluation has recommended it as a model for IT training in other rural areas.

It has won the North-west regional award for e-commerce and the Cumbrian Countryside Award for best contribution to rural technology.

The scheme was launched in an office at Penrith auction mart in April 2001 with pound;110,000 from the Learning and Skills Council and the Government's England Rural Development Programme.

Initially it aimed to help farmers access up-to-date information about cases of foot and mouth.

"Many were trapped in their houses and they had to have a way of knowing about outbreaks of the disease," says Ann Risman.

"They were getting letters saying look at the Ministry of Agriculture website, and they didn't have computers. So farmers were desperately ringing each other to try and find out what was going on.

"I read the research and there was quite a lot of information saying farmers didn't want IT because they were out all day, so it was quite hard to persuade people early on. But I knew it had to be tried."

Liaising with rural groups like the Young Farmers and the National Farmers'

Union, Pentalk loans out reconditioned second-hand computers, which come internet-ready with an email address. Farmers have the option of buying them for pound;250 after six months.

The organisation found that there was little computer training available that was relevant to farmers. It collaborated with adult education centres and Newton Rigg, the University of Central Lancashire's agricultural campus in Cumbria, to offer programmes geared to their needs. Training is also delivered in remote areas by a "computer bus".

Fifteen farmers were recruited to act as local advisers and ambassadors for the scheme. Ms Risman put her experience as an administrator to good use, sending out questionnaires on what farmers wanted, and building statistics on everyone who had training.

"I had an engine then to find out what the farmers wanted. They wanted to get on the internet and to use email. Next they wanted spreadsheets and accounts. But some of them had never even switched a computer on."

Funding has always been an issue. Ann Risman encouraged former contacts to knock on then education secretary David Blunkett's door, and she persuaded the Department for Education and Skills to fund the scheme.

"They gave me pound;200,000 just to go away," she says. But much of its other funding has come in piecemeal donations from small organisations and its future remains uncertain.

Despite this, demand for Pentalk's training has continued to grow long after Cumbria's foot and mouth outbreak ended. And farmers have used newly-acquired IT skills to develop their businesses and keep computer records to cut down on paperwork.

The Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs wants to encourage farmers to use the internet. They can apply for European Community subsidies online, and Defra runs a web-based cattle-tracing system to keep details of herds up to date.

Steven Pattinson runs a dairy farm three miles from the Scottish border and is an area co-ordinator for Pentalk. During the outbreak he saw his entire flock of sheep slaughtered.

He has taken all the courses on offer and used his new computer skills to build a website for his business and to develop Pentalk's website for Cumbrian farmers. In May he won a National Institute of Adult Continuing Education adult learners' week award.

"Before I had the training I could send an email and open an attachment but that was about it," he said. "But now I'm updating websites and giving some training myself. Pentalk could grow into something tremendous and beneficial to Cumbria with proper funding."

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