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10 June 2017

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?

By India Bourke

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.

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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.


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