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You too can run through fields of wheat this weekend – no, really

Open Farm Sunday is a good way to encourage transparency and awareness. So why don't all farms take part?

Running through a field of wheat is clearly now not the naughtiest thing done by Theresa May. But it is still kinda naughty.

In terms of respecting the private property of scary farmers (think Boggis, Bunce and Bean) it is plain naughty. And in terms of challenging the ethos of intensive, monoculture agriculture it is radically naughtier still: around the world, pesticides are excluding wildlife from fields and decimating our soils - though I doubt this was what May had in mind.

The UK farming industry, however, has found clever a way to answer these fears. This weekend, farms will open their gates to the public as part of a nationwide event called Open Farm Sunday. You really can now run through more wheat fields than you can manage (just maybe ask permission first).

The event is co-ordinated by the team at Linking Environment and Farming (LEAF). 358 farms are invovled this year, aided by over 2,000 volunteers, and you can search for your nearest on LEAF's website.

In a society where 41 per cent of kids don’t know eggs come from, such experiences are a vital for both the public and the producers alike. For farmers in particular, the events offer an opportunity to allay fears surrounding food production, show off their welfare standards, and promote buying-British. All at a time when Brexit could see global competitors beat them on price.

Abi Reader, a third generation dairy farmer in south Wales, says the open days are a chance to show people the things they’ve achieved with EU subsidies, from an improved slurry system to a new community orchard. “It’s very important that people understand that we’re not just pocketing this money and heading off to the Caribbean for a couple of months.”

The open days also provide motivation for an industry in decline. Reader tells me of a time she was on a train to London when some kids started screaming: “It’s the cow lady!” Their mum explained that they'd been to one of her Open Farm events, and from that day on she had always brought British produce. “It’s things like that make you realise how worthwhile it is,” says Reader.

But if these days really are so great at fostering greater transparency and awareness, should they be mandatory for all UK farms? And what if this self-selecting system gives visitors a misleading vision – by skewing towards the best and most conscientious?

Guy Smith, the Vice-President of the National Farmers Union, is not sure about the idea of making the events mandatory. The best way to rile farmers is telling them they have to do something, he says, pointing out the time and expense the events take, and the effort of arranging proper health and safety.

Like any industry there’s people out there who don’t perform as well as we’d like,” he adds.  “But we do encourage people to get involved." He believes the scheme does give people the opportunity to visit many “average” farms. And that farms, ultimately, are places of industry, “not nature reserves or museums”.

Annabel Shackleton of LEAF would like the number participating to rise further, perhaps to one event within a 20 mile radius of every home. The RSPCA is also encouraging more of their "assured" farms to take part. What might help is a guarantee replacement for the small amounts of CAP funding offered to events provided for schoolchildren.

The good news is that the scheme is not short on public support. As Smith says “If accountants announced tomorrow they were having an open day you can be sure they wouldn’t get that response.”  Last year saw over a quarter of a million visitors and the number of farms involved is rising: 24 per cent of those opening this Sunday are doing so for the first time.

One of those first-timers is Peter of North Farm in North East Dorset. For him the day is a chance to involve the whole local community – from a local beekeeper, to a microbrewery to a farming photographer. In his words: “we just want to show people what we get up to in the countryside.” Let the wheat-field running commence.

 

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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